God² - how science and religion rub along

Sun rise

Protests by atheists against last week's papal visit to the UK have highlighted the age old friction between religion and science. But for hundreds of years thinkers with a foot in both camps have sought to reconcile these two beliefs, says Dr Thomas Dixon.

Professor Stephen Hawking's declaration last month, that physics no longer has any need for God has been making headlines.

His new book The Grand Design uses something called M-theory to claim that the laws of physics created our universe unaided. The cosmic fireworks of the Big Bang needed no supernatural spark to set them off. They can apparently light themselves, in an endless succession of universes, like those candles on birthday cakes that are impossible to blow out.

So, is Prof Hawking's denial of the deity just one more example of an age-old conflict between science and religion? Does history suggest that these two great human endeavours are destined to be forever locked in battle? Not exactly.

There have been plenty of rocky moments in the relationship between faith and science, perhaps most famously the condemnation of Galileo by the Inquisition in Rome in 1633.

Errors and heresies

Common sense, science, and the Church had all supported the view that the Earth was stationary at the centre of the cosmos. But Galileo used observations made with his telescope to argue that the Earth was moving around the Sun.

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Dr Thomas Dixon

Science and religion have had the kind of close and troubled relationship you would expect between siblings or spouses”

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According to some versions of the legend, Galileo was imprisoned and even tortured by the Catholic church. Neither of these things happened, but he was condemned for heresy, kept under house arrest, and forced to declare that he cursed and detested the "errors and heresies" of his scientific work.

The church repented of this scientific misjudgement at its leisure, removing works by Galileo from the index of banned books only in the 19th Century.

Then there was the famous rumpus over Moses and monkeys in Victorian Britain, when some Christians attacked Charles Darwin's theory of evolution on the grounds that it contradicted the Bible.

In Oxford in 1860, less than a year after the publication of On The Origin of Species, the tome which laid the groundwork for the theory, there was a famous spat between the Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, and the biologist Thomas Huxley.

Legend has it that Wilberforce, in front of a packed auditorium, asked Huxley whether he claimed descent from a monkey on the side of his grandfather or his grandmother.

It was a Victorian bishop's idea of a joke. But Huxley didn't see the funny side and, white with rage, rose to reply, rather piously, that he would rather be descended from an ape than a bishop, especially one who used his intellectual powers to introduce levity into a serious discussion.

Ape relations

At the time of writing his great work, Darwin himself believed in God, writing about a creator who imposed laws on matter and breathed life into nature.

Francis Collins receives Presidential Medal of Freedom from George Bush Believer and former head of Human Genome Project, Francis Collins

"There is grandeur in this view of life," Darwin concluded, and many have subsequently agreed.

Today there are high-profile evolutionists who combine their science with religious faith.

Kenneth Miller is a Roman Catholic biologist who campaigns against the latest form of creationism to take hold in parts of America, Intelligent Design. The former head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, combines Protestant belief with his work as a geneticist (and with a much less successful sideline as a religious folk-singer, which can be sampled on YouTube).

Near Darwin's grave in Westminster Abbey is that of another god of science, Sir Isaac Newton, who held the Lucasian Professorship of mathematics at Cambridge three centuries before Stephen Hawking.

We can guess what Newton would have thought of the theological conclusions of his successor. Atheism, Newton wrote, is "senseless and odious". For his own part, Newton was certain that the order of the cosmos revealed a God who was "very skilled in mechanics and geometry", a God who rather resembled Newton himself.

Vomiting bug

During the centuries that separated Newton and Darwin, many of the greatest minds saw science piling up evidence for the existence of God. Such treatises celebrated the power and goodness of God as revealed through everything from the hive-making instincts of bees and the beauty of orchids, to the engineering marvels of the human hand and eye.

Find out more

Dr Thomas Dixon presents The End of God? A Horizon Guide to Science and Religion on BBC Four, on Tuesday 21 September at 2100 BST

Today, supporters of the Intelligent Design movement find evidence of the power and goodness of God in the rotating tail or "flagellum" of the E. coli bacterium.

For some it is a surprise, perhaps, to learn that the clearest sign of God's intelligence is to be found in a nasty vomiting bug.

Traditional religious beliefs have undoubtedly come under pressure from science over the past 400 years. The findings of modern astronomy, geology, and biology have all made it quite clear that the books of Moses, if read as scientific texts, are complete failures.

But, of course, they need not be read that way. Galileo voiced a widely-held view when he said that the Bible told you how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.

Science and religion have had the kind of close and troubled relationship you would expect between siblings or even spouses. They share not only wonder at the majesty of the world we can see, but also a desire to find out what's behind it that we can't.

That emotional and intellectual hunger will endure longer than Professor Hawking's M-theory, and those wishing to take a truly scientific attitude may be better advised to follow the lead of the great Victorian agnostic Thomas Huxley who, in one of the last things that he wrote before he died asked "Is it not better to keep silence about matters which speech is incompetent to express; to be content with revolving in the deeps of the mind the infinite possibilities of the unknown?"

Dr Thomas Dixon is author of Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction and is senior lecturer in History at Queen Mary, University of London.

Below is a selection of your comments

It's never been anything but power and politics - there's no middle-ground (ask Dawkins). Dixon says, "Common sense, science, and the Church," but what science is he talking about? In ancient times it was common sense that the earth went around the sun, and nobody mentions Giordano Bruno, burned by the church for the same reasons. PC talk will only make the conflict linger.

Rodolfo Barbaste, Santiago, Chile

Dixon seems to suggest we should reserve a special place for God in the fading shadows not yet illuminated by science. I see good reason to keep our minds open to "infinite possibilities of the unknown", yet, there are degrees of uncertainty, and one of the least likely possibilities is the existence of a God. We have little need for a God to explain what we do not know, so I'm left feeling that Hawkings' point is far more pertinent; if we do not need a God to explain our Universe, why keep him? The only role I see for a God is not to explain but to comfort.

Rothsom, London, UK

Again your article credits religion with the same factual credibility as science by saying they are siblings. Religion of any description is a collection rules and stories that those in power or aspiring to be in control of others use to justify human emotions and desires. It provides both a comfort blanket for those not capable or willing to accept the reality they live in. Science is a statement of fact or as close as we can come to fact based on the collective history of the human race up to this point in time.

Chris , Manchester, UK

Science and (Christian) religion are concerned with totally different things, so conflict only arises when the Church is an especially intolerant phase. The Biblical picture of God is too vague too play any role in the exact sciences and the Bible was never intended as a scientific textbook. Believers who are adamant that God (which one?) exists for real and atheists who claim that God is just a myth both have their own truth; there is no single universally applicable answer. Not all religions require the existence of Gods.

Daniel von Asmuth, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Nice article. Ultimately it all comes down to this. Either we came about from 'Nothing' or we were created by an 'Uncreated Being'. Nothing is the absence of 'something' and in conclusion doesnt 'exist' so consequently is an impossibility, therefore in my opinion we only have one option left.

Farnhan, Surrey

Comments: I'm still at a loss at how so called 'science' has disproved the existence of God. Throw away comments suggesting that science has proved the Bible's account of creation to be nothing more than a fable is way off mark and wholly inaccurate. I would argue that the fossil record 100% supports the Bible's account of creation and actually undermines evolution - even Darwin himself was perplexed by the fossil record and its lack of evidence for his theories. Dating methods are all based on assumptions which many scientists disagree with and many scientists are Bible believing Christians too - not Theistic Evolutionists who are pandering to the secular world.

Brad, Basingstoke

I am a rational and law abiding man and try to help physically, mentally, socially handicapped persons to the best my ability not because I am a believer but because I feel it to be my social commitment. I prefer to call me an aethist but at times I wonder at the vastness and diversities in this Universe and there are infinite numbers of them beyond our conception. At times I feel it is better to designate me as agnostic, ie, if there be God, let him be there, I need not quarrel with him or his agents on this earth represented by champions of various religions.

Dr J Sil, Kolkata, India

Finally a sensible voice in this ridiculous debate between science and religion. Science doesn't disprove religion, it explains how the world works. Religion doesn't trump science, and just because it was written in a book 2000 years ago doesn't make it disprove modern scientific theories such as Evolution. Both science and religion change over time, science as new things are discovered, and religion as it has to evolve to keep up with how the world works.

Philip, Chichester, England

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