Science and religion: duet or duel?
People often speak of the science-religion relationship in warlike terms. Is talk of a "battle" between religion and science supported by the historical and contemporary evidence?
The idea of a battle between religion and science is largely the invention of two late nineteenth century historians J. W. Draper and A. D. White who wrote books entitled History of the Conflict between Religion and Science and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom respectively. No serious historians today accept this 'conflict' thesis which has been refuted many times. However, it does retain a hold over popular consciousness and in the popular writings of the so-called 'New Atheists'. The reality is that it is in Christendom that modern science as we know it grew up, and for good theological reasons. The universe was seen as the free, rationally ordered, good creation of the all-good and all-powerful God of the Christian faith, and scientists such as Johannes Kepler saw themselves 'thinking God's thoughts after him'.
The most famous scientist of our age, Stephen Hawking, has said that there is no longer any place for God in theories about the origin of the Universe. Hasn't science killed off God?
Hawking confuses the idea that the universe had a beginning in time with the Christian doctrine of creation. The latter has nothing to do with whether the universe had a temporal beginning or not, but answers the quite different question, 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' Indeed, Hawking himself put this very eloquently in his first book, A Brief History of Time, when he asked 'What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?' In his most recent book Hawking and his co-author Leonard Mlodinow commit a number of philosophical blunders in thinking they can answer this latter question purely through science. Statements such as 'Because there is gravity the universe creates itself out of nothing' are simply self-contradictory.
Are science and religion competing and contradictory explanations of the world?
No, they provide complementary explanations. Science explains the processes of the world. It uncovers the laws which describe how the world works. Theology explains why science is possible in the first place, because science simply has to assume that there is a rationally ordered and structured universe out there which can be described by laws which are open to the human mind to discover. Einstein, for example, was deeply impressed by this match between the structures of the human mind and the structure of the cosmos and expressed this by saying that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is its comprehensibility. Theology also explains why the laws of nature take the particular form they do with the result that 13.7 billion years on from the Big Bang there are intelligent creatures able to discuss such issues: this was the intention of the Creator. It turns out that the laws of nature are seemingly 'fine-tuned' for life, i.e. the constants which go into the laws and the initial conditions at the Big Bang were 'just right' for life to arise in the universe, and small changes would have led to a sterile cosmos. The favoured solution of Hawking and some others to this problem is to postulate a multiverse, a vast ensemble of universes, in which all these constants vary, and to say that we shouldn't therefore be surprised to be in a universe which is conducive to our own existence. But this idea is highly speculative, immune to empirical verification, and would in any case merely move the question up a level. That is to say, the question would become, not why is this universe so special, but why is this multiverse so special as to contain at least one life-producing universe as a member of the ensemble?
Can science provide any evidence for God's existence? If not, shouldn't we regard believe in God as "unscientific" and "irrational"?
God's existence cannot be proved from science, nor does science provide the chief rationale for belief in God. However, it seems to me that the findings of science are more conducive to a Christian interpretation than to an atheist one. I mentioned the fine-tuning above, and the rational order of the universe which science must assume. Another example would be the recent finding by palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris of 'evolutionary convergence'. Harvard zoologist Stephen J. Gould claimed that if one were to replay the tape of life again nothing like humans would evolve. Conway Morris argues that, in contrast, and in the light of many examples of the evolution of biological structures independently in many different places in the evolutionary tree, creatures like humans are bound to arise sooner or later. The idea that we are in some sense 'built into' the evolutionary process rather than a random and highly improbable outcome, is certainly amenable to a theistic interpretation.
The main evidence for my faith as a Christian, however, comes from the New Testament, and is based on God's revelation of himself in the person of Jesus Christ. I believe the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is immensely powerful, but it is historical evidence rather than scientific evidence. In answer to your question, we hold many beliefs that are rational but not scientific, including those in the historical and ethical domains. Science cannot tell me whether it is right to torture babies - what on earth would any experiment show? - though most of us believe it is wrong to do so and that we are rational in believing it wrong. One of the disturbing aspects of the so-called 'New Atheism' is its scientific imperialism - the claim that science can answer any question one might want to ask. This is clearly false.
The Oxford scientist Peter Atkins says, "I regard teaching religion as purveying lies." Is that a scientific judgment?
It's rubbish! But I suppose I ought to qualify that a bit. 'Religion' is a pretty vague term and I hold no brief for defending religion in general. Where I would agree with Atkins is that there is plenty of bad religion. But then, there is plenty of bad atheism and we have witnessed the consequences of that in a big way in the twentieth century. One only has to mention Stalin and Chairman Mao, and for bad science, how about Dr Josef Mengele?
The great thing about theology is that it doesn't just teach a set of inviolable truths, handed to the student on a plate. It is a self-critical discipline, which examines and re-examines its claims in dialogue with and aided by many other disciplines, including philosophy, history, literature studies, languages, and - dare I say it - the natural sciences. That's what theology has been doing for 2000 years and continues to do today.
Is Intelligent Design Theory a "scientific" account of the world or a religious claim about the world?
By 'Intelligent Design' (ID) I understand the idea that certain biological structures such as the bacterial flagellum, are inexplicable by standard evolutionary theory. This is to be sharply distinguished from the fine-tuning argument I mentioned above. ID sees gaps in natural processes which it says science can't explain; the fine-tuning argument fully accepts the ability of science to explain processes within nature but asks the meta-question, 'Why do the laws of science take the form they do in the first place?' ID doesn't make predictions nor does it publish its 'results' in scientific journals, so if it is science then it is bad science. If it is theology then it's bad theology because orthodox theology sees God involved in the whole process of the world, upholding and sustaining the laws he has ordained and bringing about his purposes through those laws. God is not to be confined to ever narrower gaps in scientific knowledge. Quite the opposite: God is to be found in what we know from science, not from what we don't know.
The Faraday Institute is named after Michael Faraday. Why is he significant for the debate about religion and science?
Faraday was of course an outstanding scientist, especially well-known for his work on electricity and magnetism. But he was also a deeply committed Christian, a member of small nonconformist denomination. His Christian convictions shaped his approach to science as much as to other aspects of his life. He believed that God is Creator and, like Francis Bacon, that the book of God's works in nature, studied by science, and the book of his words in Scripture, which show the way to salvation, have the same author and cannot therefore conflict. He was impressed by the laws of nature through which 'God has been pleased to work in his creation' and it is these laws which he was searching for in his scientific work. Of course we could have taken our name from any number of distinguished scientists who have taken a similar view.
The Faraday Institute's course on science and religion is to be held at Union Theological College, Belfast, June 24-26, 2011. Click here for details.