Putting faith in science
THE WASHINGTON TIMES Published 10/22/2001
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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.
Copyright © 2001
News World Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.
"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
"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
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
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
"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."
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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."
Reprinted with permission of The Washington Times