Scientists Seek Place for God While Embracing Reason

By Cary McMullen
Ledger Religion Editor

Published Sunday, January 4, 2004

"Ultimately the issue is whether we live in a world that makes sense not just now, but totally and for ever. . . . Christian belief provides the essential resource for answering this fundamental question."

-- Sir John Polkinghorne, Anglican priest and former particle physicist, in "The God of Hope and the End of the World"

"(Religion) seems to me a kind of wishful thinking that human beings ought to have outgrown long ago."

-- Nobel physics laureate Steven Weinberg

Order or chaos? Purpose or meaninglessness?

Was the physical universe -- all we see around us -shaped by the hand of God? Or are we just the product of pure chance, double sixes in a cosmic roll of the dice?

Preachers would proclaim yes to the first question. Empirical scientists might scribble equations to demonstrate the accuracy of the second. Trying to reconcile the two would seem a fool's errand.

But consider these efforts -- some of them controversial -- to broaden the intersection between science and religion:

1.- At Florida Southern College in Lakeland, a recent forum sponsored by Consilience, an organization that explores issues between religion and science, examined ethical questions about the construction and use of weapons of mass destruction. Assistant professor of religion Sara Harding and associate professor of biology Nancy Morvillo formed Consilience after teaching a course together. They are not trying to discredit science or religion, they say.

"It's just as bad for science to say `We have no need of God' as for theology to say `Science isn't right.' Most people are somewhere in the middle," Morvillo said. "Did God design the world through evolution? Did he make up the rules and disappear? Where is his hand?"

2.- In June, Professor Philip Clayton of Claremont (Calif.) School of Theology completed an eight-year, $5 million project, Science and the Spiritual Quest. Funded by the Templeton Foundation, which has become a major force in the reconciliation of science and religion, the project brought scientists together for private discussions about the role religion plays in their work and personal lives.

"Scientists are rediscovering their own beliefs and spirituality. Unbelievable things happened at these meetings. One famous neuroscientist said, `I was brought up Jewish, but for the first time, I have a sense of what it means to be a Jewish intellectual,' " Clayton said by phone from his home.

3.- More than 200 people gathered in a hotel ballroom in Lake Mary in October for a symposium sponsored by Science Speaks, an organization of Orlando-area lay people, who are interested in one of the more controversial approaches to science and religion, Intelligent Design. Like spiritual crime scene investigators, followers of Intelligent Design look for scientific evidence -- an equation here, a tell-tale chemical interaction there -- to demonstrate that God left his fingerprints on the world.

"The Bible is not a science book. I agree that God can't be proved scientifically," said Craig Spearman, president of Science Speaks. "However, a number of us believe God has to be approached from a rational basis. There's sufficient circumstantial evidence that would bring any reasonable man to conclude we're not here by accident."

Harding, Morvillo, Clayton and Spearman are part of a growing movement to bring together the material and the metaphysical, the seen and the unseen, in new ways. As believers who embrace science and as believing scientists, they are at a minimum trying to make a place for God in the warp and woof of the universe without excluding the results of scientific inquiry.

For example, scientists have long known of certain mathematical constants, such as the speed of light, upon which the laws of physics depend. Some scientists now calculate that if any of these constants were different by only a few percent, life as we know it would not be possible. This has been dubbed the "anthropic principle," which holds that the structure of the universe itself is friendly to life.

"Although the universe appears to have been lifeless for the first 11 billion years of its existence, there is a real sense in which it was pregnant with the possibility of life from the very beginning," writes the Rev. John Polkinghorne, who turned to the Anglican priesthood after spending his early career on a team of scientists that discovered the quark.

Debates about the origins of the physical world and the life on it tend to generate the most controversy -- and publicity -- in science and religion debates. But in quiet ways, the search for common ground has moved beyond haggles over cosmology and evolution into other fields. Some of them include:

Neuroscience and the cognitive sciences, which have been looking for the connection between the physical properties of the brain and mystery of human consciousness. Theologians like Nancey Murphy, professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., are excited that discoveries in this field could lead to dialogue about the holistic nature of people -that our hopes and faith are part of our physiology.

Genetics and bioethics, which include ethical issues of cloning and gene therapy to treat disease.

Spirituality and health, which study how spiritual practices such as prayer affect a patient's overall health and recovery from illness. A recent cover story in Newsweek cited a National Institutes of Health report that found people who regularly attend church live 25 percent longer than those who don't. More than 70 of the nation's 125 medical schools now offer courses in spirituality, up from three a decade ago.

"So much of what we learn from science ends up in medicine. That's where John and Jane Doe come into contact with it . . . and that's where it comes into the realm of ethics," said the Rev. Philip Hefner, recently retired director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.

The debate also affects what is taught in public school science classes, with evolution as perhaps the most visible and volatile issue in science and religion. Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection has been attacked by religious conservatives as contrary to biblical teaching since the famous Scopes' trial in 1925, in which a Tennessee schoolteacher was prosecuted for teaching evolution. In recent years there have been attempts in several states, including Ohio and Kansas, to change curricula or textbooks to cast doubt on the adequacy of the theory of evolution.

On Nov. 7, the Texas State Board of Education settled an emotional debate by deciding to approve biology text-books that treat evolution as accepted scientific theory. Religious groups, including some aligned with the Intelligent Design movement, were upset. They had argued the textbooks should teach that the theory of evolution contains flaws (see related story, this page).

That is also the view of Michael Behe (pronounced BEE-hee), professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, and one of the stars of Intelligent Design. Behe, the author of "Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution," told the Science Speaks symposium that although Darwin's theory explains some things, it does not explain everything that is attributed to it.

"I just think it's bad science. It's extremely overblown in the claims made for it," he said.

It was easier, in an age of belief, to reconcile the discoveries of science with religious doctrines. Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), a deeply religious thinker, discovered many of the laws of gravity and motion, which he ascribed to the work of an orderly creator God. In the ensuing 300 years, science pursued an increasingly independent course, unconcerned of the impact of its discoveries on believers.

It was left to theologians to figure out how to make religious sense of these discoveries. One theory, popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, held that God created the world's natural laws as unchanging, leaving God little to do but sit back and watch -- and excluding the possibility of miracles.

"It was thought that it was inappropriate for God to violate the laws of nature," said Murphy, of Fuller Theological Seminary.

Science's superior attitude as the final arbiter of knowledge began to unravel in the 1960s because scientists began to encounter limits to what they could discover, Clayton said.

"Scientists couldn't see themselves as little knowledge gods. There's nothing like encountering your own limits to wonder what might lie beyond," he said.

Not surprisingly, today there are a wide range of views about how, or whether, science and religion can relate to each other.

Murphy said believers shouldn't accommodate their beliefs to science but should be humble enough to acknowledge that new discoveries may affect their understanding of the nature of the universe. They should consult the Bible and "make corrections," she said.

"How and where God acts in the world is compatible with the scientific view of the world as governed by the laws of nature," she said.

Harding, who is married to a United Methodist minister, also favors bringing the two disciplines together.

"Science can inform your theology, your understanding of how things work, your understanding of God. There's a sense of wonderment. You think of the created universe, and if that's not an overwhelming sense of the divine, I don't know what is," she said.

Morvillo, a member of Resurrection Catholic Church in Lakeland, said she doesn't see conflict between science and religion, although she does see them as separate.

"I think they're two different ways of viewing the world. They're asking different questions and going about answering them in two different ways. One is not more right than the other," she said.

And there are those on both sides who think science and religion have no business mingling.

According to a 1999 Scientific American article, only 40 percent of a sample of American scientists expressed belief in God; less than 10 percent of members of the elite National Academy of Sciences held such a belief.

Accordingly, mutual mistrust often defines the relationship between scientists and believers, a sentiment articulated in its extreme form by Steven Weinberg, a professor at the University of Texas who shared the Nobel prize for physics in 1979.

"I think one of the great things science has done for the world is to gradually weaken the force of religious enthusiasm, and I'd hate to see that compromised by any sort of reconciliation," he said recently by phone from his office. He pointed to examples of religiously inspired violence and said, "I think the world would be better off without all that, and I think science can play a role in getting rid of it."

That seems unlikely to happen soon. Fifty years ago, there were few scholars actively working to bridge the gap between science and religion, but especially in the last decade there has been new interest. "Research News," a publication of the Templeton Foundation, lists 50 academic conferences worldwide between Nov. 1 and Feb. 1 that touch on some aspect of religion and science.

The renewed interest, and a number of those conferences, are due in large measure to the deep pockets of the Templeton Foundation, which is now directing about $25 million a year into research projects related to science and religion (see related story, this page).

The course taught by Harding and Morvillo at FSC in the spring of 2001 was developed by a $10,000 grant from the Templeton Foundation. An honors class for freshmen, it was part of a program by the foundation to encourage 100 new college courses per year in science and religion. The two are now developing a course for upper-level students to be offered this spring.

Yet Philip Hefner, the Lutheran scholar, is somewhat pessimistic about the future of bringing the two disciplines together in more fundamental ways.

"We are so far from integrating scientific knowledge into religious tradition. It's still a discussion among interested professionals. There's not a church body in which recognized leaders are saying, `We've got to give a lot of attention to this.' And in the seminaries, it's pitifully small," he said.

A question that science and religion may never agree on is the meaning of the universe. Weinberg has stated that scientific progress exposes the universe as essentially meaningless.

"With all due respect, that's just wrong," said Clayton, the Claremont professor. "The question about the ultimate significance of the universe is not decided by new facts. The question of significance is not reducible to facts. Even if everything was known about the universe, you can still watch a sunset and hold a baby and sense the presence of God."