'...Science and Christianity are incompatible'

by Rev Dr John Ogden, former Head of Computer Science, University of Reading.


A month or so ago Garry [Alder] invited me to join you this morning to share in your Good News series. I responded with immediate enthusiasm. Subsequently, however, I have wondered whether my task should be likened to that of venturing into the bush, with orders to wrestle with twenty lions and bring them back home in a pocket handkerchief! Sadly, my endeavours have resulted only in a few scraps of fur and a tattered handkerchief.

Where are we?
In the last five years a steady stream of intemperate vitriol has appeared in print from the likes of Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Anthony Grayling and notoriously Richard Dawkins. To a man, they find in religion an almost negligible amount of good and a deep well of evil. For them, religion is philosophically insubstantial, morally indefensible, and anti-intellectual. For any scientist to admit to the possibility that there might be a God is, in their view, to forfeit any claim to respect from the scientific community. On the other side, of course, there are Christians who believe passionately that for anyone to accept Darwinian evolution as a true account of the origins of life is to abandon all claim to be a real Christian.

It sounds very much as though science and religion are implacably opposed, no common ground between them, no possibility of reconciliation. But is this really the case? Is it really true that science and faith are incompatible? Are we listening to two caricatures?

Surely, before we venture into this battleground, we must stand back a little and see where the lines are drawn. We must ask ourselves: is there anything of substance in the atheists’ case against the faith communities, motivated as they often are by their belief system? And we must also ask ourselves whether the insights of the Christian faith, rooted as they are in a story of over three thousand years of history, can actually prompt a fruitful conversation with science?

I have read Dawkins’ book - The God Delusion. Much of it is a wearisome polemic against a particular form of belief in God, a belief which I for one, and most Christians I know, do not share anyway. But on page after page he raises real criticisms of the church’s actual behaviour in the real world: encouraging and blessing wanton destruction and genocide in the name of faith, denying people equality on grounds of ethnic origin and gender, obstructing the free flow of human inquiry into the workings of the natural world. I found these comments, with few exceptions, to be entirely justified, and deeply painful to read. I can see why Dawkins’ strictures might well cause a thoughtful person to turn their back on religion for ever. The church has a capacity to be wonderfully reflective of God’s kingdom of love, but within our fellowship, over many centuries, there has also been the willingness to inflict misery and persecution on purely metaphysical grounds. It is a very sorry tale.

So, the dust of battle still clouds the air; the noise of battle torments our every attempt at calm rational thought. It would be good, I think, to begin by clearing up some popular misunderstandings about the nature and practice of science, and then look with fresh eyes at what it means to be a Christian believer.

What is science?
Many people imagine that science is about certainty. This is reflected in social attitudes towards technical innovation, where we often demand that science provide us with absolute certainty, about the safety of new drugs, mobile phone base stations, the dangers of ash clouds, GM crops and so on. But ... science is not about certainty, it is not about truth, it is not about facts.

You will probably find that a remarkable assertion. I’ll pause a moment to let it sink in.

BBC TV has recently run a delightful series of three programmes, under the series title - Beautiful Minds. Three eminent scientists have tried to explain not so much their theories and discoveries, as the way those theories and discoveries came about. One of them asserted that it’s not about truth, it’s about seeking understanding. (That, incidentally, is precisely the way another great theologian, St Anselm, defined theology — faith seeking understanding.) Another of the three described the experience of grappling with his relentless questions as swimming in a sea of unknowingness. Not, I suspect, how most people see science at all!

Several centuries ago it was widely agreed that the earth was the centre of the universe, and that the sun and planets went round it. This commonsense assumption matched the facts as they were then known. Over time, more careful observations, using better instruments, revealed that these supposed ‘facts’ were false.

A similar story could be told about the composition of the things around us, and the way our bodies work. Heat was once thought to be a substance — called phlogiston — added to a body when it was warmed. The Royal Society, no less, devoted some time to discussing whether phlogiston could be weighed.

Our temperament was thought to be controlled by the balance between four humours: choler, phlegm, bile and black bile. These were all held to be facts, but over time better instruments, better observation, better thinking, all led to their complete abandonment.

Science advances precisely as its findings are challenged. With advances in measuring instruments, with the development and investigation of new hypotheses, science discovers the defects in its present understanding. Either the previous way of understanding things was completely wrong (phlogiston) or else we have discovered a set of circumstances that we haven’t been able to investigate before (very large, very fast = relativity; very small = quantum mechanics), and the old rules don’t apply here.

Scientific advance also occurs when someone has an idea about how something in the world might work. In the case of one of the three scientists I referred to, the focus was on how and why cells divide. An experiment seemed to suggest a possible mechanism. A learned paper was written and published. Colleagues pounced on the paper and found flaws in the logic. Back to the drawing board! A better idea emerged. Eventually the new insight was accepted. The entire process is one of asking questions, challenging assumptions and criticising tentative conclusions.

So, for the word ‘facts’, we should really substitute the word ‘observations’. What we observe and record is limited by the nature of our measuring instruments.

For the word ‘certainty’ we should substitute the word ‘probability’, though after many experiments the probability can be so high as to be tantamount to certainty.

For the word ’truth’ we should substitute something like ‘best available explanation’.

Critics of the theory of evolution are often heard to dismiss it with the phrase ‘it’s only a theory’. Of course it’s only a theory. All science is only a theory. Science progresses by challenging theories and finding their weaknesses and inadequacies, in the search for a better explanation of how the world works. In recent history Albert Einstein proposed theories of space and time, light and gravity, that confounded Newton’s laws of motion for things that are very large and massive, like stars and planets. A little later Paul Dirac proposed yet another framework for the very small indeed — Quantum Theory. The implications of these twentieth-century developments have yet to be fully worked out, but several things are becoming a little clearer. My point, however, is that science is about asking questions and challenging established theories.

What is faith about?
Why is its story of creation so very different? There on page 1 of the bible is an account of the way God created the world and everything in it: its oceans, mountains, rivers, savannahs and all their inhabitants, in a mere six days. Today’s devotees of a literal interpretation see here a message in a sealed envelope, to be opened only when there is a need to counter weird scientific theories about the age of the universe or the origin of species. But why was this account written in the first place?

The history of the bible is more complex than at first appears. The critical event was probably not the Exodus, the great liberation from slavery in Egypt. Instead it was the traumatic experience of invasion and exile, roughly six hundred years before Christ. During this exile, the people were thrust into contact with alien religions and strange myths about the way the earth and its living inhabitants came into being. Their faith and their sense of themselves were undermined. This prompted the people called the Israelites to re-think their identity and their history, including that bitter experience of slavery.

The outcome was a new history of their world, beginning with creation. It was written to counter, not the scientific insights of today, but the bizarre myths of the Babylonians. So the story emphasises that God is not a part of creation, nor identified with all of creation; God is above it and outside it, but God is also to be found within it. The Babylonians thought of the physical world as irredeemable evil; the story of Genesis affirms instead that creation is good. All this confounded the Babylonian ideas about the origins of things, to be found — so they thought — in a mighty struggle between good and evil, each of which was contending for power in the universe.

That is the backdrop against which the Genesis account of creation should be evaluated, not arguments about big bangs and background radiation and natural selection. Genesis is not a rival to modern science; it is a counter to ancient myths.

At the margins
Let’s go back to science and ask about some if its most significant findings — or, better, its current theories (bearing in mind that absolute certainty is beyond our reach).

Cosmology attempts to grapple with the very beginnings of the universe as we know it. The widely accepted scientific position is that it began as a stupendous explosion of energy, about 14 billion years ago. From that energy came first the light-weight atoms like Hydrogen, then heavier atoms like Oxygen and Carbon, then heavier ones still like Iron and Uranium. Everything that we are, in physical terms, is a legacy of that big bang.

Over the past hundred years or so, evidence has been mounting that the universe is expanding and changing. New stars are being formed, old stars are dying, not with whimpers but with little bangs — we call them supernovae. But notice: the process of creation is still going on. Everything that has been happening from the first few milliseconds after the Big Bang is still going on. Creation is not over. Look up into the sky on a clear night and you will get a snapshot of the ongoing action. Whatever it was that God actually did during those first “six days”, God is still doing. God’s project is still under way. Paul hinted as much in our reading from his letter to the Romans. While preparing for this talk, I’ve speculated on how to answer the question: what did God to on the eighth day?

Paul shares with us his conviction that the culmination of God’s great project is not, in fact, complete. Rather, it awaits the free, undetermined response of God’s people to that steadfast love, of which the psalmist spoke. The destiny and well-being of the world around us depends on us. We ourselves are instrumental in the completion of God’s great project. And our participation begins with a decision to put our trust in God-in-Christ.

Paul teases us a little with the idea of hope. Hope, surely, by definition, must remain in the realm of ‘unknown unknowns’. The moment we ‘know’ — or claim to know — anything with the kind of certainty we can apply to, for example, the address of our home, or the colour of our eyes — in that moment we move outside the domain of hope and faith. It is, for Paul, precisely in that zone of uncertainty that saving hope is found (verse 24).

Quantum Mechanics is perhaps the most baffling of topics in all modern physics. It concerns the properties and behaviour of the very very small particles of which everything is composed. Because at the beginning of time everything was very small, Quantum Mechanics is important to cosmologists. It’s so baffling that whenever people try to explain it in television documentaries, at some point I fall about laughing, because their attempts at explanation make theology seem simple and uncomplicated! John Polkinghorne (FRS and Anglican Priest) observed that the pretty arabesques performed by cosmologists are conducted on the thinnest of intellectual ice and to the sound of cracking. There’s a good deal of speculation going on. The tide of certainty seems to be far out to sea at this particular moment. And yet ... here are two fascinating results.

Because the objects of inquiry are so very small, the act of inspecting them inevitably changes them. We can discover this or that about these minute particles, but not both. This uncertainty arises not because our instruments or investigations are at fault; it is inherent in the structure of the universe. As God is unknowable, beyond the reach of human thought, so — we now find — there are matters which will not yield to experimental investigation.

When two particles have interacted, and gone their separate ways, they retain a memory — nobody knows how or why — of having once been related. Relationship is key to this field of inquiry as it is key to the Christian faith expressed in the Doctrine of the Trinity.

Science is resilient. It copes with change. It welcomes new discoveries and new insights. Can theology be resilient too?

We have been schooled in the idea that faith offers a special kind of certainty, a very special kind of truth. We have had drummed into us the notion that God is unchanging, that God is indeed incapable of change. And that in consequence, therefore, theology is unchanging; a theological pronouncement, once made, stands for ever.

It is really not hard to think of counter-examples. Here is Elijah crouching in his cave, utterly drained after his terrified flight from the wrath of Jezebel. He seeks assurance of the presence of God. But his traditional understanding was that God would make his presence known in a noisy fireworks display of thunder, lightning and earthquake. In fact God came to him in a moment of utter stillness. Back to the drawing board!

Jesus overturned theological ideas galore. It wasn’t, he said, a matter of keeping countless rules, but rather a matter of catching the rhythm of God’s loving heart. And within a few years Paul was overturning yet another established fact of theology: God’s good news is for everyone, not just for the Jewish people.

Not as enemies, but as co-investigators
And finally, an analogy. In the course of the past week we have seen something fascinating in politics, as two parties, once at daggers drawn, have come together to deal with immensely difficult problems. They have put aside their differences and agreed to listen to one another with respect, in the interests of the nation. Again I am indebted to John Polkinghorne for his insistence that modern physics has created a situation in which neither theology alone nor science alone can offer comprehensive answers to our deepest questions. Like the two parties now in coalition, there is now an agenda of inquiry that demands of us that we pursue it together, as colleagues and not as enemies. So far from being incompatible, science and faith are essential to one another.

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