Forums
Featuring guests Bethany Sollereder and Nick Spencer

Diving Deep Into Science and Religion | Live from the UK

Nick Spencer and Bethany Sollereder help us to move into the deep end of the science and religion conversation.

Twitter
Facebook
LinkedIn
Print
5 Comments
Clouds abstract

Nick Spencer and Bethany Sollereder help us to move into the deep end of the science and religion conversation.

Share  
Twitter
Facebook
LinkedIn
Print
5 Comments

Description

A podcast that shows the harmony between Christian faith and current scientific discoveries by sharing the stories of interesting people who have found a better way of understanding science and Christian faith.
  • Originally aired on September 22, 2022
  • With 
    Jim Stump

In The Episode

For the past three years, the Faraday Institute and Theos have undergone a large-scale research project to find out how people in the UK understand and think about science and religion. They found that the conversation is much deeper and much more interesting than is often portrayed. Nick Spencer, one of the co-authors of the report and Bethany Sollereder, a theologian and one of the interviewees from the report discuss the findings and how to move into the deep end of the science and religion conversation.


Transcript

Hoogerwerf:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Colin Hoogerwerf, standing in for Jim Stump this fall while he’s on Sabbatical. 

Today’s episode is from a conversation held in front of a live audience in Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Jim Stump was joined by Bethany Sollereder and Nick Spencer. Bethany is a theologian, now located in Edinburgh. She‘s been a longtime friend of BioLogos. She was a speaker at our national conference in Baltimore back in 2019, and has been on the podcast several times discussing her books, which I highly recommend. Nick Spencer is a new friend of BioLogos. He’s Senior Fellow at Theos, a think tank in London that conducts research on religion in society. He’s the host of the podcast Reading Our Times and co-author of the recent report, science and religion moving away from the shallow end. 

That report is what brought us together for the conversation. The report is a collaboration between the Faraday Institute and Theos and is based on 3-years of research into how people in the UK understand and think about science and religion. But you’ll hear more about all that and about what they found in the episode, so without further ado, let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview

Stump:

Well, we’ll talk about the report in just a moment, but first, we think it’s important to get to know you a bit as people. So Nick, let’s start with you. Where did you grow up?

Spencer:

I’m an Essex boy, which might mean something to my fellow countrymen, but probably not to you.

Stump:

Not that much. 

Spencer:

It’s class. [laughter]

Stump:

Essex. All right. So as a wee lad growing up in Essex, when all of your friends were talking about wanting to become barristers or footballers, and you were saying, “when I grow up, I want to be a senior fellow at a think tank?”

Spencer:

Yeah, hadn’t many friends.

Stump:

How did that happen? Give us a few stops along the way by which you came to where you are.

Spencer: 

I really liked writing. From when I was wee I liked to write, but I had no religious faith at all. It was a completely non-churched family background, not hostile but just not interested. I went off to university, my parents kind of steeled themselves for me to come back having had a messy experience with drink or women or drugs and I came back and Anglican. [laugher]

Stump:

Messy in its own way. Well, very interesting. And from there, how did you get involved with this think tank, Theos. Do you call it Theos or Theos?

Spencer:

Well, Theos, we call it but those whose Greek is better than mine often call it Theos. When I worked in research—marketing and social research—after I left University, which was an extremely educative experience, but bluntly didn’t really get me out of bed at the beginning of the day, and about five or six years into that I had the opportunity to use the skills I’d accrued as a qualitative and quantitative researcher working for a couple of small Christian think tanks, and then five years later, I went to work for Theos when we started up in 2006, interestingly, the same time as Faraday did, roughly the same time as you guys. There was something happening around that time, I guess.

Stump:

Well, very good. Bethany, we’ve heard some of your story on previous podcasts. But for the sake of those listening for the first time, now give us at least a couple of highlights of your journey to becoming a theologian who’s interested in the sciences.

Sollereder:

Yeah, so I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Way up in the north of Canada, where winter is almost never ending. And I came to love Jesus because I loved horses. And so I went to summer camps that tended to be run by evangelical Christians. And they taught me to ride and they taught me to love Jesus and the Bible. And that’s when I started sort of going to church and pursuing that side of things. And I was just one of those people who had questions that needed answering. And so I just kept going to school until at some magical point, they started paying me to go to school. And I’ve just flipped to the other side now. So it’s been great. I hope to continue on getting to ask interesting questions and trying to seek maybe not answers—that’s a bit ambitious—but at least approaches.

Stump:

And you’ve been living here in the UK for— 

Sollereder:

11 years. Yeah, just got indefinite leave to remain so it can happen. 

Stump:

Wow, alright. So BioLogos works primarily in the American context. And we hear quite often that the science and Religion conversation is quite different here in the UK. So I was very interested when I saw the report that came out about moving away from the shallow end. Nick, tell us a little bit more about Theos and particularly how you teamed up with Faraday to create this report.

Spencer:

Well, Theos effectively exists to tell a better story about Christianity specifically, faith more generally, in public life better in a sense, more accurate. Research is at the heart of what we do, but also hopefully in the sense of more cogent, more coherent, more winsome. We were launched a month after The God Delusion was published by some quirk of divine humor really. And that was an example of the choppy waters into which we were launched. But waters in which the topic of science and religion was absolutely forefront. And three years later, there was the big Darwin anniversary, and we partnered with Faraday on effectively arguing that you can be a theist and a religious believer. And it was great, and it was very rewarding experience. My interests are kind of slightly broad in science and religion and I’m a political theologian. But I kept coming back to this question, and I’m very interested in history of ideas. And about, would have been 5 or 6 years ago now, I read Peter Harrison’s book The Territories of Religion. And he makes a very good point, that it is nonsensical to say that science and religion have always been opposed to one another when they didn’t exist in the format’s that we recognize them until really the late 19th century. He begins with an analogy about if you heard about a war between Israel and Egypt in 1600, you’d be slightly dubious about this because neither Israel nor Egypt as a national entity existed in 1600. And that’s pretty much the same logic of saying there’s an argument in science and religion in 1600. Now, Peter’s book ends at the end of the 19th century. But it was my conviction that even though in theory, these categories are relatively settled in academic life, by the end of the 19th century, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t enormous confusions and disagreements about what science is and what religion is. So if we’re going to hold an opinion on how they get on with one another, it’s helpful to know what actually are. And so this project was effectively an attempt, a very long, a very expensive attempt to define two words: what is science? What is religion? And in the light of that, how do they get on with one another?

Stump:

So give us also a bit of the methodology by which you developed the report, or at least the report was based on, the findings.

Spencer:

So a qualitative element and a quantitative element. The qualitative involved us interviewing just over 100 leading experts who worked in science or religion or philosophy or theology, the majority of whom were non believers, were, in theory at least, though they emerged not quite this way, to be hostile. We were interested in understanding in a sense where people saw the tension. So a majority of the time it’s better to interview experts who genuinely see that there is some tension there. On top of that, there was a very large quantitative survey that we commissioned from YouGov. 5000 UK adults, which we asked a tranche of questions that were developed on the back of the qualitative elements.

Stump:

Okay. And then give us just briefly sort of the overview of your findings. The executive summary of the report. 

Spencer:

It reminds me of that Monty Python skit where you have to summarize Proust in 15 seconds. Effectively, we have a Pavlovian reaction to science and religion. So that phrase elicits a certain response, and it’s one of hostility. So in the UK, roughly speaking, twice as many people see science and religion as incompatible as view them as compatible. If you start probing and burrowing under what they mean by science, and what they mean by religion, that hostility begins to fragment and then fall apart. If you ask people to compare the compatibility of science and a specific religion, like Christianity, or Islam, the hostility is less there. If you ask them to compare religion, and a specific scientific discipline like chemistry, or neuroscience, or cosmology, the hostility almost completely evaporated, it’s much more even so as you can imagine, if you’re comparing a specific religion with a specific scientific discipline, there are still perceived tensions there amongst the general population, and indeed, amongst our expert interviewees, but effectively, the more you as it will get into the subject, the more you realize that this initial reaction we have that somehow these two are in conflict, and they’re at war just begins to fall apart.

Stump:

That’s very interesting. We’ll perhaps dig into that a little bit more, but turn to Bethany here, who in full disclosure, we should say was one of your 100 expert interviewees. So did she cause any particular problems or skew the data in any way that we should worry about here?

Sollereder:

I wasn’t hostile. I was problematic.

Stump:

But Bethany, you’ve had a chance to look at the report. Having lived here in this context for a while, but knowing something of the context back in North America, anything in particular jump out at you or surprise you in this report?

Sollereder:

Yeah, there were a couple of things that I found surprising. So one was that the perception of hostility between science and religion was both race based and gendered. And so it found that 68% of white respondents were on balanced I think, thought that they were, science and religion were incompatible, versus 48% of those from non-ethnic groups. And it was men were also more likely to voice an opinion that they were hostile to each other than women. And this isn’t to say that white men are particularly thick or intransigent. Wha it tells me is that there’s something in the cultural air in Europe and in North America, that people as you said, it’s a Pavlovian response in the water, people just think these two are in conflict. Whereas if you went to say, India, where 98% of practicing scientists see absolutely no opposition and high compatibility, and you know, Elaine Howard Ecklund’s work, you know, they’re not necessarily better informed on the issues. It’s just that’s the default position. And so I think, certainly in the UK, my experience has been, and this is anecdotal, is it’s less hostile than in parts of the States or Canada. But that still is the basic reaction is, how can those fit together?

Stump:

You mentioned several times throughout the report some comparisons between the UK and the US in that regard? Do you have any explanations for that? Beyond just the surface level of, you know, we Americans get hung up about different kinds of things. But, why is that? What’s the— 

Sollereder:

I mean, if I’m talking from a North American perspective, I think it really does go back to a very different sense of history. And so, you know, in the States, Darwinism is coming over at the same time as higher criticism or where people are saying, you know, we don’t think that parts of the New Testament are historical in the way that they were. And those just kind of got lodged in the North American brain together in a way that they were separated here. So just before we started, Dennis Alexander was talking about how Anglican priests in Cambridge were setting exams, asking students to favorably discuss Darwin’s theories immediately after the publication of the origin of species. So there’s a cultural sense here that those are not in as much opposition. Whereas I think in the States, you have somebody like Charles Hodge, the principal of Princeton, writing a book saying Darwinism is atheism at around the same time. And so I think you just have different historical roots.

Spencer:

That’s absolutely right. I would add something to that. The interesting thing about Darwinism has acted as a lightning rod for metaphysical speculation from the earliest days, in fact, from before the earliest days really from the 18th century when it was transmutationism. The idea, particularly as it emerges into a culture of natural theology, it’s not a scientific theory alone. It has metaphysical implications. In the US, it is infested with social baggage as well, much more so than over here. So I’ve just written a book on the history of science and religion. I have a chapter on Scopes Trial there. The first time I went to read the transcripts, and I read Hunter’s civic biology, the Book about which the Scopes Trial existed, it would never get published today, absolutely no way. Because alongside interlaced with reasonably sound science, or social judgments about effectively eugenics. And you didn’t, it was an issue over here, but it was a bigger issue in the states. And evolution got wrapped up with social Darwinism and eugenics movement in a way that invested it with really profound and sometimes very ugly, social baggage. And that in various different ways has shaped the dialogue in the US compared to the UK.

Stump:

Interesting. So in the report, then you note that quite often there are these superficial kinds of questions, perhaps creation and evolution, I say superficial, but the shallow end questions that generate a lot of heat. And through the interviews with the experts like Bethany, you see that out of these conversations emerge the real issues that are behind the conflict. Can you give us some taste at least of what the real issues are that cause problems between science and religion?

Spencer:

Yes, happily. And in fact, they don’t so much emerge from those conversations, they go before. And that’s the critical thing, to the extent that the position you hold on science and evolution, visa vie cosmology, for example, or evolution is almost always already decided by your existing position on epistemology, or metaphysics or whatever else. I’ll give an example of that. If you are of the view that there is only one way of obtaining reliable knowledge about the world, which is observation, experiment, repetition, so on and so forth, broadly speaking the scientific method, you will instinctively discount other approaches to knowledge that don’t have that, say, possibility of robustness or repetition to them. If you approach—I’ll give another example, that was one of the examples, epistemology, ethics is another one. My thinking here was informed by the work of John Evans, who’s a sociologist at San Diego. One of the points he makes about looking at the science and religion debate in the US, is a book called Morals Not Knowledge. In other words, people approach this issue through an ethical lens, rather then through an epistemological lens. And so often, actually, people have their understanding of religion shaped by commentary on the news about religious views of say, IVF, or abortion, or anti-vax, whatever. And so they approach their understanding of what religion is through that ethical lens. And that then shapes their idea of how science and religion interact, not least because if the next news report they hear is of scientists achieving X, they implicitly absorb the idea that science does stuff, and religion questions whether stuff should be done and usually says no. And that then frames their whole understanding of the debate.

Stump:

Interesting. So you give six areas that these deeper concerns or values even come out of. One of the interesting things I saw in the report is that your report was not just purely descriptive. So I’m quoting you here now, that “there are six areas of concern in the science and religion debate and we argue that we need to move away from the shallow end towards the deep end, where the debate is messier, but more honest.” So that’s a prescriptive claim. We ought to do this. And as I’ve been thinking about this a little bit, it seems to me that the science and religion debate is a very abstract and generalized concept. So I wonder if you might give a little more definition to this. And Bethany, I’d like to get you to weigh in on this as well. Should everyone who talks about science and religion move immediately to the deep end? Or is there some sense in which the shallow end conversations might be entrees for certain people to get in, or people that maybe just aren’t that interested in these other conversations? So I’m trying to get at what you in the report are trying to prescribe to the rest of us, and then maybe a little more general thoughts and comments on the breadth of this conversation, and it’s all of its nuances and what we should be thinking about that

Spencer:

There are perils to metaphors aren’t there? And of course, that particular metaphor brings up the image of me moving out to the deep end and hurling non-swimmers in and saying “it’s fun in there, why are you complaining?” Of course, you know, people find their own depths to pursue this metaphor even further. The argument is effectively that, look, I don’t actually mind, we say this early on, I don’t mind if people come to the opinion that science and religion are not completely incompatible. If you do have that view, fine. But do so on the basis that you are clear what you’re talking about when you’re talking about religion, and what you’re talking about science. Are you adopting a methodological approach to science? Are you adopting a functional or substantive approach to religion, so on and so forth. If you’re going to voice an opinion on this issue, I think it’s incumbent to have some idea of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and that just slowly moves you towards the deep end.

Sollereder:

Yeah, I think one of the frustrating things is it’s often people who know one side or the other, but don’t know a bit of both that tend to be the loudest voices. And so I think it would be good for people to spend some time studying the disciplines they’re not familiar with, in terms of entering public debate. But I think that, I of course, I’m going to be delighted if everybody moves further into the deeper end, if only because I think that’s where the pressing questions for our culture now lie. They’re not in,did God make the Big Bang. They’re in, what do we do about climate change there? What do we do about human genetic editing there– You know, and these are pressing questions that will literally shape the future of humanity and the planet. And so if we’re still busy arguing over, you know, some of the debates that are just less relevant to our culture, I think that’s a lost opportunity.

Stump:

Good. Okay, so let’s have a bit of that deeper conversation, perhaps. So far we’ve just been talking about the conversation. I wouldn’t even characterize it as a shallow end conversation. But let’s dive right into the deep end. And I hope we have our life preservers here with us. One of the issues, one of the six issues you identify in the report is anthropology. So what do we think of ourselves, of human beings? I’m particularly drawn to this. It’s one of my active areas of research and this question, what does it mean to be human? I take it that the shallow end conversation, there is more on the evolution and creation side. So let’s just stipulate for our conversation, God has indeed created human beings. And let’s stipulate that evolution is the best scientific description of how we came to be on this planet. So then we’re interested in the kinds of questions that arise once we’ve stipulated this. And I thought it might be fun to start by asking you one of the questions from the survey that you gave to—what did you call it, the UK Gov? 

Spencer:

The YouGov survey. 

Stump:

YouGov survey. So 5000 people were asked this. And so Bethany, I am now asking you. One of the questions in this category was are human beings at heart spiritual beings?

Sollereder:

Well, I would immediately turn to Nick and ask— 

Stump:  

Yes or No, yes or no [laughs]

Sollereder:

What do you mean by spiritual?

Stump:

And at heart?

Sollereder:

And at heart? Yeah, I think, if I can define it, I would say yes, in the sense that I think humans tend to look for meaning in things beyond simply can I can I survive? Can I, you know, eat? Can I, you know, we get those things, instead of sort of kicking back, we say, okay, there’s all these deeper layers to life that I’m still not satisfied with, I need to keep looking, I still need something more. And I think I could see that as being spiritual at heart. We’re looking for something beyond.

Stump:

Nick, are you allowed to tell us what’s behind that question? And in my mind, when I heard it, I thought it was trying to get at the substance dualism issue, are human beings essentially this immaterial substance, call it a soul, that is the true self. And the rest of this is another substance that’s along for the ride for a while. That’s not the way Bethany took the question.

Spencer:

I wince whenever I read quantitative questions, not least the ones that I’ve designed, because they are always inadequate, and you go through many, many iterations, because you can explore this in greater detail and interview, you’ve basically got to keep a quantitative respondents attention very rapidly. The actual reason for that, and this is a slight segue, that the survey was conducted around the same time as the 2021 UK census, which for the third decade in a row has a religion question on it. And it will show—the data aren’t out yet—but it will show that roughly speaking 50% In the UK, people, adults say “no religion”. That is often confused with being an atheist. And in actual fact, we’ve got a report coming out in a month’s time, a remarkable number of people are ticking the “no religion” box because social marketing, they don’t want to associate with any particular religion, and yet, at the same time, believe certain things about themselves or about the world without destiny or fate, whatever else, which historically are religious. So that was actually one of the reasons for asking that. But you’re right, it does then move into this whole area of what does it mean to be spiritual? And in the qualitative interviews, we were allowed to be able to unpack that question as, well does spiritual mean substance duelist? I don’t think so at all. But of course, that is how a lot of people will read it. And that was part of the discussion that we could have in the qual.

Stump: 

So given all those qualifications you just gave, Nick Spencer are human beings at heart spiritual beings? 

Spencer:

Yes.

Sollereder:

But are you a substance? duelist? 

Spencer:

No. 

Sollereder:

Right.

Stump:

Let me get in and see if we can stimulate some conversation between the three of us here in this topic of anthropology another way which I like to ask whether you take human beings to differ from other animals in kind or merely differ as a matter of degree and here too, we may have to unpack a little bit of what’s writing on a question like that, but as a as a starter, do we differ in kind or do we only differ in degree from other animal species?

Sollereder:

Both. So I mean, I think that there are certain parts where we differ in kind, in the sense of, I think we are the only species that self consciously does things like pray and have, you know, attempt to relationship with God. Whether other species do that or not, we don’t know. And I would think they probably have some sort of relationship with God, and that God has a relationship with them. But they probably don’t pursue that self consciously. But I think in lots of other ways, we would say there’s a difference of degree when we’re looking at intelligence, creativity, humor, you know, things that traditionally people have sort of said, ah this is what makes us special. We’re finding more and more in animal studies that actually, no, we’re not, we’re not unique in those ways. And then in a third way, we could say, well, of course we’re unique amongst animals, but so are cockroaches, you know, every creature is, is unique. 

Stump:

That’s what it means to be a species, right? 

Sollereder:

That’s what it means to be a species. So that would be a very trivial way to answer but would also be true according to some lines. 

Stump:

What do you think, Nick?

Spencer:

It’s a great question, I would actually agree with Bethany there. I think the difference between degree and kind is overplayed there, particularly if you believe in the emergence of different phenomena. And so my simple answer is yes, we are different. I think self-evidently I think that’s the case. But I think that we are different by, as it were, so many degrees, that it becomes a kind.

Stump:

Yeah, that’s the question, I think.

Spencer:

If I can put it that way. Neanderthals played quite, kind of walk-on role in a lot of the interviews. Very, very interesting. People—quite a few anthropologists actually—talking about, you know, slightly more tongue in cheek, would the Neanderthals get to heaven? Would the neanderthals have any sense of eternity? And we have some experts talking about, well, you know, there’s no signs of religiosity among the animals, but they’re certainly signs of symbolic understanding, and possibly signs of some awareness of the existence that the interviewee in question called it after-person, rather than afterlife. They’re not religious as we would recognize it. But then the question is, were we wiped off the face of the earth 60,000 years ago, before we had a chance to wipe Neanderthals off the face of the earth, might they have attained some conception of religiosity which is comparable to our own? And I’m open to that phenomenon.

Stump:

So that leads me to another way of getting at some of the issues here in anthropology, which is some of the terms we use sometimes. So we’ve been saying humans. What about the relationship between humans and Homo sapiens? I think most of the scientific literature now today extends human back to everything under the Homo genus, right. Were Neanderthals human? Another term we might use is personhood. And when we talk about personhood that might be divorced from our biology entirely. And we could at least ask whether artificial intelligence might attain personhood, or whether aliens from other planets might attain personhood. And then anytime we’re asking questions like this, from the theological perspective, I want to say so what does it mean to bear the image of God? Did Neanderthals bear the image of God? Could an artificial intelligence bear the image? What are the issues under those kinds of questions that you think are important to bubble up from these from the depths in our deep conversation to the surface.

Spencer:

So many interesting questions there. Obviously, what you’re saying is, therefore, what is our definition of the human? If we’re going to call something human, what does it mean to be human? I think it’s obviously a difficult question to answer. Clearly, I think we are really heading along the wrong tracks and we associate humanity with rationality or intelligence. This is a repeated motif in the AI debate. And I think it’s a red herring really. And often, you know, it’s highly intelligent people who are saying that the real critical mark of humanity is a high level of intelligence. That’s not a line of argument that should go unquestioned, I’ve got to be honest with you. And as we, as many people have observed, that creates lots of problems when you have people who are cognitively impaired, for example. I think this is where theology can help. I think, you know, the idea of humanities has got some theological roots to it. And I also think that certainly Christian theology roots humanity and relationality being as communion to quote to orthodox theologian, John Zizioulas. And that our personhood resides in our capacity for normative capacity for relationship, and we can unpack what that actually means. But to my mind, that doesn’t close down the possibility of personhood for Neandertals, AI, aliens. I’m not saying it totally opens the door, but I certainly wouldn’t want to prematurely close it down. Because if we came across other species, perhaps, other alien life forms that exhibited the kind of relational qualities that I at least would associate with personhood, I’d be open to them.

Sollereder:

I think that a lot of these questions, one of the questions lying behind it is the ethics question, what do we need this demarcation for? You know, so if we’re asking what is a person versus what is an animal, a relevant question might be, can we kill it and eat it? You know, or how do we treat it under the law? Right? So throughout human history, many humans were not considered proper humans under the law. You know, and even now that that debate continues to rage in questions like abortion. Is this a person? Is this not a person? There’s no question about it being homosapien, but is it a person and then we can get into legal definitions of a person is incorporations, you know, so I think I think often, one of the ways to try and unpack that is asked, what is the question behind for which we need the demarcation?

Stump:

So let’s keep that going a little bit, because I suspect many of these questions are not just, you know, purely speculative, that in the coming decades, we are going to have to decide more specifically, if an artificial intelligence has consciousness, and therefore personhood, and therefore rights. How are we going to make that decision?

Sollereder:

That’s really tricky. So there, I don’t know if you saw this story. There was a Google engineer who was just let go, claiming that their AI was self conscious, you know, and he sort of released, against all the rules, a set of conversations he had with this AI. And some of it is really quite interesting. You read this, you think, Oh, wow, that’s a good answer that the computer came up with about what it means to be a self and about being lonely and, you know, all these different things about fears and joys. And, you know, and so you’re thinking, you know, ever since computers passed the Turing test, the average person cannot tell if they’re talking to a computer, or to another person. Yeah, our methodologies are trying, are struggling to keep up with the technology.

Spencer:

That was a fascinating instance, Blake Lemoine who then wrote a piece explaining why he thought that Lambda was sentient. I’ve read the transcript. And I’ve got to be honest, I’m not persuaded at all. And it doesn’t strike me as a very convincing example of sentience and intelligence. But Lemoine calls himself a Christian priest. I’ve never quite got to the bottom of which denomination. I think he’s probably on the heterodox end spectrum, shall we say? But his argument is that, how did I come to this conclusion that Lambda was sentient? Well, I respect science. I’m a scientist by training. But I believe there are other ways of knowing—this goes back to our epistemology question. And how did I know, how did I seek to know that Lambda was sentient? I spoke to it. I think this is a fascinating epistemological difference. Some things you get to know by withholding yourself. That’s the premise of the experiment. You don’t bring your own subjective views into the experiment. You take yourself away from it and try and judge it objectively. But when you get to know persons, or when you seek to get to know persons, there’s an element of self gift there, of subjectivity, of introducing myself into the encounter. Now, I think that is A, possibly not the entire, but a path towards answering your question, how would we know? I think partly not experimenting on these things, but engaging with them.

Stump:

Is there any way of applying this to them the question about say Neanderthals, of whether they had this elusive property of personhood or whether they were image bearers of the Divine as well? Is there any way of answering that aside from speculation?

Sollereder: 

I mean, here’s maybe where I get in trouble and cause problems. I don’t think personhood is an objective category. I think it’s a social construct that we make. And I think something like being made in the image of God is, I could say, sort of a social construct or a calling that God makes. So I don’t think that, you know, if there are any definitive lines, I don’t think we would ever know them. But it would be up to God’s will. So I mean, I follow someone like Joshua Moritz, who sees being made in the image of God, similar to the election of Israel. What happens over and over again in the Hebrew Bible is that God says, Okay, I chose you from among the nations, but not because you’re special, not because you’re big, not because you’re powerful, but because I chose it. And so I think if humans are chosen amongst the animals to bear God’s image in a particular way, it’s much more along those lines, then sort of, we could say, oh, Neanderthals, they had this level of intelligence, and therefore, you know, or they had this level of spiritual longing. Because, again, that’s an argument made of chimpanzees, who, you know, dance in thunderstorms and in waterfalls. 

Stump:

I’m very attracted to that view that it’s a calling more than a set of objective categories, as you were saying earlier, Nick. And I wonder, though, if there are some capacities that are necessary, as a species, in order to do this, or could God have called cucumbers to be God’s image bearers to us on Earth? And we would have been walking around and maybe not eating them. But is there some, I mean, do we need to have language, do we need to have moral responsibility? Do we have to have the capacity to be moral? And I know there’s a very difficult question with regard to specific individuals of our species, which makes me wonder even more, if that calling is a calling to us as a whole, rather than to each person individually, and that all of us are needed to bear that image in that way.

Sollereder:

So in Bethany Sollereder’s theological system, I’m not representing anybody else’s view, but my own, that that capacity is for some of the members of the species to be able to develop the capacity to love. And so I don’t think love is something we find in nature, I think you see altruism, affection, attachment, you know, various things like that. Whereas I think love is a particular fermentation of the human soul. And its desires and natural capacities mix with the work of God. So I sort of say, you know, love is like beer, it doesn’t appear in nature, but it can be created through these forms of sort of human culture. 

Stump:

And it makes nature a better place. 

Sollereder:

And it makes nature a better place. And so I think that’s how I see love. You know, it’s not a natural, intrinsic thing. But it’s something God works out in humans, with humans, to make something that is supernatural. And that that is what makes us.

Stump:

Supernatural. But I wonder if we might also at least see hints and precursors of it in other species, that there is a natural history to how we develop that capacity. Are you okay with that?

Sollereder:

Beer needs ingredients. You know, and so I think love uses evolutionary desires as the basic ingredients. So I think, you know, I don’t think love is altruism plus. Love is a crazy mixture of our likes and dislikes, of our altruism and our hate, and all those desires being transfigured into something else. So I do think it’s deeply attached to those natural capacities and desires, but it itself is something else.

Stump:

Nick, any final thoughts on this? 

Spencer:

I actually, I think that’s exactly right. You have the extreme—

Stump:

I was hoping to get you arguing.

Spencer:

I know, this is worrying isn’t it. I think it’s right in that the pure capabilities approach is surely wrong, because that says, well, we, you know, human personhood is what we can do. And therefore we’re presenting ourselves as inevitably, therefore going to be persons according to what we’re capable of doing. But the other extreme, I think the calling is right, but the other extreme, as you rightly say, but could God call anything? Could God call the stones? Possibly. But it seems to me that there is a match there that effectively we’re going to commission the gardener species, which is where we are, who we are, you need to be clear that they can be capable of gardening. And just an aside, going back to your initial question with Neandertals, I think there is much more, I think we should watch this space. One of the comments I got from the interviewees is it’s fascinating now, when we first identified the animals, they were alien, they were other, they were knuckle dragging monsters. The more we realize that they were similar to us, and in fact that we probably share around 2% of our DNA with them, all of a sudden we baptize them with our glorious humanity. And actually, they’re much more intelligent and more sophisticated. I think that is a journey we’re going to go on, and I suspect we will find more and more convincing examples of their sophistication in the archaeological record.

Stump:

Well, I have to say I’m rather enjoying this conversation and it feels like we’re just getting started in the deep end here, plumbing some of the depths, but we are about out of time for this portion of the event, perhaps we could close with each of you giving a, I don’t know, a concluding statement of some sort, perhaps some advice for next steps people might take and having these convert kinds of conversations or even just what your next step is in contributing to a deeper science and religion conversation, what you’re working on?

Spencer:

Well, I guess I would say we were talking just before the show about the illustrations in the report and how beautiful they were, and their stills from an animation film that my colleague and Emily Down is putting together which is going to be released in a month or so’s time, probably primarily for an educational audience. The script of the film is just chock full of questions. They’re great questions. Again, I’m not particularly concerned at the end of the day where people come out on them. But they’re the kind of questions that are worth debating about. They’re the kind of questions that are indicative of our humanity. And they’re science and religion questions, I should say, rather obviously. And it’s a tragedy, that for so much of the last 20 years or so, lots of the public rhetoric has been around science and religion effectively competing explanations for the way they were, and this is a battle. And it just, apart from the fact it’s not a very convincing argument, it just drains, from some fascinating conversations, the life. And so my suggestion would be actually, watch Emily’s movie, and then go to the pub, have some beer, and discuss them. 

Stump:

Good. Bethany?

Sollereder: 

I don’t have any good advice. So I think I’m gonna stick to the what I’m working on next, which is basically what do we do if we cannot stop climate change? Because I think we’re increasingly heading down that road that’s becoming an inevitability. And we, I think, are still in denial about how serious the consequences will be, and that they could be better if we started acting now. And not simply with the idea that we can reverse the changes or control the planet. But think about how can we roll with these changes? So I’m trying to think about that.

Stump:

Do you have any preliminary thoughts you can share with us on what we should do if we can’t stop

Sollereder:

Welcome migrants. We’re gonna see a whole lot more migrants than we’re seeing now and I think that country’s attitudes towards welcoming or refusing to welcome them will shape geopolitical history in the next few decades. I think we’ll look back on Syria and Ukraine as the good old days. And I think we need to be ready for that. And I think the other thing would be to try and really get a sense of letting go of thinking we can control everything. So I think there are interesting parallels between, we try and control climate, we also try and control end of life issues. So we want to extend, extend, extend. The moment we can’t extend, we want to then have control over how it ends. And I think that there’s a similar sort of thing going on with climate change where instead of sort of saying, we’re part of nature, we’ll move with it. Of course, we affect it in good ways and bad, but also reminding ourselves that we’re creatures, not the creators, and that a lack of control will always be part of our lives.

Stump:

Well, wouldn’t it be great if Christians had a leading voice in how this conversation goes over the next couple of decades? It’s a very important topic and one that we should talk about again sometime. But we are at the end of this time. So I asked the audience if you join me in thanking Bethany and Nick for this engaging conversation. [applause]

Credits

Hoogerwerf:

Thank you to Nick Spencer, Bethany Sollereder and everyone at Theos and the Faraday Institute for helping make this event and conversation happen. 

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the Fetzer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation, and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Nate Mulder is our assistant producer. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guests

Bethany Sollereder

Bethany Sollereder

Dr. Bethany Sollereder is a research coordinator at the University of Oxford. She specialises in theology concerning evolution and the problem of suffering. Bethany received her PhD in theology from the University of Exeter and an MCS in interdisciplinary studies from Regent College, Vancouver. When not reading theology books, Bethany enjoys hiking the English countryside, horseback riding, and reading Victorian literature.
Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently ‘The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable’ (Bloomsbury, 2017), ‘The Evolution of the West’ (SPCK, 2016) and ‘Atheists: The Origin of the Species’ (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times. Outside of Theos, Nick is Visiting Research Fellow at the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London and a Fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion.

5 posts about this topic

Join the conversation on the BioLogos forum

At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.

Join the Conversation