The conflict between science and religion is generally overstated. But it is certainly true that science is the matrix that most people of our day — believers or not — use as the basis for understanding the natural world we live in. Atheists and agnostics stop there; believers add a supplemental layer of faith to their view of the universe that includes a doctrine or idea of God and that reflects a view or theory of how God acts (or doesn’t act) in the natural world. So does science strengthen our faith or threaten it? Is it easier or tougher to be a believer in the age of modern science than, say, the time of Hellenistic philosophy and paganism or the early modern era of demonology and witch-hunts?
This general question of achieving faith while living in the age of modern science is the subject of physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne’s book Belief in God in the Age of Science. The book is based on a series of visiting lectures delivered at Yale in 1996, so it is a short book aimed at a general audience rather than a detailed work of theology. But it asks the right questions and does not finesse its answers by misstating the science or by employing faithful handwaving rather than engaging in serious discussion. The book seems like a helpful starting point for a discussion of religion and science. I’ll make a few general statements or claims that more or less follow from a reading of the book, supported with helpful quotes from the author.
1. Explicit signs that God had a hand in the creation of the universe are lacking. There are thousands of cosmologists who spend their days assembling theories and data to explain how the universe created itself 15 billion years ago and how it has expanded and developed under its own power — guided by the physical laws of the universe — since that time. The cosmologists are pretty good at their job. Accepting for the moment their view of cosmological history, I think there is still a quandry for the atheist at time t=0, best captured by the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” There is speculation but no consensus on what got the ball rolling, so to speak. For the believer, the answer is staightforward, if veiled: There is something rather than nothing because God determined there should be something in order to fulfill his divine plan or purpose.
But is there any objective evidence to support the claim that God had a hand in the creation of the universe? As Polkinghorne puts it, “The world is not full of items stamped ‘made by God’” (p. 1). He lists the comprehensibility of the cosmos itself and self-aware human consciousness that has arisen within it as giving general hints of God’s participation in the process.
Those who work in fundamental physics encounter a world whose large-scale structure (as described by cosmology) and small-scale process (as described by quantum theory) are alike characterized by a wonderful order that is expressible in precise and elegant mathematical terms. … This use [by some physicists] of abstract mathematics as a technique of physical discovery points to a very deep fact about the nature of the universe that we inhabit, and to the remarkable conformity of our human minds to its patterning. (p. 2)
As Polkinghorne puts this “deep fact” more succinctly, “There is no a priori reason why beautiful equations should prove to be the clue to understanding nature; … why our minds should have such ready access to the deep structure of the universe” (p. 4). In other words, don’t argue that the design of the human eye is evidence of God rather than an evolutionary development; just write E=mc2 on the chalkboard and leave it at that.
2. How does God perform particular acts in a world governed by natural laws? Creation is not enough; we want God to act in the present, not just the past. We want a personal God, not just a cosmic God. We want a God who will arbitrarily intervene on our behalf in the otherwise orderly operation of natural laws.
God is not like the law of gravity, totally indifferent to context and uniformly unchanging in consequence. The Christian God is not just a deistic upholder of the world. If petitionary prayer, and the insights of a providence at work in human lives and in universal history, are to carry the weight of meaning that they do in Christian tradition and experience, then they must not simply be pious ways of speaking about a process from which particular divine activity is in fact absent and in which the divine presence is unexpressed, save for a general letting-be. (p. 49)
But how exactly does this divine intervention occur without leaving conspicuous divine calling cards scattered among the flow of daily events? One may, of course, simply shrug and say that God moves in a mysterious way, yet “the demand for an integrated account of both theological and scientific insight impels us to the task” of explaining divine agency and action in the world or, as Polkinghorne terms it, finding the “causal joint” that links God to the physical world (p. 59). Polkinghorne discusses and rejects several possibilities for this causal joint, including quantum indeterminacy, before casting his vote for chaotic systems (in which very small perturbations produce large consequences for the later behavior of the system) as “showing a glimmer of … how God exercises providential interaction with creation” (p. 62-63; emphasis in original).
The trick is to make room for openness in the succession of caused events in the world rather than be confined to a closed and fully determined chain of events. This bumps up against the classical theological claim that the future is fully known to a God who stands entirely outside the flow of time. But an open universe implies a different divine approach. “If the physical universe is one of true becoming, with the future not yet formed and existing, and if God knows that world in its temporality, then that seems to imply that God cannot yet know the future. … Omniscience is self-limited by God in the creation of an open world of becoming” (p. 73).
This discussion does not, of course, answer the difficult question that heads this section. As Polkinghorne concludes his own discussion, “We are a long way from a full understanding of our own powers of agency, let alone how God works in the world” (p. 74). It does perhaps show that serious thinking about God’s interaction with or intervention into the orderly causal processes of the physical world tends to lead one to rethink the classical theological formulation of God’s attributes and powers, something Mormons are already inclined to do.
3. There is more room for dialogue between science and religion now than in the past. The bookshelves at libraries and bookstores certainly make the point. He acknowledges the difficulty theologians face in learning enough science to have a meaningful engagement. Some physicists have attempted to engage with serious theology (as Polkinghorne has done), but other fields need to contribute. “We desperately need the participation of more biologists, more practitioners of the human sciences, and more theologians,” he says (p. 78).
What should that dialogue look like? “[A]ttempts to articulate Christian belief in ways that seem natural and congenial to the scientific mind” is one way of describing it (p. 84). Polkinghorne points out this does not mean subordinating theology to science. He adds a further contrast between assimilationists and what we might call separationists. “The assimilationist seeks the most immediate and accessible correlation between scientific and religious thinking,” which to me does seem inclined to simply restate or recharacterize religious ideas or events in terms friendlier to present-day science (p. 86). A separationist (whom he terms a “consonantist”), “while wishing to ensure that theological understanding is consistent with what science tells us about the structure and history of the physical world, will insist that theology is as entitled as science to retain those categories which its experience has demanded that it shall use, however counterintuitive they may be” (p. 86). I suspect most LDS participants in the religion-science dialogue fall into the separationist camp.
Conclusion. Let me return to my opening point: The primary challenge of modern theology is to establish a paradigm within which faith can persist in the age of science.
Here’s a question that perhaps makes this point for the LDS reader. You are studying an LDS doctrine or passage of scripture, say this one: “As one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words” (Moses 1:38). Would you be more pleased if Augustine, Luther, Barth, or modern science lent support to your view of what that verse means? I think we’re all happier with science in our corner. It will take a lot of dialogue to get us there.
Other fine posts on this topic: