BO: Ard, you're a scientist that has a feeling for the numinous, for some idea of God, how is this reconciled?
Ard: I think that believing in God is both… it's intellectually satisfying, so I think there intellectual reasons why we ought to believe in God. It's also existentially satisfying. It touches something deep inside of me.
BO: Tell me about the intellectual satisfaction.
Ard: So I think, for example, there are questions like, why is there something rather than nothing? Which I think is a very profound question.
BO: It is. I've always felt that to be one of the greatest questions. How can something come out of nothing?
Ard: And the classic answer to that is our physical world, the world that we see, must have come from something outside of the physical world: something beyond itself; something which is totally other. So that’s one thing it's very hard to imagine: how you would have a kind of materialist account of that, because you need the material to account for it, and so where did the material come from?
BO: Yes, you have an infinite regress. It's the most terrifying infinite regress. I'm surprised scientists don't have a nervous breakdown.
Ard: Well, interestingly, there are a lot of scientists who are believers in my department in Oxford. Physics is probably the department that has the most Christians in it who are serious about their faith. And I think physics and being religious are somewhat connected. Even my atheist colleagues, I think, have a religious sense. They're looking for something beyond themselves. Maybe you were that way when you were a fourteen-year-old when you wanted to study physics because you were interested in the big questions?
BO: Yeah, it's a wonder. I think there's been too much of a misunderstanding about how the religious sense is conveyed. I don't think it has to follow a creed or a belief in a trinity or anything specific like that. It could actually be just this sense of wonder, the sense of the inexplicability of the vastness of it all. Just that sense, I think, already is a religious sense, already is a spiritual sense, because it's a sense of something that we cannot entirely account for. I think, for me, that's where it starts: that we cannot totally account for how all of this came from none of this.
Can I ask you now David, what is the absolute rock-bottom of your atheism?
David: Simply because the idea of God, it's never taken root in me.
BO: But how do you define God?
David: The supernatural. I find myself in the weird position… Ard berates me for this all the time, that....
BO: But why does he have to be supernatural?
David: Well I don't know, but....
BO: I mean, why does the idea of God have to be supernatural?
David: I suppose because all the people I've talked to about God have painted God as a supernatural thing: something that stands outside of the material world and outside of its rules. There's the stuff, and then there's the supernatural one. It's just never worked for me.
But when you speak about that that spiritual feeling, or a religious feeling, I think those things are not only true, but very important to the kind of creatures we are. And so what I would like is a science which gets past trying to trying to explain them away, and instead says these are real parts of being human. And that sense of yearning, which John Cottingham talked about, this is real. Let's not try and say, ‘Oh, it's a misfiring of your neurons. Oh it's something that natural selection tricked.’ Or that language which claims to explain, but actually just demeans and sort of poo-poos it… I hate that.
BO: It is an avoidance.
David: I would say all these things are definitely true: they're part of being human. And I also think that notion that people have, which Ard and other people we've talked to have, that you come across an idea and you realise that a) it was there before you got there, and b), it’s immense.
Greg Chaitin talked about it being like climbing to the top of a mountain – that's your idea – but from there you see a mountain range which you suddenly realised is there. And these ideas were there before you. They're all true. There are truths out there, you just haven't got to them. And somehow they're older than you, and some of them are wiser than you. And I think all of that is true, and that's why I get on with Ard, I think. But it's just the supernatural business, that's the only thing.
BO: Let me let me address the supernatural. I think one impulse religion has come from almost the same place that science comes from. It's just that we have lost the truth behind the symbol. Let me explain what I'm trying to say. We have this sense, at some point our very distant ancestors looked up into the sky at the moon and the sun and at the great passing of time and at the stars, and had this sense of something vast beyond them, includes them, inexplicable to them. And being human, and being human to the degree that we cannot be totally comfortable with that which we cannot grasp, we proceeded to try and give it a form. We gave a symbol to each aspect of reality that we divined, that we perceived.
That's where the idea of the gods came from. That's where the idea of a god with a beard came from. It's just that the form took over. We then taught these forms. We told stories about these forms, and then people now think the form is the thing.
A lot of atheists I speak to say, ‘Oh, I don't believe in a god up there with a beard.’ That was just a symbol expressing something that if it did not have a form, we would not know how to pass it on. So it actually comes from the same materialistic belief that only by embodying something can we begin to experience it, or actually have an idea of it. Remove the anthropomorphic and all we can talk about is wonder.