Has Science Buried God?

"What is the meaning of it all?" Richard Feynman - American physicist known for expanding the theory of quantum electrodynamics.
"The universe is just there, and that's all." Bertrand Russell - English philosopher, historian, logician, mathematician, advocate for social reform, pacifist, and prominent Rationalist.
"It is the very nature of science that leads me to belief in God," John C Lennox - a popular Christian apologist and scientist.

Adam Kirsch wrote a review of a new book on Thomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin for The New Yorker magazine entitled 'God’s Undertaker: How Thomas Hardy became everyone’s favorite misanthrope' and in it Kirsch writes:

“One Sunday morning in the middle of the nineteenth century, at a church in the Dorset village of Stinsford, a boy named Thomas Hardy had an experience that, more than sixty years later, he remembered as causing him “much mental distress.” As the boy watched the priest deliver the sermon, Hardy recalled in his autobiography, “some mischievous movement of his mind set him imagining that the vicar was preaching mockingly, and he began trying to trace a humorous twitch in the corners of Mr. S—’s mouth, as if he could hardly keep a serious countenance. Once having imagined this the impish boy found to his consternation that he could not dismiss the idea.”

If the Reverend Arthur Shirley, whose name Hardy courteously omitted, had noticed his young parishioner’s amusement, he would not have recognized it for what it was: the first scratching of the seismograph that, within the boy’s lifetime, would register the death of God. Hardy’s “merriment,” as he quietly but unmistakably shows, was the product of his dawning sense that nobody, not even the priest, could possibly take the church service seriously. There seems to be a straight line, if not a short one, from Hardy’s “consternation” to the madness of the stranger who, in Nietzsche’s famous parable, barges into churches to sing a requiem: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?”

John C. Lennox in his book God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God offers a response to the claims of more modern atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, that science has finally killed the idea of God. Lennox argues that indeed the reverse is more likely to have validity and based on the evaluation of modern scientific evidence he argues that theism is more in tune with science than atheism. The book’s publisher writes:

“If we believe many modern commentators, science has squeezed God into a corner, killed and then buried Him with its all-embracing explanations. Atheism, we are told, is the only intellectually tenable position, and any attempt to reintroduce God is likely to impede the progress of science. John Lennox invites us to consider such claims very carefully. Is it really true, he asks, that everything in science points towards atheism? Could it be possible that theism sits more comfortably with science than atheism?”

Fixed Point hosted a debate between Dawkins and Lennox on the positions taken by their respective books. Copies of the debate can be obtained on the Fixed Point website.

John Lennox has published over 70 articles in Algebra (Group Theory) and co-authored two research monographs in the Oxford Mathematical Monographs series - "The Theory of Subnormal Subgroups" (with S.E. Stonehower) 1987 and "The Theory of Infinite Soluble Groups" (with D.J.S. Robinson) 2004. He is currently particularly interested in the interface between science, philosophy and theology and lectures in Science and Religion at Oxford University.

Science is God's Undertaker?

Posted October 07, 2007


Peter said...

I had a devil of a job locating this book – it must be selling well as it was out of stock most places that I went. But success at last!

I’ll open this discusssion by saying that I like his style of writing. It is very fluid and holds one’s attention. He did an excellent job in stripping away all the negative junk around the use of words like ‘creationism’, ‘intelligent design’ and distilling down the religion/science conflict to being one of ‘naturalism’ versus ‘theism’ and which of the two is best supported by science.

I also liked how he nuanced the difference between naturalism and materialism while accepting that both are in the ‘atheism’ camp in stating as Carl Sagan aptly put it: “The cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever shall be”.

I agree with his point that this statement is not a statement of science but one of ‘belief’ i.e. Carl Sagan believes this to be so. Everything is within the cosmos – there is no ‘outside’ or ‘super’natural. The Genesis creation story is also one that is not of science but of belief i.e. it states that there is something outside of the cosmos (God) which created it.

So the conflict is not between science and religion but between two world views (naturalism and atheism) for which both sides must look towards science for resolution.

So far I have just got the first couple of chapters read but will comment more later and give others a chance to locate the book and get started.

Lennox is from Armagh, N. Ireland. Another product of a brilliant Irish educational system!

Take care,

Diana Malcolm said...

Peter I agree! Also, Michael, you have a knack for choosing great books!

This is indeed an interesting read. I particularly loved the bit on Aunt Matilda’s Cake and how Lennox showed the limits of science linking the cake to Aristotle’s four causes namely the material cause (what the cake is made of); the formal cause (the form into which the materials are shaped); the efficient cause (the work of Aunt Matilda the cook); and the final cause (the purpose for which the cake was made). Excuse the pun … simply delicious! And then to use the cake example to discuss revelation and how reason had to be applied to the revelation of why Aunt Matilda baked the cake.

The analogy of Mr. Ford’s car was also exactly on point and a great example. Lennox certainly knows how to make a point easily accessible through metaphor! When I was a kid I remember a very similar example as I was convinced that there had to be someone (a little man) in my family’s radio set who was actually speaking. When my parents were out of the room I sneaked a peek to see if I could spot him.

I downloaded the Dawkins-Lennox debate from Dawkins website and am in the process of listening to it.

Di Di

Michael N. Hull said...

I have now listened to the 'debate' although it was very controlled by the moderator to focus on his quotes from Dawkins' book.

Having heard Alister McGrath debate Dawkins I would say that the new 'defender of the faith' is certainly Lennox. No McGrath waffling around ... straight to the point .... and very good points too.

I had the impression that either Dawkins was off form or is tired of debating. Lennox seemed to be quicker to the punch and punched with more power.

However, a wonderful intellectual feast was unfortunately marred by a very loud ‘belch’ during Lennox’s final remarks as he reduced his beautiful theism arguments into a literal interpretation of the resurrection. Alister McGrath, in his debate with Dawkins, embarrassed his position in a similar manner.

The resurrection story did not arise until centuries after the death of Jesus and only when the story of Jesus was spreading through the non-Jewish, gentile, pagan communities. These communities were very familiar with dying and rising God myths and Jesus became incorporated into this mythology.

Dawkins of course pounced on this in his closing remarks and redeemed what to that point was a lost position.

When will Christianity be fully able to recognize its metaphorical stories and separate these from its picture of Jesus?

As a debate - highly recommended!


Avid Reader said...

Di Di

I agree with you on Lennox's examples. I particularly liked the way he explained the three aspects of reductionism viz. methodological, epistemological, and ontological. This could have been a chapter which would have scared off most readers just by its subject matter but his example of the building, the bricks, and the architects was excellent.

This is the first time that I was able to get a handle on these concepts and see how easy they are to comprehend.

This was an excellent choice for the blog, Michael!


James Carnaghan said...


As Lennox points out many scientists who are theists point to the fine tuning arguments in support of their belief in theism. I agree with you that the fine tuning of the physical constants is just a statement of something to which they refer. Just as you point out the value of pi is simply a mathematical value that specifies a circle.

The question that I think is at the basis of the naturalism versus theism debate is not that of evolution. I think that you pointed out one can easily show order arising from disorder using Conway’s Game of Life computer simulation. As long as there are ‘rules’ imposed on the system then after sufficient iterations order develops. The basic question is why are their physical laws? Are these laws eternal or were they put into place by an eternal mind. The atheist would say that matter and physical laws governing matter are eternal and were never created. Theists would argue that matter and physical laws are not eternal but were created by an eternal intelligence.

Like you I don’t think that mankind will in the forseeable future be able to decided which is right. I have opted for atheism, you have opted for agnosticism. After hearing Lennox I have moved a small way towards your more open-minded position.


Duncan Clemens said...

Chapter 6 of the Lennox book was quite surprising to me. As one who believes that evolution is ‘true’ I was surprised to see that the evidence that backs it up is not as strong as I had first thought.

I was particularly struck by the fact that the fossil record has not to date confirmed the theory of evolution. I think that the quotation from Gould was particularly strong:

Stasis: Most species exhibit no directional change during their tenure on earth. They appear in the fossil record looking pretty much the same as when they disappear; morphological change is usually limited and directionless.

Sudden appearance: In any local area a species does not arise gradually by the steady transformation of its ancestors; it appears all at once and “fully formed”.



Joan Ferguson said...

I commented in the last thread about anthropogenic CO2: “It seems to me that one of you scientists should be able to do a simple calculation to prove/disprove the CO2 theory.” I have the same comment about Lennox’s book.

He makes quite a powerful case based on mathematics that intelligence is the only way that information can be introduced into a material system. He does an excellent job of completely demolishing the argument that “if there were enough monkeys typing they could type a Shakespeare play in time”. I am not an expert mathematician but from what I know I see no flaw in his arguments.

Which is why I think that at least in the area of his mathematical arguments it should be possible to prove Lennox either true or false. Now if he can not be proven false then I think that the theory of evolution but be treated as a ‘theory’ and not as a ‘fact’.

I doubt that Dawkins has the mathematical skills to take Lennox on (from what I understand Dawkins managed only a second class, second division Honours degree at university) and from what I have read Lennox has sufficient philosophical skills and biology background to successfully take on Dawkins’ scientific arguments (I leave Dawkins’ polemical skills to the side here).


Peter said...


That is a salient observation. Lennox is the first person ever to put a convincing face onto what has been described pejoratively as 'intelligent design'. I can not personally see anywhere that his arguments are flawed.

The central question seems to revolve around whether DNA contains 'information' as we commonly understand that word. If so then there seems to be no way that a material system can generate information on its own without some form of intelligent input.

Now with respect to Conway's Game of Life I know that one can start with a random placement of dots and after many iterations beautiful patterns appear. One might argue that such patterns are actually patterns of 'information' and were therefore not produced by 'intelligence'. However, to get the simulation going one has to put 'rules' into the system and of course in requires an intelligence to perform this act.

Does the question of theism versus naturalism not come down to asking who created the physical laws of the universe which govern the interaction of energy and matter? If there were no rules there could not possibly be any life. So are the physical laws eternal or were they defined by an intelligence?

As Lennox put it does inanimate matter give rise to 'mind' or is it 'mind' which is in control of matter. Lennox puts it as follows:

What fact is ultimate? The atheist's ultimate fact is the universe; the theist's ultimate fact is God. In which direction does science point - matter before mind, or mind before matter?

Take care,

Looking in the Distance said...


In Post 3 I wrote:

The resurrection story did not arise until centuries after the death of Jesus and only when the story of Jesus was spreading through the non-Jewish, gentile, pagan communities.

I meant to say 'decades' and not 'centuries'.


Brenda Moorhead said...

The introductory post had an interesting comment on Thomas Hardy. Anyone got any comments? I read six of his books, my favorite being "The Mayor of Casterbridge".

"Jude The Obscure" was pretty dismal in that Hardy seems to have a very poor view of man's fate in this world. I guess he must have struggled a lot with the problem of evil and suffering and why a good and loving God would permit this.

Is this what led to his atheism?

Avid Reader said...

Brenda - I too have enjoyed those books and though I am not an expert on Hardy's novels they would certainly indicate that the problem of suffering was something troublesome to him.

I think it was positively ironic that he was 'buried' in Westminister Abbey. The whole scene of his coffin being carried in a massive funeral procession when there was next to nothing in it but a few ashes from his cremation is in a way hilarious.

And what about the poor old Dean of Westminister who had to scratch around and find some excuse to bury an atheist in the Abbey! Having to go to Hardy's local vicar and get an 'assurance' of Hardy's "essential Christianity" is like something out of a comic soap opera.


Michael N. Hull said...

Corrected Comment

I have been wondering about the fine tuning argument which supposedly supports theism by arguing that if one or other of the universal physical constants was off by 1 part in some huge number, the universe, stars, life etc could not exist.

For example, if the ratio of the nuclear strong force to the electromagnetic force had been different by 1 part in 10 to the power of 16 stars could not have formed.

But are these arguments not the same as saying:

Here I have a series of circles. I have discovered that if I divide the circumference of any circle by its diameter I get a number (3.141592…) which goes out to infinity. This number is exactly the same and infinitely ‘fine tuned’ no matter how many circles that I examine. Now if I change just one integer in this number, say I substitute the one millionth integer in this number by changing it up or down by 1, then circles can not exist! .

Can anyone see what is fallacious in my argument.


Roger Spenser said...


Re circles and the ratio of the circumference to the diameter .... I am also not convinced that Lennox is seeing things the right way with the mathematical probability estimates he comes up with in the chapter on "The Origin of Life”.

I thought it was weak when he admitted that one can pass an electrical discharge through a mixture of ammonia, methane, hydrogen, and water vapor and develop all but one of the 20 amino acids needed for life and then he tried to indicate this couldn’t happen by saying that the earth’s early atmosphere is now thought not to have been of that composition. The fact remains that we don’t know what the early atmosphere was like but we do have the amino acids being formed by one possible atmosphere.

Then he points out that life only uses the L-form of the amino acids. So what? Life may have started out using both the L and the D forms but only the L-form was selected through evolution over millions of years.

But like the value of pi where we agree that the change of one integer in the number can not be permitted or a circle can not be a circle, he uses the same arguments about how improbable it would be to get all of life’s amino acids in the correct sequence. But isn’t our DNA patterns simply the ‘pi’ of humans? If the pattern in the DNA was something else then it would not be human it would be something else. The pattern of the DNA in the chimp is not the same as in the human and that is why a chimp is not a human.

I don’t see where statistical probabilities have anything to do with how life came about.


David vun Kannon said...

As Stephen Wolfram has shown in his work with cellular automata (a generalisation of Conway's Game of Life), there are many systems of rules, and some broad classifications of rule systems. Our physics is "finely tuned" only in the sense of the Weak Antropic Principle.

Science is not wed to the idea of enternal natural laws. The value of the gravitaional constant could be changing over the life of the universe, this has been seriously investigated. The same constant could be stochastic at level of measurement not yet attained by science.

We have at least learned that the universe does seem to operate according to rules that are not changing on time scales (long or short) that we can measure. The existence of these laws, whether simple or complex in formulation, does not point strongly in the direction of theism.

Natural laws crowd out magic, magical thinking, and action at a distance. "I have no need of that hypothesis (God)." We know that we can create a Turing Machine using just the rules of Conway's Life -the rules of our own physics are not uniquely fine tuned to enable life, even if we are uniquely fine tuned to them.

Peter Hartgerink said...

I am a little late on this thread (like 4 years) but would like to address one comment which I know to be incorrect. It is the one about resurrection stories not emerging until centuries after Jesus' death. This is very clearly not historically accurate. The earliest Christian writers (writing in the first century) testified to their confidence that Jesus had risen from the dead. Whether or not one chooses to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, the historical evidence is that belief in the resurrection of Jesus was part of Christian testimony from the very beginning.

Geoff said...

Hi Joan,
You say that
"He does an excellent job of completely demolishing the argument that “if there were enough monkeys typing they could type a Shakespeare play in time”"
I have to say I found his swipe at Dawkins' "METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL" application disappointing.
Considering the numerous areas covered by this book it's necessary to have a certain amount of faith in the author, and his comments were flat-out lies.
He's also misleading to the point of dishonest on Anthony Flew and E Coli bacteria. I've assembled my evidence here: http://geoffsshorts.blogspot.com/2011/10/book-review-gods-undertaker.html and welcome comments.