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As it was in the beginning

21 November 2014

THE landing of the Philae robot last week produced a story (in The Sunday Times) of a YouGov poll that asked people whether they thought life was created by God, or whether it began with organic matter blasted on to the earth by comets.

Nineteen per cent chose the comets and 15 per cent said God, which provoked the absurd headline, "Comet speeds past God in our creation theory". The story said nothing about the 66 per cent who apparently either could not make up their minds, or recognised the stupidity of the question. And it is a stupid question, because God is not a theory or an explanation for anything.

In the 1950s, the two rival theories for the origin of the universe were the Big Bang theory and the Steady State theory. At that point, the Steady State theory was the one favoured by those who today would have cheered at the YouGov poll.

These scientific atheists assumed that, if the universe had no beginning in time, it could not have a creator.

Once the Big Bang theory was accepted, however, the fallacy of their thinking became clear, and they began instead to contrast the Big Bang with creation by God.

This still, of course, showed that they had missed the point: God is neither proved nor unproved by any theory of how the universe, or life, came to be. The doctrine of creation is of creatio ex nihilo - creation out of nothing.

This is not a scientific claim. What it means is that the universe is entirely dependent on God's will. Steady State or Big Bang makes no difference.

In the same way, the mechanism of how the building-blocks of life reached earth tells us nothing about God's involvement in life's origins. At best, it reveals something of the subtlety of the workings of God's providence. God is not a demiurge crafting atoms and stars. The divine fiat is permissive: "Let there be. . ." God makes the universe make itself.

The mistake behind the YouGov poll reflects a lack of religious literacy in our culture. When congregational numbers are still falling - even in those dioceses which have worked hard to prioritise mission - we should be asking wider cultural questions about the plausibility of belief.

Christians who work both in science and in religious education need to fight back against bad science and religious ignorance. We do not have to choose between God and a random comet.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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