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Science and faith must keep up the friendship

19 December 2011

Christians should build on the historical roots of their engagement with science and its vindication of faith, argues Denis Alexander

ARE science and religion friends or foes? Much depends on who is answering the question, and where. The sociologist notes the sharp divisions in contemporary society in the United States, where science and religion are dragged into polarised political discourse. The 40 per cent or more of Americans who espouse creationism ensure that a large segment of the scientific community in the US remains hostile towards religion, ably assisted by the New Atheists who invest science with a secularising ideological rhetoric.

Meanwhile, historians of science highlight the important part that a Christian world-view has played in nurturing the emergence of modern science. Christians within the science community have always thought that science and faith are good friends anyway. As the historian Professor John Hedley Brooke has said recently, it is unlikely that Isaac Newton, for example, would have understood the question.

Newton, as with so many of the Christian natural philosophers of the Early Modern period, regarded his scientific exploration of the world as all of a piece with his theology. He wrote: “There exists an infinite and omnipresent spirit in which matter is moved according to mathematical laws.”

The very concept of a “scientific law” emerges out of Christian theo­logy. Newton spent more time study­ing his Bible than doing science, and saw no separation between the two.

SCIENCE started with the Greek philosophers, was developed in the Islamic world, but received its mod­ern contours in Europe. Here, Christian natural philosophers estab­lished the disciplines that scientists practise to this day — people such as Robert Boyle, one of the founders of modern chemistry; the astronomers Kepler and Galileo; and natural philosophers working in the physical sciences, such as Michael Faraday. The 1663 charter of the Royal Society declares that its activities shall be devoted “to the glory of God the Creator, and the ad­vantage of the human race”.

For centuries, science and natural theology in Britain remained closely wedded. It was not until the late 19th century that they began to go their separate ways — not because of Darwin, but because of the professionalisation of science.

Some scientists, as they now increasingly called themselves, undertook a vigorous campaign to wrest from the Established Church the power, money, and intellectual prestige that they saw as rightfully belonging to their newly independent profession. After the parting of the ways, it became easier in the 20th century to promote the idea that science and religion were foes rather than friends.

But it is hard to keep long-term friends apart for long, and, by the latter half of the 20th century, scientists were climbing new peaks of discovery — but then finding that the theologians were already there, albeit using different types of language to describe the mountains.

A new natural theology was born that drew attention to the exquisitely finely tuned physical constants that enable the universe both to exist and be fruitful for life. Big Bang cos­mology gave a remarkable new insight: far from being insignificant dots in a vast universe, it turns out that we are all made of stardust, and the universe has to be this old (13.7 billion years) in order for us to exist.

Evolutionary history was revealed not as a random drunken walk that might have ended up anywhere, but as a tightly constrained search-engine seeking out design space. Platonic biological ideas that had been quietly ushered out of the back door with the rise of Darwinism in the 1860s, started coming back through the front door, but this time flying the Darwinian flag. As Martin Nowak from Harvard commented recently in the journal Nature: “My position is very simple. Evolution has led to a human brain that can gain access to a Platonic world of forms and ideas.”

THE new natural theology does not, like the old one, seek so much to derive the existence and even characteristics of God by inferences from the physical world, but rather to see the properties of the universe as making more sense when viewed as the creation of a God who has intentions for the universe in general, and for humankind in particular.

Meanwhile, scientists, philoso­phers, and theologians have been working on new models in which discourse between science and reli­gion can be carried out with clarity. The two approaches speak of the same reality, using complementary narratives that address different kinds of question.

Ask “Why are you driving to Edinburgh?”, and I could give several types of answer: “Because Henry Ford invented cars;” “Because the car engine obeys the laws of physics;” “Because I’m going to a conference.”

Likewise, science and religion provide different but complementary perspectives on the same reality, a high-octane mix of distal/proximal and how/why forms of explanation. Friends need to understand each other’s language if they wish to stay friends.

Christians, of all people, have cause to celebrate science, and the friendship between science and faith. Those who would prefer them to be foes need some gentle reminding that it was Christians who helped to get modern science off the ground in the first place. The Christian world-view helped to establish the assumptions now taken for granted by the worldwide scientific community: the intelligibility and consistency of the properties of matter that render them accessible by rational minds; the idea of scientific laws; the experimental method; the Baconian passion to make science useful.

Christians celebrate science because it reveals more of the wonders of God’s good creation, and because of the opportunities it gives to love our neighbour. Friends can stay good friends by frequent reminders about how they first met, and about what they have in common. The priority now is for science and religion to work together as friendly partners in healing a broken world.

Dr Denis Alexander is the director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where he is a Fellow.


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