McGrath Inaugural Lecture Andreas Idreos Professorship of Science and Religion: A Song or a Symphony?

Alister McGrath has delivered his inaugural lecture as Andreas Idreos Professorship of Science and Religion at Oxford University. The full transcript of the lecture is available online. Some highlights:

  • Mc Grath sees science and religion as two distinct outcomes of one basic attitude: awe.
  • Personally, McGrath felt a lack in science: it didn’t offer meaning

Science gave me a neat answer to the question of how I came to be in this world. Yet it seemed unable to answer a deeper question. Why was I here? What was the point of life?

  • Religion, he argues, gives us “a reassurance of the coherence of reality”
  • Second, religion offers us meaning.

Religious faith provides a framework of meaning which not merely helps us grasp the contours of reality more firmly, but inspires us to want to pursue the good and the beautiful.

  • McGrath thinks the field of science and religion is important to enable ‘the good life’.

I want to suggest that the field of science and religion can be seen as emblematic of a need for the integration of insight and meaning; for restoring cohesion to our way of thinking; for achieving and integrated and enriched vision of life which is integral to human flourishing and wellbeing.

  • One of the questions that the science and religion dialogue raises is that of theological methodology, on how theology “develops, refines and confirms its ideas
  • A second question that emerges from the field of science and religion is on how to replace the ‘conflict’ paradigm – which McGrath regards as outdated – with a “narrative of integration and enrichment”. In other words: McGrath thinks the dialogue between science and religion can enable science to overcome its obliviousness to the human need for meaning, by pointing science to its limits.
  • McGrath points to the ‘multiple maps’ principle endorsed by Mary Midgley and to critical realism as possible ways to construct such a narrative of integration and enrichment.
  • He goes on to say that science can help us understand religion.

We would do well to note contemporary trends in both the psychology of religion and the relatively new discipline of the cognitive science of religion, which have suggested that religion is natural to humanity. It is not something imposed upon us, but something that seems to come naturally to us.
Some kind of religiosity is part of being human.

I like the idea of a narrative of enrichment, but I’m not so sure about ‘integration’. To me, there are differences between science and theology that should be accepted in order for each field to retain its distinctiveness, including each field’s specific contribution to human insight in the nature of reality. Integration seems to be in tension with both the multiple maps principle – integration implies building one overarching map – and critical realism  – integration implies reducing different levels of reality to one. Doing theology in the field of science and religion means to give a theological appreciation of differences, rather than erasing them.

McGrath quotes Richard Dawkins – yes, and approvingly so! – at the end of his lecture:

“A Keats and a Newton, listening to each other, might hear the galaxies sing.”

I think it’s through the differences – maybe even through the dissonances – that the song becomes a symphony.

3 thoughts on “McGrath Inaugural Lecture Andreas Idreos Professorship of Science and Religion: A Song or a Symphony?

  1. Meaningful Science-Religion dialogue is possible only if we realize Reality has an unquantifiable aspect. Real is a complex sum of measurable and non-measurable. Religion today is mostly about measuring and labelling the non-measurable, and Science always had an aversion to such things.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I’m not quite sure, though, what you mean by: “Religion today is mostly about measuring and labelling the non-measurable”. Do you mean that religion, through its attempts to speak about the divine/the transcendent, tries to reduce it to certain linguistic formulae?

      1. Yes, religions try to capture the transcendent in words or symbols. It is difficult to build a religious organization on the foundation of a transcendent reality. People demand something more graspable, a name and date of birth for their god!

        Science-Religion dialogue should address the question ‘do we really need the transcendent to describe Reality as it is?’ I believe Reality has an unquantifiable aspect, and there is a way to make this intelligible to the rational minded. No meaningful dialogue is possible as long as the transcendent remains a as a matter of faith.

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