For many people, to suggest that science and belief in God belong together would be greeted by blank amazement or suspicion. No one in their right mind would question the power of science to tell us what is true about the universe around us. Science is the way to see the world. Religion is, at best, unnecessary - a private matter, for those who are into that sort of thing. If there’s a conflict, it’s automatically decided in favour of science. To go on believing in God today, because you had to in order to make sense of the world, would be as outdated as the British Empire or steam trains.
It’s a popular assumption that you don’t need religion in an age of science. In an article in the Independent, the atheist Richard Dawkins summed up this view of the issue as follows :
“I believe whatever is supported by evidence. I do not believe something because of faith or revelation, or tradition….. It might indeed be comforting to believe in a god, but just because something is comforting doesn’t make it true. Truth means scientific truth.”
But in the same article, however, Professor Arnold Wolfendale, who was then the Astronomer Royal, affirmed his belief in God, and observed:
“Without my faith, I would not have a frame of reference on which to hang a number of attitudes. Science does not give me that frame of reference: I find it a fascinating subject, but rather cold and impersonal.”
Does science really give us all we need to know about the world? Does it live up to this popular perception? Have we been too spellbound by its success to use our common sense about its weaknesses? And how come so many men and women scientists are also committed Christians? Is there really such a conflict after all?
The Limits Of Science
The first thing to say is that science has limits.
Science is just one particular, organised way of asking questions about the world, and looking for answers. It can only speak about certain things, and in certain ways - things you can measure by controlled experiment and repeat time and again. It splits complex phenomena into small enough parts to be examined, deduces hypotheses, and tests them. Within bounds like these, it is extremely successful. Outside them, it is silent. That’s one of the reasons why it’s silly to write off miracles as “unscientific”. Science can only test things that can be reproduced. By definition, miracles are unrepeatable events, so science simply has nothing it can say about them, one way or the other.
And it’s easy to exaggerate the “truth” of the latest scientific theory, to the point when it becomes almost holy writ. But theories are provisional. They are apt to change, open to being proved false as well as shown to be “true”. Some theories simply don’t survive, like the flat earth, and even the most fundamental ones change. And it’s not all cold logic. Some of the most important like quantum theory have required great imaginative leaps. Speculation and intuition both play a part, especially in the grand framework theories, like evolution and cosmology. And theories can only describe what we might expect to happen, consistent with the data currently available. They can never prescribe what must happen. Science is a detective, not a law enforcer.
Science is very good at solving problems but it won’t tell you what to do with the answers. It may discover something remarkable like the energy in an atomic nucleus, but it won’t tell you whether to make a bomb out of it, a nuclear power station, a cancer treatment or to leave it alone. A few years ago, science was seen as the great hope for the future of mankind. The environmental crisis now suggests that without some values to guide and restrain it, it could be the end of humankind. Many are saying if that is the product of a purely scientific view of the world, it’s high time we had another one.
Science has limits. It can brilliantly answer “how” questions, but it has no way to address “why” questions, like “Why is the universe there at all?”, or “Why is the universe so orderly that we can do science?”, let alone “Why is there so much suffering?” or “What is the meaning of life?” or “Who am I?” That would be going way off the graph paper of what science itself can talk about, into realms where you have no measurable data or controlled experiments.
Different ways of knowing
Many people have often made the mistake of assuming that once you’ve explained something in scientific terms, that’s all it is. If you can explain something religious using science, you’ve “explained it away”. Imagine two people walking along a cliff top. Out at sea, suddenly a bright red flare shoots across the sky. One of them is physicist, who happens to have some measuring equipment handy. She calculates the trajectory and velocity of the flare, the wavelength of the light, and so on, and writes a concise description of what she observed. The other is a boy scout who says to himself, “That’s a distress flare, I must run and tell the coastguard!” Both of them gave an accurate and valid description of what they saw. But they were different, with different aims in mind. This illustrates the principle of “complementarity” - that there can be complementary ways of looking at the world, telling different sorts of stories. Neither one could claim it did not need the other. It’s the same with science and Christian belief.
There are actually many different ways of knowing - mathematical, scientific, historical records, personal knowledge. The Christian claims are grounded mainly in these last two. How God revealed himself in Christ is not accessible by experimentation, but from ancient documents, to be assessed in the appropriate way. How we know God is the way we know people - by experience.
Theology has its limits too
But if Science has no right to be put up as a reason for disbelieving in God, religion has no right to be blind to science! Theology can also get out of place and claim things for itself about the universe which lie outside its scope. In what sense does the Bible reveal God’s truth about the physical realm? Its primary purpose is to set out how God has shown himself to people down the ages, and offers a relationship with him in Jesus Christ. The opening chapters of Genesis lay the foundations for its main themes and purposes, with a cosmogony which uses the terms and concepts of a particular period of the ancient Near East, rich in figures of speech and literary devices. The mistake is if we insist on reading it as if it were a modern scientific text book. We should read it on its own terms.
It is perfectly possible for God to create the world in 6 days, 15 billion years, or the twinkle of an eye, but what I see in the early chapters of Genesis doesn’t tell me that sort of information. They don’t come across to me like narrative accounts like St.Paul’s journeys round the Eastern Mediterranean in the book of Acts of the Apostles, or of Jesus’ resurrection in the gospels. These read to me as if their authors expect me to take them as narrative of real events, or based on eye witness accounts. I treat them accordingly. Genesis lays out in wonderful but simple terms the grand truths on which all the rest of the Bible is built - that God created the universe out of nothing, utterly dependent on him, that human beings are “in His image” in a special relationship to God and to the rest of the creation, but that we have terribly spoilt these relationships in rebellion and pride, but that God still desires our relationship. But they don’t tell me much about science, as science.
The church in Galileo’s time made the mistake of reading the Bible too rigidly through the spectacles of the cosmology of the day, and so was blind to what Galileo saw through his telescope. We can do the same. The Big Bang theory may seem to fit in general terms with Genesis chapter 1, but we should not make a dogma out of it! Theories may change.
Science and Christian faith are not, I would argue, at odds with one another unless, either science tries to claim too much, as if it could explain everything, or Christians insist that the Bible should be read as though it was a twenty-first century science book. If I want to know the mechanisms of how the universe came about, I note what science currently says, and hold it, but only with a light touch. But if I want to know what the universe means, I look to the Bible.
Science points towards belief
This leads to my last point, in the words of an ancient Hebrew poem, “The heavens are telling the glory of God. The earth shows his handiwork.” Far from being at odds with Christian belief, science positively points towards it from what we observe of the universe. For example, there is an amazing degree of order at all levels in the universe, from flowers to galaxies. There is a sense of “designedness” - it almost looks as if it were designed by a person. People have applied information theory to the sequence of the DNA code, and some have suggested it looks like what a mind would produce, rather just than something random. Over the last few years scientists have realised that, for there to be the sort of universe that has produced conscious living beings like us, the basic physical constants could only have been within extraordinarily tight limits. Physicists reckon for example that the factors controlling the rate of expansion of the Big Bang had to be tuned to within one part in 10 to the power 59 (ten with 59 noughts on the end) for there to be an observable universe at all. Chance? One eminent scientist said “our universe looks spectacularly fine tuned for life”.
The sociologist Peter Berger has pointed to many “signals of transcendence” in lives that profess not to believe in it the supernatural. None of these are proofs of God, of course. As I’ve said already, that is about personal knowledge which you don’t “prove” in a mathematical sense, but you experience and commit yourself to. But they do prompt the question : Is the universe more likely to look designed without a designer, or as that it was designed by a person?
Science itself relies on Faith
Well that’s a matter of faith, you say. But science itself relies on faith. It depends on certain things which it can’t prove - the idea of that there is an orderly universe “out there”, that human beings are rational and can make a rational exploration of it, with the fantastic result that what we imagine inside our minds actually corresponds with what is there in the universe. Science cannot itself prove these things. They are all assumptions it originally borrowed from a Christian view of the world, and the roots of them come straight out of the opening pages of the the book of Genesis!
In my PhD research, I found that chemical experiments I was doing in England were giving quite different products from reputable results just published on the same chemical system by a group working in Melbourne. According to all the evidence I ought to conclude that the laws of chemistry were different between England and Australia. But by faith I believed in continuity of the laws in the observable universe. So, despite the evidence, I suspected some discrepancy in our methods between me and the Australians’. 15 years later a chance conversation led me to a bizarre but possible explanation to do with a subtle difference in the way we had mixed our reagents, but back then, all I had to go on was what a Christian would call faith.
Answers are called for from somewhere else
In the great questions of life science is silent. It can’t answer the really big question which lies behind all the mechanisms : why does anything exist at all? The famous physicist Stephen Hawking argued that even suppose you could write a set of ultimate equations for a theory of everything, “it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” Answers are called for from somewhere else.
Where then do we look to understand the purpose and meaning of the world? How do we make the connections with wider things than mere physical phenomena, or know the meaning or friendship and love, or 1001 things of life utterly basic to life - like the birth of a child, or death, or the pain of suffering? About all things, so basic and fundamental to us, science can only talk in mechanisms and processes. We all know there is more to life than what science can tell us. Christian belief claims to address all these and much, much more.
You could say God invites us to make an experiment of faith. He offers us evidence that he is there, and invites us to trust our lives to that evidence, and to confirm by our own experience that it is true. That is no more “irrational” a thing to do than to trust any human relationship, or hold any belief about the world. Even atheism is ultimately a matter of faith.