Sir David Attenborough – “Why I Don’t Mention God”
The natural historian Sir David Attenborough this week explained why he does not mention God in his award-winning TV programmes.
The revered presenter of such groundbreaking series as "The Living Planet" and producer of the classic "Life on Earth", told The Times: "I tend to think of an innocent little child sitting on the bank of a river in Africa, who's got a worm boring through his eye that can render him blind.
"Now, presumably you think this Lord created this worm, just as he created the hummingbird. I find that rather tricky."
Attenborough has, of course, touched on one of the great dilemmas facing people who believe in God -- and perhaps particularly Christians, who believe that God is love.
How can a wise, just and above all compassionate God allow a situation in which such injustice can occur?
There are no easy answers to this conundrum. However, it is worth noting that atheism offers us no explanation for the presence of evil in the world or any hope for the eventual redemption and restoration of the natural order - both of which Christianity does.
Neither does it present us with any hope of an eventual change in the troubled natural order; while Christianity teaches that Christ will return to reveal the full, physical manifestation of his Kingdom on earth, a process that will include a resetting of the natural order.
In that Kingdom, we are told, there will be no more suffering, crying, poverty or pain.
I respect Sir David. I particularly admire his passion for his subject, which he so effortlessly conveys to the audience in a very up-close-and-personal way through the often distancing lens of the TV camera.
We owe him a good deal for showing us the wonder of our natural environment -- and awakening us to the peril it faces from environmental catastrophe.
However, as I once respectfully pointed out to the then head of BBC Religion (TV), Sir David constantly presents a worldview which assumes that there is little place for Christian faith in the world of reliable science.
I don't believe that Attenborough was particularly attacking any organised faith in his comments to The Times. He seems to me to be a gentleman and one not inclined to demean the beliefs of others. Yet these comments and some of those made in his programmes clearly support a purely materialistic Darwinian view of the universe, which is in many important respects opposed to the Christian worldview.
The inference for the audience is that the natural world, when viewed with an informed eye, speaks against religious faith -- especially the Christian faith.
As I pointed out in my book "Five Big Ideas: Concepts That Shape Our Culture", (www.nextwaveonline.com) in the wake of scientists like Darwin many people have grown up thinking of science as the bastion of atheism and naturalism. They see it as a realm of thought that allows no space for belief in God.
In 1937, German physicist Max Planck declared: "Faith in miracles must yield ground, step by step, before the steady and firm advance of the forces of science, and its total defeat it is indubitably a mere matter of time."
Some people still believe that to be true, but they ignore the fact that there is a strong body of people within the scientific community whose study of the natural order have led them -- sometimes reluctantly -- toward a theistic view of life, if not a Christian one.
For a sizeable body of scientists today, the incredible complexity of our universe suggests the work of a creator of some kind.
They reject the idea, softly “preached” by people like Sir David, that the intricacy of nature and its finely tuned balances can be attributed simply to random chance.
Award-winning journalist and researcher Lee Strobel has spent years interviewing notable theists and Christians in various disciplines of science. In his book, “The Case for Faith”, he sums up this attitude well:
“Darwinism can offer no credible theory for how life could have emerged naturally from nonliving chemicals. Earth’s early atmosphere would have blocked the development of the building blocks of life, and assembling even the most primitive living matter would be so outrageously difficult that it absolutely could not have been the product of unguided or random processes. On the contrary, the vast amount of specific information contained inside every living cell – encoded in the four-letter chemical alphabet of DNA – strongly confirms the existence of an Intelligent Designer who was behind the miraculous creation of life.”
Indeed, Darwin himself was a theist when published the first edition of "The Origin of Species" was published. He later changed his mind, of course.
Yet it was not hard physical evidence from his much-touted fossil record that led Darwin away from religious faith; it was the personal pain of losing a much loved daughter and failing to find any comfort in institutional religion.
We may feel for his loss and even understand how institutional religion can let people down in times of crisis. A lively, personal faith, however, can bring enormous encouragement; partly because it places suffering in the context of eventual restoration and eternal life.
The point is that Darwin’s rejection of faith was down to subjective factors, rather than pure science. Like the rest of us, scientists base their views not just on the facts before them, but on the assumptions they make about the facts; assumptions which will be coloured to some degree by emotion and personal bias.
In more recent times, a number of leading scientists who’ve at first been cynical about the idea of design have had to admit that new developments may suggest the existence of God. The British astronomer Sir Frederick Hoyle, who devised the steady state theory of the universe to avoid the existence of God, eventually became a believer in a designer of the universe.
Hoyle wrote a book entitled “The Intelligent Universe”, in which he said that the idea that life originated through some random arrangement of molecules is, “as ridiculous and improbable as the proposition that a tornado blowing through a junkyard may assemble a Boeing 747.”
One of the world’s greatest cosmologists, Hoyle started out as an atheist, but became a Christian.
Albert Einstein, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1921, and by no means a Christian, wrote: “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we … must feel humble.”
Einstein believed, he said, in a “God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists.”
A growing number of modern scientists are coming to share this belief. In fact, in just about every major discipline of science, there is solid support for a theistic view of the origins of the universe.
Take astronomy, for example. For much of the last 100 years, science has spoken about the earth as if it is probably just one of many planets that are capable of supporting life. However, many astronomers and geologists now believe that our planet is quite unique in our galaxy, and possibly the entire universe.
At the same time, biologists are learning more about what they call "irreducibly complex organisms", microscopic organisms in which the working of each part relies on the fully developed working of every other part. You can’t break these organisms down into their constituent parts, because they need all of their parts to exist at all.
These organisms could not have come about as the result of a gradual evolutionary process. They can only have existed in their present form or not at all. Their existence points to the mind of a creator.
Meanwhile, genetic scientists have now mapped the three billion codes of the human genome – a huge project, the results of which filled the equivalent of 75,490 pages of The New York Times.
Catholic writer George Sim Johnson notes that: “Human DNA contains more organized information than the Encyclopaedia Britannica. If the full text of the encyclopaedia were to arrive in computer code from outer space, most people would regard this as proof of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. But when seen in nature, it is explained as the workings of random forces.”
Many of science’s most revered pioneers went further than adopting a general theistic view. They specifically believed in the God of the Bible. They took the Christian Scriptures seriously.
Among them were such notables as Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Newton, Linnaeus, Faraday, Kelvin, Lister, Mendel and many others. And there is a strong Christian presence within the scientific community today: more than a few scientists have come to faith because of their study of the natural order.
Indeed, one can argue that modern Western science was born out of a Judeao-Christian worldview, three centuries before the rise of Darwinism.
As C. S. Lewis observed, people only became scientific because they expected law in nature, and they expected law because they believed in a lawmaker.
Getting back to Sir David's comments: I do not for a moment believe that television, or any publicly funded medium, should become a pulpit for preaching. He is, of course, entitled to his views. Yet there appears to be very little attempt on the part of mainstream broadcasters to offer any conterveiling viewpoint.
There should be a place where supposedly "mainstream" scientific ideas (which are not always as mainstream, or as up-to-date as they make out) can be challenged and opposing viewpoints given a fair hearing.
Sir David is being given £800,000 to make each episode of a new series entitled "Life in Cold Blood". No doubt, for their portrayal of life in the wild they will be brilliant, even exhilarating; filmed in exotic locations, they will be shot and edited using the very latest production equipment and a production team featuring some very committed and creative people.
Meanwhile, theistic and Christian voices are only ever heard in more sterile, studio-based, debate-style situations that are made on a shoestring budget. Not surprisingly, given their budgets and promotion, they’re watched by relatively few.
Keywords: Sir David Attenborough | BBC | Planet Earth | Life on Earth | Mal Fletcher | atheism | Christian worldview | Christianity | compassionate God | five big ideas | Max Planck | Federick Hoyle | C.S. Lewis | Lee Strobel | Kepler | Pascal | Einstein
Want to keep in touch with what Next Wave is doing each month? Enter your email address below.
Since discovering the Edges documentaries and the way Christian faith relates to hot topics, my faith has grown. Don't stop doing what you do - you do it well!
I was much blessed to hear Mal in the Portuguese Conference in January. My expectations for life were lifted up! Thank you for the good work you've done in our Church!
I truly appreciate Mal's words of encouragement. I'm looking forward to his return to Speak the Word Church, USA, this May. He left quite an impression on his last visit. Keep up the good work.
John, United States
Send us your feedback