Putting faith in science

Larry Witham
THE WASHINGTON TIMES Published 10/22/2001
This article is from The Washington Times
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     William Phillips' life changed in more than one way after the impromptu press conference for his 1997 Nobel Prize in physics.
     "I said something like, 'There are many people I want to thank, and I'd also like to thank God for giving us such a wonderful and interesting universe to explore," the Gaithersburg resident said in an interview.
     Such accolades for a deity, which are rare in Nobel settings, put Mr. Phillips on the radar screen of the science and religion movement.
      Yesterday, the churchgoing physicist addressed a main showcase of the movement, the Science and the Spiritual Quest II conference at Harvard University.
     "Being an ordinary scientist and an ordinary Christian seems perfectly natural to me," he told the gathering of several hundred at the Havard Memorial Church. "For others, however, it appears strange, even astonishing, that someone could be serious about science and about faith."
     If a half-century ago people believed that science and religion were at war with each other, the new movement says it doesn't have to be so.
     At the forefront of the warming relations are scholars, scientists, philanthropists, and a growing number of Americans who like reading books on the subject. The Harvard event is the second of its kind, following a similar conference held at Berkeley in 1998.
     Both events gathered 60 scientists in the fields of biology, physics and cosmology, and computer science, who wrote papers, met in closed conferences, and cultivated friendships. They then took their experience public in a culminating event.
     "The idea is for some of the scientists to share with the public what they've discussed in private for two years," said Phillip Clayton, a visiting professor of religion at Harvard and organizer of the three-day assembly, which is funded by the John Templeton Foundation. "In the very bastion of higher education, they'll speak of an openness to religious questions and a belief in higher beings."
     Some controversy is expected.
     After the first conference, which generated a great amount of media coverage, including a Newsweek cover story titled "Science Finds God," some hard-nosed scientists objected to the dalliance with theology. More traditional believers questioned what scientists know about faith, and objected to some of their efforts to redefine it.
     But the key goal is being achieved - to make the subject of religion credible in the world of science. "In eight years since [the idea] began, we've watched this transformation," Mr. Clayton said.
     After 20 years of political drama and headlines about the evolution-versus-creation debate, Americans tend to think that subject alone constitutes the "science-religion" dialogue. It has also perpetuated the image that science and religion are at war.
     "The ordinary believer, and, more important, the person seeking to find belief, needs reassurance that science isn't antagonistic to belief," said the Rev. Arthur Peacocke, a biologist and former agnostic who, after playing a role in the DNA revolution, became an Anglican priest.
     "Science influences everyone now, and that coincides with the global awakening of the religions to each other," he said in an interview before the conference, for which he gave the keynote address yesterday. "The best way to get the religions to work together is together to start facing up to what the scientific vista means for the spiritual enterprise."
     Encouraging overlap

     Science and religion can interact in four different ways, depending on a person's outlook, experts say. The first approach is conflict. In this war between science and religion, science views religion as an illusion; religion views science as human hubris or an attack on scriptural truths.
     The second approach holds the two in sharp separation. The National Academy of Science said in 1981, for example, that science and religion are "are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought."
     The third and fourth approaches to science and religion involve interaction - either as an exchange of ideas or as a final "integration" of the spiritual and the physical.
     "It's very hard to defend the idea that all 'real' knowledge is on the science side, and none on the religion side," Mr. Clayton said. "Everyone knows it's false. You can know you love your wife and know that life is meaningful. You know certain actions are wrong."
     Such efforts to overlap scientific and religious phenomena are encouraged in the science-religion dialogue. This may involve the use of religious terms to describe scientific matters, or vice versa.
     A more secular effort at overlap is the idea of "religious naturalism," in which scientists give nature the devotion usually afforded a deity.
     Yesterday, Mr. Peacocke urged something in between, an "open theology" that adapts to new scientific findings. "Can religion learn to outgrow its reliance on claimed authorities and popular images of a God who acts and reveals by supernatural means?" he asked.
     The Rev. John Polkinghorne, a particle physicist turned Anglican cleric, said the key questions for the science-religion debate have been posed during the past 30 years.
     Many scientists, he said, are replacing the idea that life is mechanistic with the view that natural systems are domains of complexity and chaos. Some believe that God's work is hidden in the complexity.
     Mr. Polkinghorne said another trend today is toward "natural theology" - the effort to find in nature evidence of a God and the deity's characteristics. Natural theology was rejected with a vengeance after Darwin's theory of evolution was said to explain all complexity in the universe.
     Conflict between the conference participants comes usually over the question of biology - for example, whether God acts in evolution or whether scientists may clone humans.
     "In biology, the differences between theists and nontheists are much more pronounced," Mr. Clayton said. "There's heated debate: Is Darwinian evolution sufficient to account for all things that exist? The theists say no, the naturalists say yes. There, the debates are much more divisive, even to the point where the smooth flow of the workshop is endangered."
     Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson, a critic of Darwinism, says the science-religion dialogue is dominated by "modernist theology" that caves in to scientific "naturalism" and never questions the science itself.
     Many religious thinkers in this discussion say "that theism must always yield to naturalism on any subject about which science has the power to investigate," Mr. Johnson said. "[They] would never argue that God might have intervened in nature to produce the first living organism."
     Meanwhile, the National Center for Science Education, a leading critic of creationism, describes the dialogue as bolstering evolution teaching in schools because it shows that religious people accept the tenets of science.
     "Participants seemed largely content to let science rather than revelation tell us about the nature of the physical world," said director Eugenie Scott. "The 'science and religion' movement may be beneficial to the public understanding of science and evolution."
     Looking for meaning
     Scientists may still be setting themselves up for peer-group sneers by joining in the conference, says former religion professor Bill Grassie, who founded the Philadelphia Center for Science and Religion.
     "This is a risky thing professionally," he said. "Participants are usually in their mid to late careers. They're looking for something more meaningful."
     Though science will not return to the era when Isaac Newton said God adjusted the orbits of planets, Mr. Grassie believes new, fuzzier realities in biology, cosmology and physical systems allow scientists to see something more at work. "These categories don't fit into the dogmatic materialist view," he said.
     Foremost, he said, is the need for scientists to join the ethical debate as humanity faces the prospects of genetic engineering and environmental collapse.
     Indeed, concerns over stem-cell research or human cloning continue to engage the religious public, but it's still questionable whether wider America will take to the science-religion dialogue, said James Miller, a Presbyterian minister and officer with the science and religion program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
     Clearly, there has been a rise in Bible studies on science and Genesis, and a boom in books on spirituality and the cosmos. Still, Mr. Miller said, the newcomer needs to have mastered a minimum of knowledge to get excited about the subject.
      "It's hard to do science-religion dialogue unless you know a little bit from both sides," he said. "We hope this eventually reaches down to the grass roots."
     Mr. Phillips, the Nobel physicist, attends Fairhaven United Methodist Church in Gaithersburg because he takes the deity personally. "Einstein's god, who is really just the laws of nature, is not for me," he said. "I'm strongly of the conviction that God is personal, and this is the foundation of my faith."
     But he wonders whether science could ever really touch that question, let alone prove anything about the God he worships.
     "Let's imagine we do learn a lot more, and it is really pointing us to the idea of a Creator," Mr. Phillips said. "It's difficult to see how that will point to a Creator who wants a personal relationship with us, who loves us, who wants us to love each other, who has expectations for us that come to us by the wisdom of Scriptures."
     Still, he said, both science's limits and its findings could bolster believers in a world of doubt. "Some things about science," he said, "give you the impossibility of ruling out divine intervention."

Copyright © 2001 News World Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of The Washington Times

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