The relationship between science and religion can hardly be described as a good friendship. Indeed, as part of our modern inheritance, the unspoken notion that science and religion, like reason and faith, are antithetic and contradictory, pervades our culture to such an extent that we do not even realize that it is there. Postmodernism, in its various forms, typically challenges such simple oppositions, and there are clear signs that this binary distinction is being called into question, partly as a result of a revolution within science itself.
During the academic year of 1991-92, I had the opportunity to spend a sabbatical year in Paris. During that time, my wife Adele and I were surprised to notice intense activity, in the form of books, conferences, and symposia, on the theme of “Science and Faith,” with the purpose of bringing them together after a long time of separation and antagonism. Significantly, this attempt toward reconciliation was beginning in France, the country that so much contributed to the dichotomy between the two in the first place.
Three books figure prominently in my present discussion about science and faith. The first, the best-selling God and Science,1 consists of a dialogue between J. Guitton, a highly respected Catholic philosopher and a well-known member of the French National Academy, and Grichka and Igor Bogdanov, young scientists whose fields of research are in astrophysics. In the dialogue between Guitton and the Bogdanov brothers, the scientists answer the questions posed by the philosopher about the laws governing the natural world. Intriguing questions are addressed: “Where the universe came from? What is real? What are the relationships between conscience and matter? Why does anything exist at all?” In every instance the philosopher, who is also a believer in God and in the Bible, finds that the answers he receives from science give him comfort and strength in his faith. He finds no contradiction between the two; on the contrary, everything he hears about science strengthens his faith.
A collection of essays edited by Jean Delumeau, Le Savant et la Foi,2 presents a similar theme. It consists of nineteen contributions from scientists, some of them highly reputed, who explain, in often touching terms, how they reconcile their faith with their scientific research. One of the essays is the result of a collaboration among some twenty scientists affiliated with the University of Paris-Sud (Orsay, Gif, Saclay, etc.), who hold monthly meetings to discuss issues of science and faith in relationship to their research.
A third book that attests to this renewed interest in the relationship between science and faith is another collection of essays, Can Scientists Believe?,3 written by scientists from different religious traditions and edited by Sir Neville Mott, winner of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1977. In this book, Mott himself explains how he became a Christian at the age of fifty, when, as head of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, in England, he was invited by the vicar of the university church to join other leading scientists in contributing to a lecture series there about science and religion. Being agnostic, he felt a need to do some reading before discussing something about which he knew very little, and this was the beginning of his conversion.
In January 1992, the Catholic newspaper La Croix organized its second conference on “Science and Faith,” a day-long conference which took place in a theater in Paris and was widely attended. Among the participants were scientists, theologians, historians, and philosophers, representing all the major religious traditions, and it included atheists of good will, who were open to dialogue. Some of the participants were people of high professional standing, members of the French Academy. The opening addresses were delivered by Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris, and Professor Hubert Curien, minister in the French government for scientific research.
The recurrent theme of all the contributions at the conference was “Scientism is dead.” In order to understand the significance of that pronouncement in the context of our discussion of spirituality and postmodernism, we must consider the historical development of science.
In the ancient and medieval worlds, science and religion were part of the same cultural heritage; one was unthinkable without the other. What happened later to cause the schism between them?
The story is well-known. Modern science developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), in the aftermath of a great period, the Italian Renaissance, during which attention shifted from God to humankind, from the supernatural to the natural.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, which saw such technological advances as electricity and the steam engine, which made such a deep impact in the life of the Western world, confidence in science was unlimited. There was a general feeling that science would ultimately solve all the problems of society and the human condition. Suffering, diseases, poverty-all these evils would sooner or later be eliminated by science and technology. There was no place for God. Human reason could reach the ultimate truth without the need of a supernatural power.
In philosophy these ideas culminated in schools of thought such as logical positivism, in which there was no room for a transcendent superior being. All these schools of thought are usually referred to under the general name of “scientism.” When, therefore, H. Curien, and the other participants in the 1992 conference in Paris, boldly declared the “death of scientism,” they marked the end of a whole historical development and celebrated the present, post-modern period in science.
In the beginning of the twenty-first century we are more ready to recognize humbly that science has its own limitations and cannot cure all the evils of our human condition. This altered perception of science has been fostered by the advent of the so-called new science, which developed during the third decade of the last century. Quantum Mechanics has revolutionized the way people think about the natural world. In the atomic and nuclear realm the deterministic model, advanced by Laplace in his System of the World, was no longer valid. Certainty had to be replaced by the notion of probability; the whole principle of causality had to be questioned and revised. For example, the notion of “orbit,” perfectly valid when describing the motion of the earth around the sun, became meaningless in the new theory, which was designed to describe the properties of a negative electron moving around a positive nucleus. A well-defined trajectory was replaced by a “probability cloud.”
As these examples indicate, our ability to grasp reality is limited. Waves and particles are different descriptions of the same reality, which we are not able to define in absolute terms, as was once claimed by the deterministic science of the nineteenth century. At this point we realize that we must give up the idea of grasping “the thing in itself.” All this does not mean that the old, deterministic science was wrong, but only that it was correct under certain approximations, which are not valid in the micro-world of atoms and nuclei.
The healthy effect of this great revolution, brought about by the advent of the new science and Quantum Mechanics, has been to shake the arrogance of those who believed that everything could be predicted, once the initial conditions of the system were known, and to introduce an element of chance. We might say, in different words, that there is a place for God in the new scheme of ideas.
Einstein’s unenthusiastic response to Quantum Mechanics shows that he clearly perceived the “place for God” at the very heart of things. In the early stage of development of the new physics, he wrote to Niels Bohr: “Quantum Mechanics is very impressive. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory produces a good deal, but hardly brings us close to the secret of the Old One. I am at all events convinced that He does not play dice.”4
Einstein’s letters and essays are famous for their many references to God. Although he did not have a religious affiliation and shunned all forms of organized religion, Einstein the scientist had a firm belief in God. Forty years before the 1992 conference in Paris declared the “death of scientism,” Einstein had come to this same conclusion, as shown in a letter to his dear friend Solovine5:
“You find it strange that I consider the comprehensibility of the world (to the extent that we are authorized to speak of such comprehensibility) as a miracle or as an eternal mystery. Well, a priori one should expect a chaotic world which cannot be grasped by the mind in any way... There lies the weakness of positivists and professional atheists who are elated because they feel that they have not only successfully rid the world of gods, but also “bared the miracles.” Oddly enough, we must be satisfied to acknowledge the “miracle” without there being any legitimate way for us to approach it.”
As an example of the “new scientist,” Einstein rejects a science without faith, without belief in the “miracle” that remains “unapproachable” and “mysterious.” Perhaps the best description of Einstein’s attitude toward religion appears on the back of the dedication page in a recent biography: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind,”6 as Einstein once wrote to explain his personal creed.
Given the death of scientism, the discoveries of Quantum Mechanics, and the obvious connection between faith and science in the life and work of men like Einstein, it is now possible to write a revised history of western science based not on the split between religious belief and scientific research, but on their intimate connection. We can view science and religion as two approaches, different but complementary, to the same reality. In fact, there has never been a good reason for an opposition between science and religion; they are not incompatible in their views of the natural world.
Many scientists, then, have been and are believers. The question then arises: what do science and religion have in common, so that realms previously thought to be mutually exclusive can now be seen as intimately linked? We may point to three elements common to both science and faith: the belief in things unseen, the awe and excitement of discovery, and the goal of service to others. First, the belief in things unseen. It is said of Einstein that he was a religious person... in the sense that he [had] no doubt of the significance of those super-personal goals which neither require nor are capable of rational foundation. His was not a life of prayer or worship. Yet he lived by a deep faith [...] that there are laws of Nature to be discovered. His lifelong pursuit was to discover them. His realism and optimism are illuminated by his remark: “Subtle is the Lord, but malicious He is not.”7
One aspect that links science and religion, and characterizes a scientist’s spirituality, is the feeling of excitement, the thrill that both scientists and believers experience when confronted with a new facet of the truth that lies beyond the boundary presently accepted as the ultimate limit of their knowledge. As John Polkinghorne, a British professor of theoretical particle physics at Cambridge University and now an Anglican priest, one of the speakers at the 1992 conference, observes, “Part of the authentic experience of a scientist is the feeling of astonishment he or she experiences when contemplating the remarkable rational beauty of the physical world, as it unfolds in his/her research.”8
The eminent physicist, Isidor Isaac Rabi (1989-1991), who was honored with the Nobel Prize in 1944, bears witness to the religious dimension of this experience of astonishment: “When I discovered physics, I realized it transcended religion. It was the higher truth. It filled me with awe, put me in touch with a sense of original causes. Physics brought me close to God. That feeling stayed with me throughout my years in science. Whenever one of my students came to me with a scientific project, I asked only one question, “Will it bring you nearer to God?” They always understood what I meant.”9
At the time, Rabi himself had no particular religious affiliation, except for his background, which was strongly rooted in Orthodox Judaism. According to his own testimony, his upbringing in a household where the holy books of the Bible were familiar readings, gave him a definite spiritual formation that affected his attitude toward science: “To choose physics in the first place requires a certain direction of interest. In my case it was something that goes to my background, and that is religious in origin. Not religion in a secular way, but religion as the inspirer of a way of looking at things. Choosing physics means, in some way, you’re not going to choose trivialities. The whole idea of God, that’s real class... real drama. When you’re doing good physics, you are wrestling with the Champ. You have one life to do it, you don’t want to waste it.”10
Like Rabi, who moved “nearer to God” through scientific research and discovery, Xavier Le Pichon, a speaker in the 1992 conference and a professor of oceanography and geophysics at the prestigious CollÃ¨ge de France, speaks of his amazing encounters with the God of nature. A member of the French National Academy of Sciences, he has been exploring the bottom of the oceans for the past thirty years. Those underwater explorations have, as he says, awakened his “capacity for adoration”: “I have often experienced this capacity for adoration during my scientific explorations. I think in particular of my first descent in a submarine in the Rift Valley, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, at a depth of ten thousand feet... In our little boat, we are the first people to discover this scenery reminiscent of Genesis, the virgin crust, produced by the marriage between fire and earth. I had an appointment with the Earth so that I could make an offering to God.”11
The same sentiments are expressed by another one of our speakers, Fr. George Coyne, Director of the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo and at the University of Arizona. I quote: “My scientific exploration and slow understanding of the universe is a prayer, and one that is drawing me into a deeper relationship with God. My understanding of the universe, with faith as a foundation of my life, is being drawn into the mystery of God. And this is why we’ll never fully understand our universe: while the scientific knowledge draws us on and on, the more we know, the less we know in many ways. The universe participates in the mystery of God.”12
Recently, in an article on the New York Times, the Dalai Lama, speaking about the convergence of science and spirituality, said, “Science could benefit from exploring issues usually left to the humanities. I believe that we must find a way to bear upon the direction of scientific development, especially in the life sciences. I am speaking of a secular ethics, which embraces compassion, tolerance, consideration of others, the responsible use of knowledge and power. These principles transcend the barriers between religious believers and non-believers: they belong not to one faith, but to all faiths.”
Those sentiments are echoed by Xavier Le Pichon, who said: “Science and technology are not only necessary, they are indeed the main tools needed to perfect the creation entrusted to humankind by God. To the extent we place the poor and the least ones at the center of our society, to the extent we ask them to inspire the civilization we are about to build, science and technology will appear as means offered in order to create a civilization of love.”13
So, perhaps, the “battle” between Science and Religious Faith is not so polarized as some of those at the extreme edges of the debate would have us to believe.
“In this modern era of cosmology, evolution, and the human genome, is there still the possibility of a richly satisfying harmony between the scientific and spiritual world views?”14
Dr. Francis Collins, author of the best selling book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, and Director of the National Genome Research Institute, responded with a resounding “Yes” to this question, in his public lecture on February 20, 2007, at Purdue University.14 To an enthusiastic crowd of more than 1,100 participants, Dr. Collins stated that “The newfound power to read our own instruction book is no obstacle to faith in the existence of God.” Dr. Collins called for a truce in the escalating war between science and spirit. “We need science if we are going to survive in a complicated world, and we need faith if we are going to keep ourselves in perspective. We must seek out the ways in which these world views can happily coexist, and the mind must find a way to embrace both realms, if we are really concerned about our own future in this world.” Everyone who questions how religious faith would be reconciled with scientific knowledge, and everyone interested in an open and sincere discussion of one of the most crucial issues of our time, will be greatly enlightened by Dr. Collins’ experience described in his book “The Language of God.”
Roberto Colella is a professor of physics at Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN.
1. Guitton, Jean, Grichka Bogdanov, and Igor Bogdanov. Dieu et la Science, Grasset. 1991.
2. Delumeau, Jean (edited by). Le Savant el La Foi, Champs-Flammarion, Paris 1989; p. 230 (translated from French by Roberto Colella).
3. Molt, Sir Nevill (edited by). Can Scientists Believe? James and James, London, 1991, p. 71.
4. Pais, Abraham. Niels Bohr’s Times, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1991, p. 318.
5. Einstein, Albert. Letters to Solovine, New York Philosophical Library, 1987, p. 131.
6. Einstein, Albert. “Science, Philosophy and Religion: A Symposium.” 1941.
7. Pais, Abraham. Subtle is the Lord... The Science and Life of Albert Einstein, Clarendon Press, Oxford, New York, 1982, p. vi.
8. Lecture on “Science and Religious Faith,” Purdue University, February 27, 1997.
9. Ridgen, John S.. Rabi, Scientist and Citizen, Basic Books Publishers, New York, 1987, p. 82.
10. See Ref. 8, p.p. 73-79.
11. See Ref. 2, p. 166.
12. Public Lecture at Purdue University, April 2, 1998.
13. See Delumeau 1989, p. 168.
14. Collins, Francis, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Free Press, New York, London, 2006.