On God and Science
For 20 years, Reverend Dr Stephen Ames has co-taught one of the most popular courses in the History and Philosophy Science program, God and the Natural Sciences (HPSC2002). In this subject, Stephen, who is both an Anglican Priest and HPS scholar, worked alongside atheist colleagues to show how religious and non-religious points of view can be debated in a respectful manner. In a time where public debate increasingly involves belittlement and attack, such civil and productive discussions can seem almost radical. In this interview, Stephen spoke with Samara Greenwood about the origins of the course, some surprising stories and what his plans are now that he is retiring from the subject.
What brought you to History and Philosophy of Science at Melbourne University?
In 1970 I received a PhD in physics, but I was also interested in how science intersected with philosophy and theology. A kind of slogan I used was, there is a synthesising of cosmology, life sciences and spirituality. I would point out various examples and say, as a Christian, that covers the range of my faith, that is the shape my faith has, holding these kinds of things together. My desire was to get in on that.
In 1989, for various reasons, I could go back to university half time. It was actually a conversation with my son. After listening to what I was saying, he said, “it sounds like the history and philosophy of science option is your best one, Dad”. That led me to enrol as a first-year undergraduate. I did a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in HPS and was then invited to apply for a research scholarship to do a PhD. I took it as a sign, so, I said yes.
How did the subject God and the Natural Sciences come about?
As time went by, I got involved with a number of the staff in the HPS program. Dr Neil Thomason, Dr Keith Hutchison and I had conversations. Two things came up.
First, we thought it would be good if we could have a public conversation about science and religion that was intelligent and engaging and not a whole lot of name calling. The prevailing belief was that science and religion were in inherent conflict. I was a priest, I had studied theology, I had studied physics, and here I was doing a PhD in philosophy of science. So, I was a contender for being part of that public conversation.
Second, the HPS staff had noticed that whenever questions about religion came up in their subjects, students’ interest went through the roof. So, it seemed like students would be interested in a topic like God and the Natural Sciences.
In 2000 we won a $10,000 grant from the Templeton Foundation, which helped start it up. It began with Neil, Keith and myself and we would all lecture on different things.
In 2011, Neil retired so Dr Kristian Camilleri stepped up. We had known each other for a long time, in fact we did our PhDs in HPS at the same time, so we knew each other quite well. So, Kristian and I began the journey of lecturing in God and the Natural Sciences. Mr Paul Carter has also been a tutor in the subject for many years.
Can you give us a brief overview of the structure of the subject?
Broadly speaking, it has scientific, philosophical and historical components.
We look at the medieval universe and how it was challenged by the Reformation and by various people like Copernicus and Galileo. We also look at Darwin and the rise of naturalism and the rise of atheism.
One year, early on, I realised we didn’t have any history of atheism in the subject. How come? It was a bit of blind spot. So, I arranged for us to include the rise of modern atheism and that has been a growing theme in the lectures.
About halfway through the semester we turn to more philosophical questions about naturalism.
We find that, behind a lot of the questions about science and religion, is really a debate about naturalism, which is basically the idea that nature is all there is, there is nothing above or below nature.
We also cover lots of other topics such as consciousness and near-death experiences. We have several lectures on cosmology and big bang theory and, relatedly, why is there anything at all? We also look at the question of natural evil; all the tsunamis, genetic disorders, the vast amount of suffering and death in the evolution of life, as distinct from all the problems to do with the terrible things that human beings do to each other. How do Christians and others hold to their belief in a wholly good God if this is the world that God has created?
Have there been any surprises in teaching the subject?
In the very first lecture we introduced ourselves to the students. I was the Christian, Neil was the atheist and Keith was the atheist. We then invited the students to put their hands up, who were the atheists, who were the religious believers, who were the agnostics? Then Neil said to everyone, “you agnostics, you wimps, you should be over here with all the atheists and you shouldn’t take any notice of what Stephen is going to tell you.” It was very humorous, a great opening, and the students loved it. That was a great surprise.
His line was “Look at all the pain and suffering and death that happens in the evolution of life. Any halfway decent God wouldn’t create a world like that”. My response was, you better attend all the lectures until Week 10 when I will reply in detail to Neil’s claims.
There was also an instance with an atheist student, who was very bright, but really down on religion.
We had a visiting Old Testament professor talking about the Bible and this student tore strips off him, beyond anything acceptable, so my atheist colleagues had to shut him down. That was quite rare. Usually atheist students are able to express their views without becoming so belligerent and terribly rude.
What was funny, enjoyably so, is that a couple of weeks later, this student heard from me the idea that thinking about God or believing in God did not require you to give up your mind. It didn’t require you to give up on inquiry or asking questions. I was drawing on a Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan. I didn’t think that was in any way surprising, but he thought that was fantastic. He didn’t become a believer, but he stopped being belligerent. It changed his attitude.
How have your ideas been shaped by teaching the course over this period?
The discussion about faith and reason has been a continuing theme.
A view put forward by a number of new atheists, such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, is that faith is what you believe in the face of contradictory evidence. That has never been my sense of faith at all.
The question of human inquiry is an important theme for me here. Saint Anselm’s view, from the eleventh century, is that “faith seeks understanding”. I have pursued that conversation between faith and reason, and it has developed over time, responding to my very thoughtful atheist colleagues.
As a former student in the subject, I found the way you and Kristian were able to debate your differing views in a congenial manner to be powerful and inspiring. I was wondering how have other students responded to the course.
We get very positive feedback. I continue to meet people who have done the subject who stop me and express their appreciation still, years after. We get a very good response from students every year because there is something about the fact that, for the people leading the subject, this is a vital matter in our own thinking and living. It touches on issues that are of great interest to students.
I think a very important thing that helps all sorts of students is that there is no put down of science on my side. I have a PhD in physics, so that helps people believe that I am going to take science seriously and they are not going to be drawn into wondering if they should be rejecting science in some significant way.
There is never a debate between the Christians and the atheists, being me and Kristian or Neil, about the natural sciences in the sense that, as a Christian, I am not debating the value of what the sciences tell us about the universe and life on this planet. I may debate how we use that knowledge in our cultural context saturated by science, technology and the market. I would never call the scientific view of the universe a total view of the world. In fact, I’m very critical, philosophically, of scientific naturalism, which does make that claim. I am also critical of Christian traditions that think the world is approximately 10,000 years old [and] God created [it] in six days. Much depends on how you interpret the Bible and, so, I offer students ten credible principles informing that task, beginning with the interpretive practice of Galileo.
I think that shared positive approach to the natural sciences is a factor in helping everyone feel at ease in this God and the Natural Sciences conversation. Students have welcomed the interaction between Neil, Keith, Kristian, and me, as constructive, positive and upbeat; critical but not dismissive.
What are you most proud of about the subject?
I think 20 years is something to be proud of. I think it is very good to have a public conversation about God and the Natural Sciences. Being able to sustain that conversation with a mixed audience of believers and non-believers or atheists and theists.
Our religious students have mainly been Christian students, but we’ve also had Buddhists and Muslims and Jewish students, and I think everyone has been happy with how those various traditions have been handled respectfully. I think that has been a good thing as well and I am proud of that.
We recently had about 20 people gathered (virtually) to enjoy my winding up after 20 years of lecturing and celebrating the continuing of the subject in 2022. It was three cheers all round.
Now that you have retired from the subject, what is next for you?
I’m currently an honorary fellow in the History and Philosophy of Science program in SHAPS, as well as continuing my work as a priest at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne. I’m working on two books. One is On God, beginning with the Problem of Natural Evil and the other is Human Inquiry, An Icon of God. So writing is one of my things and I will be happy to do an honorary lecture on occasion. I am also interested in having ongoing conversations with others on the intersection of science, philosophy, history and theology.
The subject God and the Natural Sciences (HPS20020) will continue in 2022, with Dr Kristian Camilleri and the Reverend Dr Chris Mulherin taking over from Reverend Dr Stephen Ames. Dr Mulherin is an Anglican priest and lecturer on science and religion at the Catholic Theological College.
Feature image: At Spiral Jetty, Great Salt Lake, Utah. Photographer: Greg Rakozy via Unsplash