CONGREGATIONS are generally dwindling; indeed, Christian belief in the UK and most other “modernised” societies is in steep decline. Is this reversible? Sociologists such as Steve Bruce conclude that the answer is “No!” (Books, 8 January). All but the most optimistic would have to agree with that conclusion for the immediate future. But what about the medium term — maybe the next three to four generations?
In his book What Makes Churches Grow? (Church House Publishing, 2015) (Books, 11 December 2015), Bob Jackson writes: “The first question people have about the Christian faith is rarely ‘Is it true?’ (‘Did the resurrection actually happen?’). It is more likely to be ‘Does it work?’ (‘Does it transform people’s lives?’)” This may be the case for those who are already searching for spiritual meaning in their lives, but what about the large proportion of the population who do not think or care about matters spiritual? Are they not most likely to assume that there is no truth in Christianity or any form of spirituality — that they are not “real”?
Why is this? Well, undoubtedly, there is a complex array of inter-related factors (as detailed in the “secularisation paradigm”). But one factor that I consider especially important is science or, more precisely, scientists, many of whom espouse the philosophy of “materialism” or “naturalism”. This operates on the premise that reality consists only of the matter and energy that scientists can detect (or infer) — that there is no “spiritual dimension” or God; religion is a fallacy.
Although most people are not particularly interested in science and probably have never heard of “scientific materialism”, this philosophy greatly influences their world-view. Over the past 150 years or so, the materialist view has infiltrated all areas of life: education, politics, radio and television, and everyday social interactions, including, these days, social media. This has also been enthusiastically promoted by some high-profile scientists, such as Richard Dawkins.
IS THERE anything that we can do to counter this? As a scientist myself, with more than 40 years of research experience, I believe that the answer is “Yes”, but it is not going to be a quick fix. This answer is based on numerous advances over recent decades in diverse branches of science itself. These not only point to the likelihood that the materialist view of reality is wrong, but also form an evidential basis for the “spiritual dimension” of reality, and are consistent with the veracity of the “God hypothesis”.
Recently, Dr Robert Epstein, a Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology, published an article in Science Open: “Brain as Transducer: What if the brain is not a self-contained information processor? What if it is simply a transducer?” His hypothesis takes us back to the dualist philosophies of Plato and Descartes.
In essence, Dr Epstein proposes that the mind is not generated by the brain, but is a separate entity (coming from what he terms “the other side”), for which the brain is a transducer that channels the mind into our realm of physical matter and energy. Indeed, we might say that he is proposing, on scientific grounds, that we have a soul — although I am confident that Epstein would not be comfortable with this interpretation, given its religious connotations: indeed, he states: “The main reason we should give serious thought to such a [transduction] theory has nothing to do with ghosts. It has to do with the sorry state of brain science and its pathetic reliance on the computer metaphor.”
The evidence that Epstein enlists in support of his hypothesis is, first, the well-documented phenomenon of terminal (or paradoxical) lucidity. This often refers to situations in which patients with advanced dementia, close to the time of death, become remarkably and inexplicably mentally lucid — for example, being able to hold conversations and recall names and events far better than they have for a long time previously.
There is currently no materialist explanation for terminal lucidity. From the dualist perspective, however, it might be explained as the freeing of the mind from the constraints of a degenerating brain as death approaches, which thereby allows the conscious mind to express itself once again through the (still functioning) sub-conscious, before it finally separates entirely from the body at the point of death.
Second, Epstein highlights research on cases of out-of-body and near-death experiences in congenitally blind individuals, who report having “sight” during these experiences, having never seen anything previously. Again, there is no materialist explanation for this, but it is entirely consistent with philosophical dualism or the scientific theory of the “brain as transducer”.
Extensive research by others has catalogued that a high proportion of the three to four per cent of the population who report near-death experiences recount meeting “a higher spiritual power”, whom many identify as God or Jesus.
GOING beyond the accumulating scientific evidence for a spiritual dimension, there are the continuing debates concerning the origin of the universe and its fine tuning for life, and the origin and diversity of life on earth. In all of these areas, the hypothesis of an intelligent designer is equally or more plausible than the purely materialistic explanations that many assume are the only permissible theories.
So, it is my opinion that one of the few ways in which the seemingly unstoppable tide of secularisation might be reversed is by gradually, but relentlessly, countering the materialist assumptions that predominate in society with rigorous, data-based evidence that we are the spiritual children of a loving God.
Such a strategy is clearly playing the long game, which is why I estimate that it will take several generations. This may seem frustratingly slow on a human scale; but God has all the time in the world.
Dr Ian Todd is churchwarden of St Mary the Virgin, Wirksworth, Derbyshire. He is a retired immunologist and was formerly Associate Professor and Reader at the University of Nottingham.