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Alister McGrath: Inventing the Universe: Why we can't stop talking about science, faith and God

Inventing the Universe: Why we can't stop talking about science, faith and God. Alister McGrath. Hodder and Stoughton. 2015. ISBN 9781444798463

This Review was first published in Essentials Autumn 2016

The “war” between science and religion has moved on, and this book is an attempt to move it further on, into a discussion that can be mutually respectful and enriching. McGrath traces his own transition from a fully assured teenage atheist to a convinced Christian. Part of this testimony involves a recurring and unflattering comparison between the Anti-theist group and his teenage over-simplified atheism. McGrath engages respectfully with a number of dialogue partners on various sides of the debate, including Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Mary Midgley and Roger Scruton. One of his aims is to correct outdated perceptions of the conflict between science and religion (it is a recently invented myth), although his chief opponent is the New Atheism which he claims is not traditional atheism, but actually Anti-theism.

The main idea is that science has limitations, as does religion.

There are clear boundaries beyond which their claim to knowledge is false. The new scientism, really an ideology, wants to pretend that science can tell us about meaning (or the impossibility of meaning) and guide us in ethical and moral areas. McGrath ventures into psychology (do we have souls?), ethics, uncertainty in science, and the nature of knowledge, to clarify these issues. He also discusses briefly the problems of religion wanting to answer questions of science as in Creation Science, and has a very helpful discussion on Darwinism and evolution (both biological and social).

In all of this he proposes an old idea that religion, especially Christianity, and science are able to engage in a “narrative of enrichment” that allows both parties to contribute what they do best to a broad understanding of the universe we are part of. “This is not about inventing a make-believe universe, but about discerning the deeper levels of meaning and beauty that are already present within our universe yet which are too easily missed if we limit ourselves to one tradition of inquiry or to one map of reality.” (p203)

The book seems repetitive at times, but the repetition mostly concerns McGrath's changes of mind over time. This, for me, was quite interesting so the repetition didn't become too tedious. The book ranges over a lot of different science, much of it up to date. Its main strength is to make clear that the Anti-theist agenda is based on an outmoded Enlightenment understanding of rationality, that the debates have moved on, that the later writings of Richard Dawkins and others are less and less reasonable and scientific, and that there is a lot to be gained by recognizing that science and Christianity have significant areas of understanding to contribute to each other.

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