The New Wars of Religion: Believers Write Back

John Habgood in the TLS:

Hans Küng, the eminent Roman Catholic theologian, has written what he describes as “a short book on the meaning of the universe”, and much of what he writes echoes the views just described, albeit from a somewhat different perspective. He also draws an interesting parallel between cosmology and Gödel’s famous incompleteness theorem. The latter is a mathematical proof that no system of axioms can prove itself as being free from contradiction. Nor, says Küng, can a theory of the universe. The point was originally made by Stephen Hawking, who admitted that he had given up his quest for a “grand unified theory of everything” on the grounds that we are part of it. Any explanation which tries to include the observer doing the explaining must necessarily be incomplete. Add to this Popper’s dictum about the tentativeness of all scientific statements as being falsifiable but not ultimately provable, and the limitations of our knowledge become all too apparent. Both scientists and theologians, in other words, and even popes, need to accept their fallibility.

Apart from a passing reference, this is a Richard Dawkins-free book. It also provides a useful reminder that there was a scientifically and theologically based tradition of atheism in European culture long before Darwin. Küng comments, “Beyond question, the critique of religion offered by these ‘new materialists’ has not remotely reached the depth of their classical predecessors”. Feuerbach, Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, where are you now?

“Science”, Küng continues, “does not have to ‘prove’ the existence or superfluity of God. Rather, it has to advance the explicability of our universe by physics as far as possible and at the same time leave room for what in principle cannot be explained by physics.”

I am not sure this is a wise way of putting things, being all too redolent of the “God of the gaps”. Nevertheless, like all of Küng’s work, this is a learned book, full of interesting insights, drawing heavily on European philosophy and theology, and frequently critical of his own Church.