What has science to do with theology?
Most people – including many Christians – would say that they are entirely unrelated. It is claimed that science deals with the world of reality and hard facts, but that theology belongs in a different box entirely, to be filed along with poetry and other humanities. It is of course true that science and theology deal with different subject matter and utilise different methods. Yet to say that science and faith are entirely unrelated is to claim too much.
One of the traditional ‘proofs’ of God’s existence was that natural world pointed very clearly to the existence of an all-powerful and all-wise Creator. This of course goes against the grain of much thinking today, when it is often believed that science has proven matters to be otherwise. The universe and all life on earth are instead widely held to be solely the product of blind and purposeless processes. Science and religion are considered to be – wrongly as I hope to show – in fundamental conflict and have been for hundreds of years.
This is a live issue for many people today. Religious faith is seen by some as a harmless illusion, and by an outspoken few as a dangerous delusion. But in either case faith seems to bear no relation to what is real, since science is thought to have been the victor in a science-religion war. This view spills over beyond science to the media and to the ideas that many people have about morality. So a journalist who knows next to nothing about science can merrily write that morality is what you make it, since human beings are merely ‘dancing to the music of their DNA.’ Such thinking cheers on sceptics in their scepticism, and causes Christians to fret that their faith might not be well grounded.
There are of course many individual scientists who are Christians or who at any rate believe in God, but these are not the ones we usually hear about. Instead, those who front the fabulously-filmed TV documentaries on astronomy or wildlife are usually atheists, often parading their unbelief in a way that would be unacceptable for believing scientists to do with their religious belief. In this climate, to call into question even the wildest atheist speculations about the origin of the universe or the origin of life is to risk being written off as 'attacking science' or 'trying to smuggle religion into science.'
Central to this discussion is the concept of design in the natural world. All are agreed that there is an appearance of design, although it is usually claimed that this is only an appearance rather than a reality pointing to a Designer. But as we shall see below there are good reasons to think that a design framework is not the 'science-stopper' often claimed (saying 'God made it' allegedly prevents you from being curious about nature). In fact, a design framework has much to commend it in moving the scientific project forward, quite apart from its value in suggesting persuasively that the natural world points beyond itself to a Mind behind matter, a Creator of all things.
In the rest of this article, we will look in turn at three areas where science and religion have often been held to be in conflict: the scope of science, the history of science and finally some findings of science, particularly from the stars (cosmology) and the cell (biology). In each case, it is hoped that sceptical readers and believing readers will each be given food for thought – challenging or encouraging as the case may be.
It may be a surprise to learn that there is no single agreed definition of what science is among philosophers of science. Long ago Augustine said that everybody knows what time is until they try to define it, and it's a similar situation with science. Certain elements do certainly crop up: hypotheses, experiment, data, evidence, modification of hypotheses and so on. But a hard definition is surprisingly difficult. We should remember this when someone says this or that activity is 'simply not science.'
Michael Ruse, a philosopher of biology, has tried this definition: 'Science by definition deals only with the natural, the repeatable, that which is governed by law.'1 Now that sounds plausible enough, until we notice that his definition rules out cosmology and the origin and history of life. You cannot repeat those events, and mainstream cosmology cheerfully admits that the laws of physics do not apply in the first moments after the Big Bang. So Ruse’s definition rather loses its shine.
Science derives much of its impressive cultural authority in our society from the galaxy of new technology and gadgets that we all enjoy. We can travel to the other side of the world in a metal tube with wings, confident that we will reach our destination safely. We can send and receive messages and pictures in our personal communicators way beyond what was mere fantasy in Star Trek just a generation ago. And we also benefit from the development of new drugs and other medical treatment and so on. Now if we were only dealing with these branches of science, then we might be happy to go along with the late Stephen Jay Gould’s famous model of the relations between science and religion of “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA). It even sounds quite respectful, by recognising religion as a valid field of study albeit totally segregated from science. In the words of the old hymn Jesus bids us shine: 'you in your small corner, and I in mine.'
But for some branches of science, this really won’t do. When we’re dealing with matters such as the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the phenomenon of consciousness and brain science and so on, matters are very different. Philosophy – usually materialist philosophy (the view that matter and energy are all that exists; that the spiritual realm is purely imaginary) – can easily be smuggled into science. This then becomes not science, but 'scientism', the belief that science is the only source of all true knowledge.
Here are some examples. When the late Carl Sagan introduced his 1980 TV series 'Cosmos' (recently refreshed and re-issued) by saying, 'the Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be', that was a statement of his atheist belief, not a conclusion of his astronomical studies. And when palaeontologist George Gaylord Simpson wrote that ‘Man is the result of a purposeless, natural process that did not have him in mind’2, he did not reach that view from his painstaking study of fossils. Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin rather gave the game away when he wrote that it was not that the methods and institutions of science compel us to accept a material explanation of the natural world, but rather that this arises from a prior commitment to exclusively material causes ‘for we cannot allow a Divine foot in the door.'3
Some of the most intelligent people seem unable to see that science, for all its wonderful insights, cannot give a total view of all truth and cannot disprove the existence of God. One of the world's most famous and brilliant scientists is theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. His first best-seller, the slim volume 'A Brief History of Time', adorned many bookshelves. At the end of that book, Hawking looked forward to there being a ‘Theory of Everything’, at which point, he said, we would 'know the Mind of God.' But in 2010 he changed his tune, to worldwide headlines such 'Stephen Hawking Says Physics Leaves No Room for God.' His newer co-authored book was called The Grand Design,4 and it now seems quite clear that Hawking ‘doesn’t do God.’ So what has changed? Well, it’s not the science, strangely enough. As Professor John Lennox of Oxford has pointed out5, what’s changed is that Hawking has ventured outside his field to philosophy. Strange to say, he does so quite unwittingly. He first lists the traditional Big Questions such as 'How can we understand the world?', 'Where did all this come from?' and 'Did the universe need a Creator?' He then argues that these questions, the traditional concerns of metaphysics, are now to be answered by science, since: 'philosophy is dead.'6
Can you see the difficulty here? His claim that 'philosophy is dead' is itself a statement of philosophy! And so his claim must be false. And there’s more. Hawking’s case is that the laws of physics, not the will of God, give the real explanation of how the universe came into being. He argues that the Big Bang (the origin of the universe) was the inevitable consequence of these laws: 'Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself out of nothing.'7 But what Hawking is doing here is to confuse law with something else, usually called agency. The laws of mathematics may be true, but they never placed a pound in my pocket! And while Newton’s laws of motion may explain the movement of billiard balls on the pool table, it’s the player with the crack aim who pots the ball, not the laws themselves. In the same way, laws such as gravity cannot by themselves create anything.
The conflict usually portrayed as one between science and faith is in fact another conflict altogether. It is a clash between two opposing worldviews, two opposing faiths: the belief that there is a God, and that therefore Mind came before matter; and the belief that matter is all there is, and that therefore mind is merely a product of matter and hence that God is purely imaginary. We will look below at which of these two beliefs best fits with some important recent scientific evidence, and the answer may come as quite a surprise. But first we need to turn to another important area which has been seen as a key battleground between science and religion.
As previously mentioned, that case has as its centre Galileo, to whom we must now return. Now no-one today would want to defend the Roman Catholic Church’s treatment of Galileo. Indeed even the church itself wouldn’t now wish to do so, given its apology over the matter in 1992. But the way Galileo is often used as a poster boy for atheism and materialism in making a case that science and religion are always at odds is really quite absurd. He believed in scripture before he started his campaign, and he believed it when he finished.
In popularising the theory of Copernicus, who had died largely unopposed more than 20 years before Galileo’s birth, Galileo was initially attacked by philosophers before his little difficulty with the pope. And he was attacked because he dared to question on the basis of careful observations through his telescope the reigning scientific theory, the Aristotelian dogma that had ruled for hundreds of years. Aristotle had held that the earth was stationary, the various spheres rotating around the earth being seen as in a realm of perfection without blemishes. So when Galileo reported seeing sunspots and other apparent imperfections through his telescope, his observations were seen as a direct challenge to the ruling Aristotelian view, firmly accepted by most philosophers of the day as well as by the church. Yes, bible texts such as Psalm 93:1 ('The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved') were invoked to bolster Aristotle’s view that the earth not the sun was at the centre of the solar system. But Galileo’s protest was not against the use of scripture but against what he saw as its misuse in propping up a defunct theory.
Yet it has to be said that Galileo didn’t approach the conflict very wisely. We would say today that he was lacking a good PR adviser. For in a publication presenting the two opposing views in the form of a dramatic dialogue, he put the Aristotelian view of his erstwhile friend the pope in the mouth of one Simplicio – the Fool. He also irritated the scholars by having the effrontery to write in Italian rather than Latin. All these factors are in the mix in this curious tale. So whatever else may be said, it’s certainly not a straight story of science versus religion, and the light of progress versus dark dungeons. He was in fact held under benign house arrest.
As with the matters discussed above, new findings in science are often paraded as if their discovery somehow invalidates the idea of a Creator. But again, we find that this is not the case. Although the existence of God may not be conclusively proved (or disproved) by looking at the natural world, it is arguable that some key recent findings of science fit far better with a God-centred view of reality than with atheism.
It is of course beyond dispute that natural selection can do certain things very well indeed: modify finch beaks, introduce resistance to antibiotics and so on. But these are small things. Rather than asking 'Couldn’t God have used this process in creating?' (for those who believe in God, he can of course do anything), we can ask a much more interesting scientific question: 'Does random mutation and natural selection actually possess the fabulous creative power usually attributed to it?' For if it does not, then the first question loses its force. Saying we have identified the process by which finches acquire thicker beaks over some generations is one thing; saying that the same process must therefore account for the origin of birds (with all their organs, feathers etc) is a quite different claim.
Peering into the nano-world of the living cell, we find mysteries that material explanations alone are struggling to explain. The DNA in our cells – that which makes me me and you you – has been described by Bill Gates (surely the ultimate authority in today’s society!) as 'like a computer program, but far, far more advanced than any we’ve ever created.' So where did the software that drives the cell come from? Those of us who are parents or grandparents and who have bought computer games for our children have no doubt often wondered why we pay £40 for a flimsy disk. The answer of course is that we are paying not just for the physical disk, but for all the hours of work put in by intelligent software engineers. Similarly, the text you are now reading on this page cannot be explained solely in terms of the pixels on the screen (or the physics and chemistry of paper and ink, should you have printed it out on paper); it is displayed in physical form in the various ways, but has its origin in the mind of the author. So then, with DNA: must that software really have arisen spontaneously from purposeless, random processes? Is that in fact a coherent position? Or does the evidence not instead point to a Mind behind matter? If it takes a human to write a paragraph or even a word, what are we to say about the authorship of the longest word in the universe, the 3.1-billion-letter word of the human genome?
One of the tests of a robust scientific theory is whether it is good at predicting what has yet to be discovered. Here again, recent discoveries about the living cell have found Darwinian predictions to be wanting, and have instead lent support to the much-despised teleological approach known as ‘intelligent design’. Within the living cell, the proportion of the genome that codes for protein – and therefore has a known use – is very small. 98% of it has been considered for decades to be useless, and so was dubbed 'Junk DNA.' Time and time again this has been invoked – by atheistic evolutionists and by theistic evolutionists alike – as firm evidence for the process of unguided neo-Darwinism, 'just what we would expect' from long eons of random mutations. As recently as 2006, Francis Collins, the former Director of the Human Genome Project, set this forth very firmly as clear evidence that evolution was the way God had done his creating: otherwise, why would so much junk have been found?
Except that we now know it isn’t junk. Literally every week that passes, new scientific papers are being published which reveal whole new levels of function within the living cell in this hitherto ignored genetic material. Far from a design framework being a hindrance to scientific enquiry, it now looks like the hindrance has come from another source: from a remarkable lack of curiosity arising from the mindset that junk is just what would be expected from Darwin’s theory. And rather than a design framework being a 'science stopper' or being a sign of 'bad science', it is arguable that such an approach would have looked earlier for purpose and function in the parts of DNA that had not yet yielded their secrets.
The type of reasoning outlined above is sometimes dismissed as a 'god-of-the-gaps' argument: when we are confronted with something that we have no material explanation for, we say God has done it, only to have to retreat ignominiously once our knowledge increases. But the 'god-of-the-gaps' criticism does not apply here, since we are discussing an increase in knowledge rather than a lack. And the more we find about the wonders of the universe and of the living cell, the more these things appear to be designed. To adopt such reasoning in cosmology but to exclude it from biology, as many scientists who are also Christians apparently wish to do, seems to me to be both inconsistent and unjustified.
Some 3,000 years ago a young middle eastern shepherd was out looking up at the night sky. Perhaps a few years later, when he became king, he wrote a poem about the vivid impression the stars had made on him about God’s glory. We have it recorded in the Bible as the first two verses of Psalm 19: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.’
After hundreds of years of scientific research, much of it carried out by those who, like Maxwell, shared the Psalmist’s faith, what do we find? Far from us having less reason than the Psalmist to believe in God as Creator, we in fact have much, much more – from the stars to the cell. Far from it being proved that ‘matter is all there is’, there are in fact many pointers that Mind came before matter. Far from it being shown that impersonal forces alone caused both the origin and the development of life in all its fabulous diversity, it looks increasingly as if such claims are overblown and neglect the clear evidence of a designing intelligence.
1 M. Ruse,'Will science ever fail?' New Scientist, 8 August 1992, pp. 32-35
2 G.G. Simpson The Meaning of Evolution, revised edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), p. 345.
R. Lewontin ‘Billions and billions of demons’, New York Review of Books, 1997. Review of Carl Sagan’s 1997 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Random House).
4 S.Hawking and L. Mlodinow The Grand Design, (London, Bantam Press, 2010).
5 J. Lennox God and Stephen Hawking: Whose design is it anyway? (London, Lion, 2011).
6 Hawking and Mlodinow, op. cit., p. 5.
7 Ibid. p. 180.
8 C.S. Lewis Miracles, (London, Collins, 1947), p. 110.
9 See further P.J. Sampson 6 Modern Myths about Christianity and Western Civilization (Inter Varsity Press, Downers Grove, 2001), esp. chapters 1, 2 and 5.
10 A.D. White A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (London, Macmillan, 1896) Vol II, p. 63.
11 B. Russell History of Western Philosophy (London, Allen & Unwin, 1947) p. 550.
12 C. Russell Beliefs and Values in Science Education (Buckingham, Open University Press, 1995), p. 125.
13 A. Eddington 'The End of the World: from the Standpoint of Mathematical Physics', Nature 127 (1931), p. 450.
14 J. Maddox 'Down with the Big Bang' Nature 340 (1989), p. 425.
15 P. Davies The Goldilocks Enigma (London, Penguin, 2007).
16 Interview in New York Times, 12 March, 1978.
17 R. Dawkins The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (London, Longmans, 1986), p. 1.
18 F. Crick What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (New York, Basic Books, 1989), p. 138.
19 T. Nagel Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford, Oxford University Press 2012), p. 6.
20 Ibid p. 6.
21 Ibid p. 7.
22 Interview with ABC News, ‘Famous Atheist Now Believes In God’ www.abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory?id=315976
Alistair Donald is Chaplain to Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, UK. Before becoming a Church of Scotland minister, he worked as an environmental scientist.