Review of John C. Lennox, "God’s undertaker: Has science buried God?" (2009)
This is the most compelling book I have read on the so-called Science vs Religion debate. Lennox thinks with striking sharpness about the issues he writes about. The whole book is closely argued, and Lennox sees the counterarguments and responds to them before—at least in my case—the reader has managed to formulate them. His main target is Richard Dawkins, leader of the New Atheists, and Lennox takes Dawkins’ arguments to pieces with razor-sharp reasoning.
A Christian academic has two forms of commitment to truth. One is a commitment to what he believes as a Christian. The other is a commitment to what his research reveals. There can be only one truth, so the two forms of truth should line up with each other. If they don’t, then something has to change. In recent years this has not been a major challenge for me personally, but the issues that surround truth have long interested me because I have colleagues whose system of belief is different from mine. John Lennox, an Oxford professor of mathematics and philosopher of science who impressed me when he appeared on the Australian ABC TV program Q&A in maybe 2012, has written several books on this issue, and God’s undertaker is one.
It is the most compelling book I have read on the so-called Science vs Religion debate. Lennox thinks with striking sharpness about the issues he writes about. The whole book is closely argued, and Lennox sees the counterarguments and responds to them before—at least in my case—the reader has managed to formulate them. His main target is Richard Dawkins, leader of the New Atheists, and Lennox takes Dawkins’ arguments to pieces with razor-sharp reasoning.
It is difficult to summarise such a detailed book, but this is a summary of what I got from it.
The review below was written in March 2014 for an informal book group.
- There is no ‘Science vs Religion debate’. The label is one which certain people of science have created to imply that science supports their atheism and that religion has its basis in ignorance and will be cleared away as people become more educated in the achievements of modern science. (MR: Unfortunately in their ignorance some Christians also buy into the ‘Science vs Religion’ label, and thus fall into the trap that it sets.) It is a trap, since, as Lennox points out, there are plenty of Christians who are scientists and have no problem studying science, because there is no scientific finding that suggests that there is no God. On the contrary, science points towards a creator, and I come back to this in a moment. Lennox also argues very lucidly that the evolutionary theory on which some atheists base their atheism is itself no more than a matter of faith, as evolutionary theory as they propound it has nothing to say about creation. More of that too in a minute.
- Lennox goes on to show that the universe seems to have been made precisely for us. If the laws that govern the universe were even just a little different, life as we know it could not exist. (MR: This seems to me to be the weakest of Lennox’s arguments, since his opponents could argue that a universe that was governed by different laws would produce a different version of life—but perhaps I am missing a key point in his argument here. I’m not sure.)
- Lennox’s next argument concerns evolution. He focusses directly on the Theory of Natural Selection, which was proposed by Darwin and which underlies evolutionary theory. According to the theory, a long sequence of chance changes in life forms (today we would say in DNA) has led from the earliest living cell to all today’s animals, including us. Even Darwin himself saw that his theory was problematic. Today it is clear, first, that the changes in DNA that would be required to produce animals and us are complex, and their chance occurrence is extremely improbable. Second, that for the necessary changes to occur by chance would take immensely longer than the time since creation—and that is the time since creation as science proper understands it. So in this respect Natural Selection is in trouble from the start. Many, perhaps all, evolutionary biologists are aware of this, but only a few choose to speak out on the topic.
- Finally, almost half the book is devoted to the issue of the origin of life. The issue here is how one gets from mere molecules to a living cell, which is a complex piece of molecular machinery that contains among other things the DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) molecule that encodes the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms. The DNA molecule is itself a complex structure, and contains an enormous amount of information—information that allows cells to multiply and living beings to reproduce. Wherever else we come across information, we infer that it is the work of an intelligent being. The likelihood of a living cell being produced by chance is nil. Lennox points out forcibly that atheists like Richard Dawkins have no plausible argument for the origin of life. A standard atheist argument is that the Christian God is a ‘God of the gaps’, i.e. when we don’t know something, we say, ‘Well, God did it.’ Lennox argues strongly that to say that the information in a living cell points to an intelligent creator is not ‘God of the gaps’ reasoning. On the contrary, the science itself points to a creator, because information is the product of an intelligent being.
Would I give this book to a young person about to enter higher education? Probably not. The book is very well written—it is middlebrow, not highbrow. It doesn’t require one to know the science or the maths on which the arguments are based, as Lennox explains them well. But I think it would be a hard read for someone who hadn’t spent time thinking about the issues Lennox discusses and who had never encountered the mathematics of chance. But I still found it a brilliant book.