A truce between science and religion



'Science and religion' by Chris JohnstonLast year Stephen Hawking released his book, The Grand Design, which purported to explain why a creator is unnecessary. The claim is based on the premise that the universe's existence is a result of M-theory, which suggests that the collision of two membranes could have caused the Big Bang.

While Hawking's M-theory proposal may well be valid, it raises the question of whether the existence of God can be disproved by science. While many scientists support such a view, others disagree. As science has progressed into the 21st century, a growing number of scientists have begun to explore the complementary nature of science and religion.

John Polkinghorne, a theologian and scientist from Cambridge University and co-author of Questions of Truth: Responses to Questions about God, Science, and Belief, recently shed light on a new, harmonising model of science and religion.

Polkinghorne claims that the 20th century saw the death of a merely mechanical view of the world, and 21st century science has re-opened the possibility of a world that is random, unpredictable and cloudy at times; not because of the absence of God, but due to the fact that God designed a world with the ability to create and act freely, according to its nature.

Yet Polkinghorne suggests that such a world, with the capacity for change and creativity, is indicative of a god who does not intervene in magical ways. For example, the earth's crust, as a result of God's design, is free to behave in accordance with its nature. This may lead to earthquakes and tsunamis, but nonetheless the earth is free to act in its own way, just as we are free to act in ours.

The unpredictability of nature, therefore, is bound up in the very essence of its design.

The terms 'cloudy' or 'unpredictable' may not match up to the rigid, clear-cut science you were taught in high school. But neither is science always rigid or predictable. As Polkinghorne points out, the quantum world is anything but.

Quarks are particles smaller than protons and neutrons. Their properties are entirely random, and no one has ever isolated a single quark in the lab.

Thus, the discovery of the quark was an interesting experiment in faith. Several properties of the physical world could only be explained by the unseen quark. So, suddenly, in the scientific picture, appeared these unseen realities that gave intelligibility to the world. Parallels could be drawn here between science and religion, notably to passages of Christian scripture that refer to 'believing without seeing'.

Polkinghorne claims that an understanding of the relationship between science and religion cannot be based merely on the old 'God of the gaps' theory; that is, the idea of God accounts for the things that science can't explain. He suggests that if God is the god of truths, perhaps the more that science advances, the more we learn about God.

The 20th century realisation that light is both a particle and a wave sparked doubts about a 'mechanical' worldview. The fact that light could exhibit both wave- and particle-like properties stumped many scientists. Some refused to believe. Some accepted the proposal but shrugged it off as weird. Others pushed so hard for light's dual nature that heated debate ensued. 

Yet today, one century later, there is a general consensus that various substances in the physical world do possess a dual nature. Polkinghorne asks whether it is reasonable to believe that God too, could have a dual nature? That he could indeed enter the earth as both God and human?

It is not a matter of using science to prove the existence of God, but rather to illustrate that God and science can co-exist in a harmonious, complementary kind of way.

Hawking insists that science is able to disprove the existence of God. Yet Polkinghorne is adamant that science explores only one layer of existence. God works through poetry and artwork, saints and mystics. You cannot fully appreciate an artwork by examining the chemical composition of its paint. Similarly, you cannot understand God's function in the universe by looking only at its physical nature.

Ashleigh GreenAshleigh Green is a media and communications student at the University of Sydney who is passionate about the ethical issues surrounding new media.

Topic tags: John Polkinghorne, Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design, Cambridge University, quantum physics, quarks, light


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Ashleigh writes "It is not a matter of using science to prove the existence of God". This fits well with one of this week's gospel readings where it says " Jesus said to [the devil], "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' " Christians and Jews are forbidden to try to prove the existence of God, and God will frustrate them if they do. (Matthew 4)
Michael Grounds | 07 March 2011

There are probably many, including myself, who find the arguments of atheists and theists less than conclusive and, as in many other matters, it is simply the truth to say 'I don't know.'

But, with the reduced influence of organised religion, we should hope there will be no decline in the teaching and encouragement of ethical living and regard for others.

Bob Corcoran | 07 March 2011

I’ve not read Hawkin’s Grand Design but if, as Ashleigh says, it ‘purports to explain why a creator is unnecessary’, then that is not the same claiming that ‘the existence of God can be disproved by science’. ‘Unnecessary’ and ‘disproved’ are two different qualities.
Ginger Meggs | 07 March 2011

Very interesting article. I have long been interested in this topic.

When I studied theology at Uni, I found a few science students taking theology subjects as electives. A couple of them chose to study theology only after studying science for a couple of years. In this context someone raised the disparity of the atom - which is mostly empty space. I find it quite plausible that there is a whole other realm to our five senses, which could exist right alongside of us.

I believe because I choose to; but the bottom line is, as Bob writes, that there is so much we don't know.

MBG | 07 March 2011

Well, I was told that 'God is inside us.' Then I began to realise that we have two arms and two legs (unless there was a tragedy/accident) and that although, in my case, I use my right hand more, I'd be thoroughly disadvantaged if I had to do without my left hand.

As for the scientist and the believer, perhaps they live in the same street but at another number.
Joyce | 07 March 2011

Re Hawking. How small can a scientific genius's brain get. He proposes "two membranes could have caused the Big Bang".

Next questions: where did the two membranes come from and what caused them to collide?
Ted Holmes | 07 March 2011

Where can I get the book from?
Teresa Homan | 07 March 2011

M theory is bullshit because it only relates to the single hydrogen atom which does not exist in nature (only inside the sun.

Similarly, the proposed membranes (branes) are bullshit because that suggests a two dimensional atom placed upon another two dimensional atom.

The truth is that the second atom is joined perpendicular to the first atom to give a bubble ... hence, Bubble Theory.
God exists only if you know Him and He works if you think He works (in not so mysterious ways ... like. I say I don't believe but I have had a number of Job like events happen where my very first thoughts were "God, for Christ's sake leave me alone" .... the point being, I wouldn't have had those thoughts if I did not know the story of Job.

Bubble Theory is here but it is not here .... go figure ...

Greig WIlliams | 07 March 2011

It wasn't a Big Bang ....it was and still is quadrillions upon quadrillions of tiny little pops.
Greig WIlliams | 07 March 2011

What science, religion, philosophy, theology, Hawkins or Dawkins thought impossible has happened. History now has it's first fully demonstrable, Christian proof for faith. And coming from outside all existing theologies, clearly has 'tradition' in the cross hairs.

"The first ever viable religious conception capable of leading reason, by faith, to observable consequences which can be tested and judged is now a reality. A teaching that delivers the first ever religious claim of insight into the human condition that meets the Enlightenment criteria of verifiable, direct cause and effect, evidence based truth embodied in a demonstrable experience. For the first time in history, however unexpected or unwelcome, the world must contend with a claim to new revealed truth, a moral wisdom not of human intellectual origin, offering access by faith, to absolute proof, an objective basis for moral principle and a fully rational and justifiable belief! " And it's called The Resurrection!

If confirmed and there appears a growing concerted effort to test and authenticate this material, of which I am taking part, this will represent a paradigm change in the nature of faith and in the moral and intellectual potential of human nature itself;  untangling the greatest  questions of human existence: sustainability, consciousness, meaning, suffering, free will and evil. And at the same time addressing the most profound problems of our age.

While the religious won't be happy looking into their theological abyss, what of those who have claimed to be of an Enlightenment mind? For if they are unable to appreciate this change in the historical faith paradigm, to one that conforms precisely to a criteria subject to direct evidence and confirmation, then their own 'claims' to rationality are no better then those religious illusions they find so abhorrent. To test or not to test, that is the question?

The tragedy for humanity will be if religion, skepticism and atheism have all so discredited the very idea of God for us to re-imagine, discover and experience just how great this potential is? More info at http://www.energon.org.uk

R.A. Landbeck | 07 March 2011

I celebrate my understanding of science as one way, indeed one of the best ways to understand what is said to be "ineffable". If I have trouble understanding the Christology of Jesus as both divine and human I have only to remember what I have learned in science, namely that energy and matter are in and of themselves ineffable, - immortal, invisible God only wise. A Jew named Einstein taught me that.
graham patison | 08 March 2011

I did Maths and Science. And so my world consisted pretty much of "hard" things - art and similar things didn't rate highly in my world!

Over the last few decades, I have been looking at the world through new eyes. I have been unlearning the judgments that go with science. Science, in my view, shouldn't be saying that ghosts don't exist because they can't measure or always see ghosts. Enough people have seen ghosts for me to suggest that they do exist. And science should be looking for answers, and not denying their existence.

Likewise with God. Something is powering the universe. Some call it Prana or Chi. There is something there! I am happy to call it God.

This Life Force is in everything. From rocks to humans. The catechism says God is everywhere. That means God is in us. Logically, if God is everywhere, it also means that we must be in God. We are part of God.

In a very real way, we are God's hands and eyes. And the chair that is supporting us is part of God.

Science is showing that we are all connected. We affect others quite directly. www.Youtube.com has many videos of people who explain this. Look up Dr. Bruce Lipton and you will see a real scientist talking about how our thoughts affect our genes - not the other way round. Gregg Braden have clips talking about science, God and us.

There is a lovely movie called "What the Bleep" that is available from many video stores. This movie explains Quantum Physics in a delightful way.

There is much more. You can get in touch with me through www.MakingABeautifulWorld.com

Clem Clarke | 08 March 2011

Thank you Ashleigh for this hook to introduce Polkinghorne to those of us who did not know of his writing. And now to Hawking. Stephen Hawking is too good a scientist to confuse proving something unnecessary with proving its non-existence. And he is too good a philosopher to believe one can prove empirically (read scientifically) the non-existence of something inherently indefinable. The tragedy of traditional antagonism between science and religion is that they are two different fields of thought. You cannot use the rules of football to understand a game of cricket! The existence, (more accurately, the being or non-being) of God is a philosophical question - neither scientific nor theological. Empirical science cannot investigate a being which is described as imperceptible to the human senses. And theology, predicated on the existence of God, would be arguing in a circle if it set out to prove that existence. However, both the scientist and the theologian can contribute to philosophical argument about the existence of God. A few, like John Polkinghorne and earlier, Teilhard de Chardin, writing authoritatively as theologian and as scientist, have much to contribute. Blessed are the mystics - their knowledge needs no science, theology or philosophy.
Ian Fraser | 08 March 2011

I remember with a smile an Onion magazine satire on God being Bi-Polar. (isn't everybody?) Some of us need mood stabilisers to not dwell in delusions. What I have learned is that life and the existence of God/Godess in your life is affected by your biological nature.The Brain is the organ of all perceptions.. Cognitive behavioural therapy, feelings of rapture and ecstacy and meaningful connections is via my imagination. It could be called the Divine. When somebody says they speak to God, I say yes, me too, but now I know I need to go to hospital! Of course science and spirituality can co-exist Ashleigh but the ideology of religious views attempting to stop us preparing for and adapting to global warming and the evidence of ocean acidification because they have faith in God needs to be corrected. The old saying about Have faith in God/Allah etc but don't forget to tie up your camel is something we could be reminded of.
Julie McNeill | 09 March 2011

This is interesting and cutting edge stuff.
Timothy Jones | 11 March 2011

Do I detect a shift towards non-dualistic thinking from the scientific world? Maybe we can start believing that out of the recent disasters worldwide will come some good because our all good-God is there in the chaos as well. What a refreshing article. Thank you, Ashleigh.
Yvette Swanston | 12 March 2011

After reading The Language of God by the Scientist Francis collins I was very interested to read this article. I am a Christian believer who has an interest in Science. I don't have any problem at all with either. Thanks for adding more facets for me to ponder.
Ian Tolley | 15 March 2011

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