Marilynne Robinson on science and faith

Marilynne RobinsonLate last month, GetReligion considered the work of Marilynne Robinson -- especially in response to an ill-founded claim by Ruth Franklin in The New Republic that Robinson is a fierce opponent of predestination. Now Sarah Fay, writing in The Paris Review (Fall 2008), engages Robinson in a 7,200-word discussion of her writing and her life. (Fay mentions that the interview occurred in six different sittings spread over five months.) Rewarding details are fairly well guaranteed when an interviewer and subject have this much space to breathe, but Fay has to raise the topic of religion a few different times before Robinson warms to the subject matter.

Fay hits pay dirt when she shows interest in Robinson's thoughts on the intersection of religion and science. Robinson, who wrote a scathing review of Richard Dawkins' God Delusion for the November 2006 Harper's (firewall alert), weighs in again on Dawkins -- and on some believers:

INTERVIEWERAre religion and science simply two systems that don't merge?

ROBINSONThe debate seems to be between a naive understanding of religion and a naive understanding of science. When people try to debunk religion, it seems to me they are referring to an eighteenth-century notion of what science is. I'm talking about Richard Dawkins here, who has a status that I can't quite understand. He acts as if the physical world that is manifest to us describes reality exhaustively. On the other side, many of the people who articulate and form religious expression have not acted in good faith. The us-versus-them mentality is a terrible corruption of the whole culture.

INTERVIEWERYou've written critically about Dawkins and the other New Atheists. Is it their disdain for religion and championing of pure science that troubles you?

ROBINSONNo, I read as much pure science as I can take in. It's a fact that their thinking does not feel scientific. The whole excitement of science is that it's always pushing toward the discovery of something that it cannot account for or did not anticipate. The New Atheist types, like Dawkins, act as if science had revealed the world as a closed system. That simply is not what contemporary science is about. A lot of scientists are atheists, but they don't talk about reality in the same way that Dawkins does. And they would not assume that there is a simple-as-that kind of response to everything in question. Certainly not on the grounds of anything that science has discovered in the last hundred years.

The science that I prefer tends toward cosmology, theories of quantum reality, things that are finer-textured than classical physics in terms of their powers of description. Science is amazing. On a mote of celestial dust, we have figured out how to look to the edge of our universe. I feel instructed by everything I have read. Science has a lot of the satisfactions for me that good theology has.

Fay does a commendable job of drawing Robinson out and satisfying the curiosity of those readers who wonder what sort of spiritual life informs the work of the acclaimed novelist.

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