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An Undivided Mind: John Habgood on Science and Religion

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 June 2020


This study considers John Habgood’s understanding of the relation of science and religion, particularly his core notion that an ‘undivided mind’ engages different aspects of reality using disciplines of study appropriate to their specific subject matter. Particular attention is paid to the emergence of those views during his time as a research scientist at Cambridge, their location within the Anglican tradition, their expression in Habgood’s 1992 debate with Richard Dawkins, and their impact on his public ministry as Bishop of Durham and Archbishop of York, especially in public debates concerning bioethics.

Research Article
© The Journal of Anglican Studies Trust 2020

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Alister McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, UK.


2 ‘I see no ultimate contradiction between relying on a coherent public framework of faith, and being critically aware of its limitations. … It is the coherence of faith which makes it powerful and effective.’ John Habgood, Confessions of a Conservative Liberal (London: SPCK, 1988), p. 9. For a partial biography of Habgood, see John S. Peart-Binns, Living with Paradox: John Habgood, Archbishop of York (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1987); John Munsey Turner, ‘Profile: John Habgood’, Epworth Review 23.1 (1996), pp. 18-27. The most comprehensive study is now David Wilbourne, Just John: The Authorized Biography of John Habgood, Archbishop of York, 19831995 (London: SPCK, 2020).

3 Habgood, Confessions of a Conservative Liberal, p. 9.

4 Habgood, Confessions of a Conservative Liberal, p. 95. There are important resonances here with the intellectual vision of an earlier Archbishop of York, William Temple: see F.W. Dillistone, ‘William Temple: A Centenary Appraisal’, Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 52.2 (1983), pp. 101-12.

5 Habgood’s full academic record can be consulted at T.S. Adkins, N.S.D. Bulmer, P.M. Jones, and H.C. Langley, A Register of Admissions to King’s College Cambridge 1934–2010 (Cambridge: Provost and Fellows of King’s College, Cambridge, 2018), p. 42.

6 For Habgood’s memories and reflections on the emergence of his religious beliefs at Cambridge, see Bernard Dixon, ‘From Lab to Bishop’s Throne’, New Scientist, 28 April 1973, pp. 210-12Google Scholar.

7 Dixon, ‘From Lab to Bishop’s Throne’, p. 210.

8 Peart-Binns, Living with Paradox, pp. 19–21. For details of this mission, led by Donald Grey Barnhouse, minister of Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church, see Oliver R. Barclay and Robert M. Horn, From Cambridge to the World: 125 Years of Student Witness (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2002), pp. 136-38; David Goodhew, ‘The Rise of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, 1910–1971’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 54.1 (2003), pp. 62-88 (75-77).

9 For the anti-intellectualism prevalent within Cambridge evangelical student circles at this time, see Barclay and Horn, From Cambridge to the World, p. 127. For the general phenomenon within American evangelicalism, see Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994). Barnhouse himself became a significant fundamentalist voice during the 1930s and 1940s: see Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 26, 33, 91-92.

10 For the origins of this group in Cambridge in 1944, see Malcolm Jeeves and R.J. (Sam) Berry, ‘Christians in Science: Looking Back – and Forward’, Science and Christian Belief 27.2 (2015), pp. 125-52.

11 John S. Habgood, Theology and the Sciences (London: The Athenaeum, 1998), p. 2. Habgood identifies Michael Faraday, who he describes as being a member of the ‘Sandemanian sect’, as exemplifying such an approach. This observation is justified, and might be supplemented by another concern. Faraday’s religious convictions tended to lead to a degree of compartmentalization in his intellectual life, with little interplay between his religious beliefs and scientific practice, save for a generic belief in a creator God providing order to the universe. For a sympathetic account of Faraday at this point, see Geoffrey Cantor, Michael Faraday: Sandemanian and Scientist (London: Macmillan, 1993).

12 Habgood’s account of his discovery of the writings of William Temple in 1949, and the impact of Temple on his own thinking, can be found in John Habgood, Faith and Uncertainty (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1997), pp. 147-50.

13 Habgood, Faith and Uncertainty, p. 28. It is significant that Habgood cites appreciatively from Temple’s father – Frederick Temple – whose 1884 Bampton Lectures at Oxford University were widely regarded as establishing a viable nexus between Christianity and Darwinian evolutionary theory. For further discussion of Temple’s historical significance in shaping Victorian Anglican attitudes towards evolution, see Peter Hinchliff, Frederick Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury: A Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), pp. 166-93.

14 For the best account of his views on science and faith, see Ian M. Randall, ‘Evangelical Spirituality, Science, and Mission: A Study of Charles Raven (1885–1964), Regius Professor of Divinity, Cambridge University’, Anglican and Episcopal History 84.1 (2015), pp. 20-48.

15 To use Ian Barbour’s four-fold taxonomy of possible relationships between science and religion, Raven is best seen as one who aimed for the ‘integration’ of science and faith; Habgood belongs to those who think in terms of a ‘dialogue’ between science and religion. For Barbour’s approach and its vulnerabilities, see Geoffrey Cantor and Chris Kenny, ‘Barbour’s Fourfold Way: Problems with His Taxonomy of Science-Religion Relationships’, Zygon 36.4 (2001), pp. 765-81.

16 J.S. Habgood, ‘Sensitization of Sensory Receptors in the Frog’s Skin’, Journal of Physiology 111.1–2 (1950), pp. 195-213; idem, ‘Antidromic Impulses in the Dorsal Roots’, Journal of Physiology 121.2 (1953), pp. 264-74.

17 Dixon, ‘From Lab to Bishop’s Throne’, pp. 210-11.

18 John S. Habgood, ‘The Uneasy Truce between Science and Theology’, in Alec Vidler (ed.), Soundings: Essays Concerning Christian Understanding (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), pp. 21-41.

19 For recent discussion, see Richard N. Williams and Daniel N. Robinson (eds.), Scientism: The New Orthodoxy (London: Bloomsbury, 2015); Ian James Kidd, ‘Doing Science an Injustice: Midgley on Scientism’, in Ian James Kidd and Liz McKinnell (eds.), Science and the Self: Animals, Evolution, and Ethics (New York: Routledge, 2016), pp. 151-67; Jeroen de Ridder, Rik Peels and René van Woudenberg (eds.), Scientism: Prospects and Problems (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

20 It is important to note the way in which William Temple used the concept of ‘natural order’ to hold together the scientific investigation of the structure of the world with human attempts to live morally and authentically within that world: see M.B. Wilkinson, ‘Value and Natural Order in the Philosophy of William Temple’, PhD thesis, University of Surrey, 1990.

21 For some brief reflections, see Seybold, ‘The Untidiness of Integration’.

22 Habgood, Confessions of a Conservative Liberal, p. 9.

23 There has been much scholarly interest in the importance of the Anglican context for the development of the natural sciences in early modern England. See, for example, Lotte Mulligan, ‘Anglicanism, Latitudinarianism and Science in 17th Century England’, Annals of Science 3 (1973), pp. 213-19; James R. Jacob and Margaret C. Jacob, ‘The Anglican Origins of Modern Science: The Metaphysical Foundations of the Whig Constitution’, Isis 71.2 (1980), pp. 251-67; Scott Mandelbrote, ‘The Uses of Natural Theology in Seventeenth-Century England’, Science in Context 20 (2007), pp. 451-80; Rob Iliffe, Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 3-23.

24 Habgood often draws on the discussion of this point by the leading American Anglican scientist William G. Pollard, Physicist and Christian: A Dialogue between the Communities (New York: Seabury Press, 1961). This influential work had its origins as the 1959 Bishop Paddock Lectures at the General Theological Seminary, New York City. See, for example, John Habgood, Religion and Science (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1964), pp. 127-35, a chapter which (as Habgood himself notes) is largely based on Pollard’s work.

25 Habgood, Confessions of a Conservative Liberal, p. 95.

26 Habgood, Religion and Science, p. 10.

27 See the early criticisms of over-simple demarcations – such as ‘science is concerned with empirical truth, theology with symbolic truth’ – in Habgood, ‘The Uneasy Truce between Science and Theology’. For more recent discussions of the historical and conceptual relationships between science and religion, particularly within the Church of England, see Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

28 Habgood, Theology and the Sciences, p. 3. For the historical context, see A.D. Orange, ‘The Origins of the British Association for the Advancement of Science’, British Journal for the History of Science 6.3 (1972), pp. 152-76. For sociological significance of the British Association, see Louise Miskell, Meeting Places: Scientific Congresses and Urban Identity in Victorian Britain (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013).

29 Habgood, Theology and the Sciences, p. 4.

30 Habgood, Theology and the Sciences, p. 13.

31 Habgood’s discussion of these issues is clearly influenced by Michael Polanyi’s influential work Personal Knowledge (1958). See, for example, Habgood, Religion and Science, pp. 136-43. For Habgood, Polanyi’s notion of ‘inarticulate knowledge’ allows us to appreciate that there can be confused and partial knowledge of reality, which is genuine even though it cannot be brought within the bounds of science. ‘To bring this kind of knowledge out into the open may be the best way of challenging the claim that science holds the monopoly of truth’ (p. 136).

32 John Habgood, Varieties of Unbelief (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2000), p. 8.

33 Habgood, Varieties of Unbelief, p. 14.

34 John Habgood, ‘The Scientist as Priest,’ in Sir Nevill Mott (ed.), Can Scientists Believe? Some Examples of the Attitude of Scientists to Religion (London: James & James, 1991), pp. 23-33 (31).

35 Habgood, Theology and the Sciences, p. 13.

36 John Habgood, Faith and Uncertainty (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1997), p. 17.

37 Habgood, Faith and Uncertainty, p. 17. For Habgood’s reflections on Niels Bohr’s concept of complementarity as a means of holding such different forms of knowledge together, see Habgood, Faith and Uncertainty, pp. 17-20.

38 Habgood, Theology and the Sciences, pp. 6-7.

39 For a more recent study exploring the importance of this issue, see Alister E. McGrath, The Territories of Human Reason: Science and Theology in an Age of Multiple Rationalities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), pp. 75-89.

40 Habgood, Faith and Uncertainty, p. 47.

41 For the origins and persistence of this ‘strategy of closure’, see Duncan Wilson, The Making of British Bioethics (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), pp. 24-51. For the background to this ‘strategy of closure’ within British professional communities at this time, see Harold J. Perkin, The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1880 (London: Routledge, 2002).

42 See the personal recollections of Gordon M. Stirrat, ‘Reflections on Learning and Teaching Medical Ethics in UK Medical Schools’, Journal of Medical Ethics, 41 (2015), pp. 8-11.

43 Perkin, The Rise of Professional Society, pp. 472-506.

44 See Geoffrey Robertson, ‘The Law and Test-Tube Babies’, The Observer (London), 7 February 1982, p. 8. The growing public consensus that ‘patients’ ought to be seen as ‘medical consumers’ helped shape this perception: see especially Stephen Little, ‘Consumerism in the Doctor–Patient Relationship’, Journal of Medical Ethics 7 (1981), pp. 187-90.

45 For an edited version of Habgood’s paper, originally entitled ‘The View of a Theologian’, see J.S. Habgood, ‘Medical Ethics – A Christian View’, Journal of Medical Ethics 11 (1985), pp. 12-13.

46 Peart-Binns, Living with Paradox, pp. 61-62. Ian Ramsey, Habgood’s immediate predecessor as Bishop of Durham, was an Anglican pioneer of British bioethics: for an assessment of his significance, see Wilson, The Making of British Bioethics, pp. 64-104.

47 Habgood, Confessions of a Conservative Liberal, pp. 143-46.

48 Habgood, Religion and Science, p. 93.

49 John Habgood, The Concept of Nature (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2002), pp. 112-39. Note also Habgood’s extensive reflections on what it means to be a person, with significant criticisms of reductionist accounts of human nature: John Habgood, Being a Person: Where Faith and Science Meet (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1998).

50 For an assessment, see Alister E. McGrath, Dawkins’ God: From the Selfish Gene to the God Delusion (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2nd edn, 2015).

51 For a careful study of the increasingly critical scientific attitudes to Dawkins in the 2010s, see David R. Johnson, Elaine Howard Ecklund, Di Di, and Kirstin R.W. Matthews, ‘Responding to Richard: Celebrity and (Mis)Representation of Science’, Public Understanding of Science 27.5 (2018), pp. 535-49.

52 See the account in Richard Dawkins, Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science (London: Black Swan, 2016), pp. 255-56.

53 See especially the withering evaluation in John Gray, Seven Types of Atheism (London: Penguin Books, 2018), pp. 9-23.

54 Two points highlighted in recent discussions should be noted here – the fragility of Dawkins’ ‘scientism’, and his serious misrepresentation of religion: see, for example, Massimo Pigliucci, ‘New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 37.1 (2013), pp. 142-53; Ian James Kidd, ‘Epistemic Vices in Public Debate: The Case of “New Atheism”’, in Christopher Cotter, Philip Quadrio and Jonathan Tuckett (eds.), New Atheism: Critical Perspectives and Contemporary Debates (Dordrecht: Springer Verlag, 2017), pp. 51-68.

55 There appears to have been no recording of the debate. For Habgood’s reflections, see John Habgood, Making Sense (London: SPCK, 1993), pp. 58-63.

56 Habgood, Making Sense, p. 62. The image of the scientific method as a net which fails to capture reality in its totality is particularly associated with the neuroscientist Donald M. Mackay. Note also its slightly different use in the works of the biologist Stephen Jay Gould: ‘The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value.’ Stephen Jay Gould, ‘Nonoverlapping Magisteria’, Natural History 106 (1997), pp. 16–22.

57 Habgood, Faith and Uncertainty, p. 27.

58 The importance of this communal aspect of knowledge is clearly brought out by Pollard, Physicist and Christian, pp. 25-49, who highlights some specifically Anglican concerns during his analysis.

59 The best study is still F.R. Cowell, The Athenaeum: Club and Social Life in London, 1824–1974 (London: Heinemann, 1975).

60 Seth Alexander Thévoz, Club Government: How the Early Victorian World Was Ruled from London Clubs, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2018). The gendered nature of these clubs has been the subject of particular comment: see the analysis in Amy Milne-Smith, London Clubland: A Cultural History of Gender and Class in Late Victorian Britain (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

61 Ian Ramsey’s best-known work in this field, written while he was Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford University, is Religion and Science: Conflict and Synthesis, Some Philosophical Reflections (London: SPCK, 1964).

62 Habgood, Theology and the Sciences, p. 1.

63 For a good account of this development, focusing on one of its leading representatives, see Alister Chapman, Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

64 Habgood, Religion and Science, pp. 64-71.

65 For comment, see Alister E. McGrath, Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2011), especially pp. 143-82.

66 John Habgood, ‘They Changed our Thinking: I. Darwin (1809–82) and After’, Expository Times 84.4 (1973), pp. 100-105. For earlier Anglican reflections on such issues, see W. Mark Richardson, ‘Evolutionary-Emergent Worldview and Anglican Theological Revision: Case Studies from the 1920s’, Anglican Theological Review 92.2 (2010), pp. 321-45.

67 Habgood, ‘They Changed our Thinking’, p. 102.

68 Habgood, ‘They Changed our Thinking’, p. 102.

69 Habgood provides an explanation of his reluctance to engage the Bible, despite the fact that it stands ‘at the centre of the tradition in which all Christians live’, on the basis of his need to engage with a wide public audience, many of whom have no sense of connection with the Bible: Habgood, Faith and Uncertainty, p. 7. Yet few within this secular audience are likely to have been avid readers of the Expository Times, which aimed, among other things, to offer its readers guidance about biblical interpretation and exposition.

70 For the edited text of these two lectures, see Habgood, Faith and Uncertainty, pp. 28-40; pp. 41-54. The original texts may be consulted in the archives of Harris Manchester College, Oxford.

71 T.H. Huxley, Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays (London: Macmillan, 1894), p. 83. For comment on this lecture in its historical context, see James G. Paradis and George C. Williams, Evolution and Ethics: T.H. Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics with New Essays on its Victorian and Sociobiological Context (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014).

72 Huxley, Evolution and Ethics, pp. 81-82.

73 Huxley, Evolution and Ethics, p. 81.

74 Habgood, Faith and Uncertainty, p. 50.

75 Habgood, Faith and Uncertainty, pp. 49-50.

76 Alexander Wood, In Pursuit of Truth: A Comparative Study in Science and Religion (London: Student Christian Movement, 1927), p. 102.

77 Habgood, Confessions of a Conservative Liberal, 95. For a useful exploration of this theme, see Kevin S. Seybold, ‘The Untidiness of Integration: John Stapylton Habgood’, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 57.2 (2005), pp. 114-19.

78 A recent survey of the field of science and religion in the United Kingdom does not give any reason for supposing that there is a recognized confessional ‘Anglican’ approach to this question: Christopher Southgate, ‘Science and Religion in the United Kingdom: A Personal View on the Contemporary Scene’, Zygon 51.2 (2016), pp. 361-86.

79 Peter N. Jordan, ‘Minimalist Engagement: Rowan Williams on Christianity and Science’, Zygon 51.2 (2016), pp. 387-404.

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