The intersection between science and faith is one of the most pressing issues today for believers and skeptics alike. And Dr. Lennox is one of the most qualified people to address it. In this podcast, he shares some of his own journey and experience as a Christian philosopher, mathematician, and scientist in one of the most prestigious universities in the world. He discusses the limits of science, the nature of faith, and practical ways Christians can intersect the two. His most recent book is Can Science Explain Everything?




More About Our Guest

John Lennox

John Lennox, D.Phil, Ph.D., D.Sc. is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. He is one of the most recognizable Christian intellectuals today discussing the intersection between faith and science. Dr. Lennox has participated in numerous debates with influential atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, and Peter Singer. He speaks French, Russian, and German and lectures around the world on mathematics, business ethics, science, and theology.



Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” I'm your host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University.

Sean McDowell: I'm your cohost, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

Scott Rae: We're here with a very special guest today. Professor John Lennox is emeritus professor of mathematics at Oxford, an emeritus fellow in mathematics and philosophy of science at Green Templeton College. He's written a new book, Can Science Explain Everything? 

John, welcome to our program. We're delighted to have you with us from over in the U.K., and congratulations on your new book. It's different than some of the other things you've written because we found it's at quite an accessible introductory level, and I think a very helpful volume for people who have never really thought much about the connection between Christian faith and science.

John Lennox: Well, I'm delighted to hear that. Thank you very much for having me on your program.

Scott Rae: You tell a little bit of your own personal story too, your coming to faith, in the book and then your pursuit of science as well. You tell a story about when you were having dinner in your first or second year at Cambridge where you were discouraged, actually, from connecting your Christian faith with your pursuit of science. Tell our listeners a little bit about that story and what kind of impact that that had on you.

John Lennox: What happened was that I was having dinner with a Nobel Prize winner, and I'd never met one before. I tried to engage him on big questions of life and existence, and he didn't seem to enjoy that, so I backed off. And then subsequently I thought that was the end of the story, but after the meal he asked me to go to his room and invited several other very senior people, no other students, and put me on a chair and said, "Do you want a career in science?" And I said, "Yes, surely." But he said, "Well, give up then your naïve faith in God, right now in front of witnesses, because if you persist in believing in God, it will cripple you intellectually and you'll never make it."

And of course, he was trying to discourage me. He had the exact opposite effect, because even as a student I could tell that this was something he shouldn't have been doing. I mean, if he'd been a Christian and I'd been an atheist, he might well have lost his university post the next day. But as it was, I simply asked him what he had to offer me that was better than what I already had, and he came across with a kind of evolutionary naturalism that I'd heard of, thanks to reading C.S. Lewis. And I said, "I'll take the risk. I'll stick with what I've got."

But it made me decide that if ever I had the chance to be in academia, and had the opportunity to discuss these things in public, the last thing I would try to do is browbeat people, but rather give them the evidence and allow them to make up their own minds. It put steel in my heart and mind I think and really set a compass bearing for my life.

Sean McDowell: Well, we really appreciate your boldness to speak up on these issues, with graciousness towards people but without holding back on what you believe. I think that's unique and needed today. Two-part question for you. Is there a conflict between belief in God and the pursuit of science? And if not, as you argue in the book, why do so many people believe there's this fundamental conflict or tension between the two?

John Lennox: Well, I don't think there is a conflict between belief in God and the pursuit of true science, because that is basically a confusion of ideas, and there are several reasons for it. But let me be positive to start with. I think the historical perspective is enormously important, and if we think of the rise of modern science in the 16th and 17th centuries, associated with people like Galileo and Kepler and Newton and so on, all of these people were believers in God. Historians and philosophers of science more or less accept the general thesis that there is an intimate connection between Christian monotheism and the rise of science.

C.S. Lewis's comment on it is very apt: "Men became scientific because they expected law in nature, and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver." In other words, far from their belief in God hindering their science, it was actually the motor that drove it. So I'm not remotely ashamed of being both a scientist and a Christian, because arguably it was Christianity gave me my subject. That was your first part of your question. I don't think there's a conflict.

But many people believe there is a conflict, and people like Stephen Hawking forced them to choose between God and science. I think one of the problems there, there are several, lie in understanding the nature of explanation. Richard Dawkins was famous for suggesting that the God explanation of the universe is similar to the science explanation, so you have to pick one or the other. I simply don't think that that is true.

You see, let me give a very simple example, which I have put in the book. Think of boiling water. Why is it boiling? Well, because heat is being conducted through the base of the kettle and agitating the molecules of water, and the water's boiling. That's one scientific explanation. But there's another kind of explanation, and that is the water is boiling because I'd like a cup of tea. Now, anybody, even children, I find, can see that both of those explanations are valid, that they don't conflict, that they don't compete, but they're complementary, and indeed they're both necessary.

There's a huge mistake in thinking that the one explanation contradicts the other when you raise it to the level of God. Let me put it this way. God no more conflicts with science as an explanation of the universe, or even competes, than Henry Ford conflicts with automobile engineering and physics to explain a motorcar. They are different kinds of explanation. One is a scientific explanation, and the other is an agent explanation. And what is so important to recognize at the very beginning is that we have these different kinds of explanation, but we live in an age where scientism is a dominant attitude, and scientism tells you that science is the only way to truth. And I believe that's clearly false. It's even logically false.

Scott Rae: What I hear you suggesting is that the real conflict between science and theism or science and Christian faith is at the level of worldview, and that that's where the fundamental conflict lies.

John Lennox: Well, that's exactly right. I don't think there is any conflict between science properly understood and theism properly understood. But there's a huge conflict between two worldviews, that of theism and atheism. Let me illustrate it this way. You see, if you take the Nobel Prize for physics, a few years ago Peter Higgs won it. He's an atheist, the Higgs boson. And then in America you have Bill Phillips, who won it a few years before that. So here are two men, one an atheist, the other a Christian. They both won the Nobel Prize for physics. So their physics doesn't divide them.

But what does divide them is their worldview, and if there were a fundamental and essential conflict between science and God, then every single scientist would be an atheist. But that's not true. If you just look, for instance, at a list of Nobel Prize winners between 1900 and 2000, over 60% of them believed in God. So this idea that the conflict lies between science and religion is actually false, and it's dangerously false, I think.

Scott Rae: So you would say the real conflict is then between naturalism as a worldview and theism as a worldview?

John Lennox: Yes, and there are scientists on both sides.

Sean McDowell: Some people suggest that believing in God is like believing in Santa Claus, a flying spaghetti monster, or the tooth fairy. One of my favorite examples in the book is how you responded to this one time when you were speaking publicly. Could you share that response and then unpack what you mean by it?

John Lennox: One occasion I remember, I was doing a very big debate in the Netherlands before an audience of a couple of thousand people, and it was a physicist put this to me, that my belief in God is like a belief in Santa Claus. I just said to the audience, "Let's test this. How many of you in the audience became believers in Santa Claus as adults?" And of course, no hand went up. And then I said, "How many of you became believers in God as adults?" And hundreds of hands went up. So I said to the physicist rather directly, but I thought it was necessary, I said, "Look, you're insulting our intelligence. Some of the brightest minds in the world for centuries have thought about questions of God, but they haven't been thinking about Santa Claus. So don't, please, put them in the same category."

I think it is just very foolish. But it results from the idea that faith, faith in God, that is, is believing where there's no evidence. And that's like Santa Claus, so they don't expect you to bring any evidence to the table. When you do, they're lost.

Scott Rae: You know, John, one of the things I so appreciate about not only this book, but having heard you speak on numerous occasions, is how you take the arguments of the skeptics and turn them back on their head and use them as an argument against your opponent. One of the things that you mention in the book is your reaction to Dawkins’ The God Delusion and your insistence that it's actually atheism, not Christianity, that better fits the definition of a delusion. Could you explain a little further what you mean by that?

John Lennox: Yes, I could, because I've had to explain it so often. You see, The God Delusion was a fascinating title because a delusion actually is a psychological, even a psychiatric, condition. It's believing in something against the strong force of evidence against it. It really goes back to Freud's idea, Sigmund Freud, who thought that all religion was a delusion or an illusion. And I think the best answer and the shortest answer to it is that given by Manfred Lütz, who is a leading German psychiatrist. And what he says is this. If there is no God, then the Freudian argument really gives you a good reason for thinking that all religion is a delusion, belief in God is a delusion. It's simply the projection of your wishful thinking to have some kind of comforting father figure in the sky after death. That is if there is no God.

But then he goes on to point out that if there is a God, of course, then it's atheism that becomes the delusion. As the famous Nobel Prize for literature in Poland, Czeslaw Milosz, put it, that atheism is the great opium of the people. And he regarded that as the delusory impression that we're never going to have to meet God and give account of ourselves and the mess we've made of our own lives and that of others. But Manfred Lütz's bottom line is this. He says, "Look, one, if there is no God, Freud's argument is good against religion. If there is a God, it's good against atheism. But it cannot settle the question whether there's a God or not." And that's exactly where I stand. In fact, asserting that God is a delusion proves nothing. You've got to go to evidence somewhere else. And the same is true of atheism, of course, as well.

Scott Rae: John, this is to follow up on that. That's a really powerful point that I don't think most people have heard all that often. I remember reading years ago R.C. Sproul's work called The Psychology of Atheism, where he maintained that if Freud's idea of a projection was true, we would never have projected the notion of the biblical God, being a God of judgment and wrath, as well as of love and mercy. But I think that's a really powerful point, that part of the projection appeal of atheism is that we are able to escape accountability for our lives. And I can see for a lot of people, that's a very powerful notion, that we would be able to escape that.

John Lennox: Yes, I think it is. I think you see that the arguments are not merely rationally intellectual. They're rationally moral, and the moral dimension is brought into it very clearly by this particular argument.

Sean McDowell: One of the things you talk about and hinted at earlier is the difference between science and scientism. One of the first responses that you give in the book, you address, is the question is science the only way to truth? And you talk about how reason is far larger than just science itself. So what do you mean by that, and what other mechanisms can we know things about the world, apart from science?

John Lennox: Well, obviously science cannot be the only way to truth. Why? Because that's a logically self-contradictory statement. If science were the only way to truth, then the statement, "Science is the only way to truth," would be given to us by science, but it isn't. So the thing falls at the very beginning. But looking at it more broadly, you see, if science were the only way to truth, you'd have to close half the faculties at least at Biola. You'd have no literature, you'd have no theology, you'd have no art, you'd have no music, and so on. There are so many other intellectual disciplines that are perfectly rational, but they are not the natural sciences.

Now of course, in German, the word for science is wissenschaft, and that covers actually all academic disciplines really. But when we're speaking English, "science" really stands for the natural sciences. Therefore, it's a very dangerous idea to suggest that the natural sciences are the only way to truth. And one of the best comments on it was made by another Nobel Prize winner, Sir Peter Medawar, who worked here in Oxford. He said it is so easy to see that science, natural science, is limited. Why? Because it cannot answer the simple questions of a child. Where do I come from? Where am I going? And what is the meaning of my life? And he pointed out, it's to literature and philosophy and of course theology that we need to turn for answers to those questions. Indeed, the really big questions of life and meaning are not answered by the natural sciences. The natural sciences are powerful and successful precisely because they ask and answer a limited range of questions.

Scott Rae: Now, John, let me follow up on that point. You maintain, I think, that the central question of science is why is there something rather than nothing? But that sounds to me more like a philosophical question, not a scientific one.

John Lennox: Well, if I said it like that, I think I need to change it slightly. Of course, it is a philosophical question, but scientists try to answer it, and that is very clear in the book by the late Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, where he talks about questions like why is there something rather than nothing, etc., etc., etc. And he says these were questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead, and now scientists are bearing the torch of truth or something like that. This is thoroughgoing scientism, and it's absolutely right. This is a deep philosophical question about the universe, so you could call it perhaps a metascientific question if you liked.

Sean McDowell: Most people in our culture, certainly many, seem to hold that there's this tension between science and faith, that they're mutually exclusive. Yet you insist that science cannot function without a kind of faith. Can you explain what you mean by that?

John Lennox: Yes, and it's extremely important, because there's huge confusion about the meaning of the word "faith". Part of it is driven by Dawkins, who claims that faith rejoices in lack of evidence, that faith is believing where there is no evidence and you know that. But that is not true. What Dawkins is describing is what we call "blind faith," but "faith," as an English word, derives from the Latin fides, and it means trust. We get the word "fidelity" from it. And the moment I say, "I believe X," or "I have faith in X," you have every right to say, "What is the basis of your belief? What is the evidence for your faith?"

And the problem arises because in English, again, "faith" has at least two meanings. For many people, it's a synonym for religion, and so they say to me, "You are a man of faith," by which many atheists mean I'm really an idiot, because I believe where there's no evidence. So I always say when people talk about faith, I say, "You must explain faith in what? I am a man of faith in God." I go further than that to say that my faith in God is evidence-based, and it's crucially important that people see that Christianity claims to be evidence-based. One of the clearest statements of that is in John's Gospel, where he gives the reason he wrote his book. "Many other things Jesus did in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written, in order that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing, you might have life in his name."

In other words, John is saying, "I have collected together evidence, pointers that point towards the fact that Jesus is the Son of God." In other words, he's talking about evidence-based faith. And the point here is that it's exactly the same in science, although different, of course. You see, the cop-out that many atheists use is to say, "Well, you're a person of faith. We're scientists. We're not people of faith." But that actually is hugely confusing. Einstein, one of the cleverest scientists that ever existed, he once wrote that he couldn't imagine a scientist without that faith. He didn't mean faith in God. What he meant was faith in the rational intelligibility of the universe, the fact that we can do science.

And you see, the irony here is that every scientist must start by believing something. They must believe that science can be done. They must believe that the universe can be described, at least in part, by mathematics and physics and so on. So in that sense, they are people of faith. So we've got to be very clear when we're talking to folk about the word "faith" to add to it what we mean. Faith in what? Is it faith in science? Is it faith that a certain team will win the Super Bowl? Or is it faith in God?

Scott Rae: John, that is just so helpful, that distinction between faith and blind faith and looking at the idea of faith, I think, in its biblically consistent way to view it as trust. And as soon as we talk about the idea of trust, it's on what basis do you trust? In whom or in what are you trusting?

John Lennox: Exactly right.

Scott Rae: And it's never a blind faith.

John Lennox: Exactly right.

Scott Rae: Let me follow up on that. You have a chapter in your book on rationality and reason, and it's under the assumption that science uses reason and religion does not. But you, in the book, in that chapter, are very skeptical about human reason and rationality arising from random evolutionary processes.

John Lennox: I am indeed, yes. That's because I am a scientist.

Scott Rae: Yeah, why are you skeptical about that? Because it would seem to me that true beliefs would have greater adaptive value than false beliefs.

John Lennox: That may well be at a certain level, but you can't explain mathematics, abstract pure mathematics or physics, by that kind of argument. Well, let me come back, and the most important arguments in this area are not coming from Christians but atheists. Lewis saw this, of course, as a Christian a long time ago, and Alvin Plantinga builds on it. But perhaps the most important voice at the moment is Thomas Nagel of New York, a brilliant philosopher. And what he does, and I'm going to give you a popular, simple, imaginative version of it that I use with my colleagues. I sometimes say to my scientific colleagues, "What do you do science with?" And I point to my head. And they say, "I do science with my mind." Some of them are more politically correct and say, "I do science with my brain," because they think the mind is the brain.

I say, "Okay, you do science with your brain. Tell me about the brain." Short story, if the brain, it's the end product of a mindless unguided process. And I look at them and smile, and then I say, "And you trust it? Now, tell me honestly. If you knew that your computer was the end product of a mindless unguided process, would you trust it?" And I have pushed that question with many scientists, and I've always got the answer, "No, I would not trust it." So I say, "You have a problem. Your belief about the origin and nature of the brain and the mind is running straight up against the fact that you use it to do science, and you trust it."

And Thomas Nagel points this out, that evolutionary naturalism at this level has a huge problem, because it undermines the human rationality that you need to do science. In fact, it undermines rationality, full stop, the rationality that we need to have this discussion. And that's my huge problem with it, one of my main reasons for not being an atheist. It's not because I'm a Christian, although that of course is a very big reason, it's because I'm a scientist and I actually believe science can be done. And I'm therefore not prepared to believe a story which undermines the very value and use of the rationality that I depend on, and everybody else does every day.

Sean McDowell: This is such a strong and powerful point that you're observing, that of course people of different worldviews and beliefs, Christians, atheists, etc., can do science, but which worldview can account for why science can even be done?

John Lennox: That's exactly right, and that's the important insight, that we all look for explanations, and to put it very bluntly, I much prefer an explanation that makes sense against one that doesn't. And the God explanation makes perfect sense, because it says that the reason you can do science is that because as a human being you are made in the image of a rational God. And the universe out there is a product of his intelligent creation. So it's not surprising that you can, at least in part, understand it.

Sean McDowell: The fact that we can do science not only raises a problem for the naturalistic worldview, but is a piece of evidence or points towards the Christian worldview. And I think you really developed that well in the book. And one of the things that I loved is, we kind of got through half the book in this discussion, but you start moving specifically towards questions of miracles and even the New Testament and the person of Jesus as ultimately being the best explanation for why not only the world exists, human beings exist, explains our predicament, but why we can even do science itself.

I want to thank you for coming on, but really commend to our listeners your book, Can Science Explain Everything? It is a wonderful guide for someone. You go to a lot of depth here, but it's in such a practical, easy way to understand. I can imagine Christians who are saying, "How do I make sense of science and faith?" In a small group, for young people, or if there's a nonbeliever. There really is an evangelistic feel to this book, that if an unbeliever was open to consider this question from the perspective of a Christian like yourself who's so well trained in this, this would be a wonderful book to give to him. So thanks for writing it, and thanks so much for coming on and joining us today.

John Lennox: That was my pleasure. Thank you.

Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” To learn more about us and today's guest, John Lennox, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.