Science and Religion into the 21st Century

Science and Religion into the 21st Century

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As we enter a new century likely to dominated by sweeping scientific and technological developments, the need for spiritual guidance will be stronger than ever. Science alone cannot adequately cater for our spiritual needs, but any religion that refuses to embrace scientific discovery is unlikely to survive to the 22nd century.

Religion faces extraordinary challenges in the 21st century. Dazzling advances in science and technology have transformed our world view and produced dramatic changes in lifestyle and material wellbeing. But this enormous progress has left religion behind. Few theologians have kept up with the revolutionary developments at the forefront of astronomy, physics, molecular biology or genetics. Churches and other religious institutions seem ill-equipped to deal with the brave new world of big bang cosmology, quantum reality, genetic engineering and nanotechnology. As a result, many people see religion on the defensive against the onslaught of scientific progress. They think of science as undermining or displacing religion.

Historically, it is true that major scientific discoveries, such as Darwin’s theory of evolution, have proved profoundly unsettling in some religious quarters. And three hundred years of materialistic and reductionistic scientific thought has fostered the impression that scientists are cold, hard, soulless individuals who try to reduce the splendour of nature to sterile mathematical formulas.

However, this view of two implacably opposed belief systems constantly at loggerheads is seriously misleading. For those religious thinkers prepared to engage the scientific agenda in a constructive spirit, the coming decades will be a time of excitement and renewal. Science need not be the enemy of religion. Indeed, far from threatening mankind’s spiritual wellbeing, science is increasingly seen as positively inspirational. As scientists unlock more and more secrets of nature, so they reveal a universe of stunning beauty and ingenuity, a grand cosmic scheme truly worthy of our awe and celebration.

The predicted concordance between science and religion will not come without significant religious progress, however. To appreciate the fascinating synergies that are emerging in the science/religion field demands a level of theological sophistication far above that which characterises the simplistic wrangling of much public science-religion debate. For their part, if scientists were better educated in matters of religion and spirituality, they would be less inclined to dismiss them as anachronisms.

To illustrate what I mean, I shall take two examples from the scientific frontier that are often presented as threatening to religion, and argue that the reverse is actually the case. The first is the big bang theory of the birth of the universe, the second is the origin of life. My central point will be this. Neither of these events needs a miracle to explain it. Both happened, I believe, through natural physical processes, billions of years ago. But far from supporting a purposeless cosmos and a bleak atheism, as many have concluded, these scientific advances do just the opposite.

Let me start with the origin of the universe. Remember the furore when Stephen Hawking said, more or less, that God wasn’t necessary to explain the big bang? I always took this remark of Stephen’s to be a light-hearted jibe rather than a serious statement of theology. Hawking was in fact stating little more than St. Augustine, who had already concluded in the fifth century that, “the world was made with time and not in time.” Augustine was anxious to demolish the naive image of God as a sort of miracle-working superbeing emersed in the stream of time, waiting an eternity before whimsically making the universe at some arbitrary moment, and then sitting back to watch the action. If time itself forms part of creation, reasoned Augustine, then this embarrassing pre-creation eternity would not exist. He therefore placed God outside of time altogether, and interpreted “creation from nothing” to include the creation of time. Today, when most Christian theologians talk about “creation,” they don’t mean the universe popping into being from nothing, but the holding-in-being of space, time, matter and the laws of nature at all times. In this more sophisticated interpretation of creation, God is regarded not so much a cosmic magician, or pyrotechnic engineer, but as the rational ground in which all physical existence is timelessly rooted.

Remarkably, Albert Einstein came to more or less the same conclusion, 1,500 years later. His theory of relativity makes it clear that time is inseparable from space and matter, and that all are part of the physical universe, subject to laws of nature. Personally, I find the idea of a god trapped in time and subordinated to its laws theologically very unsatisfactory. In Einstein’s theory, the entire universe can originate from literally nothing in a big bang. There is no time before the big bang: time itself comes into being with space and matter. Moreover, there are known physical principles that permit the spontaneous appearance of time and space from nothing, without the need for a supernatural act to make the big bang go bang. So Hawking was merely sniping at a concept of God that was in any case abandoned long ago by scholarly theologians.

Unfortunately many people regard this scientific account of the cosmic birth as trickery. They suspect scientists are merely covering their ignorance with technical obfuscation, lest they leave a loophole for God. This mistaken conclusion has been made by many commentators, including the leading British journalist Bernard Levin. In a hard-hitting column in the London Times that began with the memorable words, “Well, poor old God…” Levin slammed the great American physicist John Archibald Wheeler for pointing out, quite correctly, that the question “What happened before the big bang?” is simply meaningless in the context of the general theory of relativity. It is a meaningless question when time itself began with the big bang. As Stephen Hawking puts it, it’s rather like asking what lies north of the North Pole? The answer is “nothing,” not because there is some mysterious Land of Nothing there, but because there is no such place as “north of the North Pole.” In the same way, there is no such time as “before the big bang.” The big bang theory describes how the universe originates from nothing – nothing at all, not even space and time – entirely in accordance with the laws of physics. Augustine would have understood perfectly.

I want to insert two important caveats at this point. The big bang theory is, of course, a mathematical model. There is a vast amount of observational support for the basic idea of an abrupt, explosive origin for the cosmos about 15 billion years ago, and I don’t think the basic scenario is in doubt. But the actual originating event itself is far beyond any foreseeable observation. In the laboratory it is possible to recreate the conditions that prevailed about a trillionth of a second after the big bang, but the sort of physics we need to explain the origin of space and time occurred well before that, at energies trillions of times greater. So the explanation for the natural origin of the universe using quantum cosmology is a highly speculative piece of mathematical theory. It may turn out to be totally wide of the mark. But that doesn’t matter! The key point is that we can envisage how the universe might have come into being from nothing, without violating any physical laws. A special supernatural act isn’t needed to start the universe off.

The second caveat is that the big bang model I have been discussing may be altogether too simple. It could be that there were many bangs, and that what we call “the universe” is actually just one bubble of spacetime amid a vast assemblage of universes – a multiverse if you like. But I don’t want to tax your patience too much, so I shall sidestep these elaborations and move on to the second of my chosen topics – the origin of life.

Darwin famously explained how life on Earth has gradually evolved from primitive microbes to the rich diversity of the biosphere that we see today. However, he left open the question of how the first living thing came into existence. And it remains deeply problematic. How did lifeless chemicals transform themselves spontaneously into the first living thing? Nobody knows. There are plenty of theories, but they all have serious shortcomings. It’s a genuine mystery.

Now there are those who seize on this bafflement to declare that God created the first living organism by a miracle. But this is to fall for the old god-of-the-gaps trap – invoking God to explain a puzzling phenomenon. The idea that God is like an absentee landlord who shows up from time to time to give the world a prod, moving atoms about in competition with the forces of nature, I find both scientifically and theologically repugnant. It is also a tactically foolhardy proposition, because science has a habit of solving mysteries sooner rather than later.

As it happens there is a lot of research going on in the field of biogenesis. Some scientists are trying to make life from scratch in the lab, by mixing chemicals in various ways. Others are following a top-down route, taking existing microbes and rebuilding them gene by gene in the hope of creating new, more primitive, forms of life in the test tube. The hope is that these studies will solve the mystery of how Mother Nature accomplished the genesis trick on the primitive Earth – or perhaps on a nearby body in the solar system – billions of years ago, without the aid of fancy equipment and trained organic chemists. Major advances are expected in the coming decades.

So does it boil down to either life being a miracle, or God being redundant? Certainly not! As a scientist, I would prefer to believe that life did indeed form by natural physical processes. However, that is hardly the end of the story. Physical processes come in two varieties – lawful and random. Traditionally, scientists assumed that the origin of life was a chemical fluke of stupendous improbability, a quirk of fate unique in the entire cosmos. If so, then we are alone in an otherwise sterile universe, and the existence of life on Earth, in all its exuberant glory, is just a meaningless accident. On the other hand a growing number of scientists suspect that life is written into the fundamental laws of the universe, so that it is almost bound to arise wherever earthlike conditions prevail. If they are right – if life is part of the basic fabric of reality – then we human beings are living representations of a breathtakingly ingenious cosmic scheme, a set of laws that is able to coax life from nonlife and mind from unthinking matter. How much more impressive is such a magnificent set of physical principles – which bear all the hallmarks of design – than the sporadic intervention of a Deity who simply conjures these marvels into existence.

Here then is a wonderful example of how science is increasingly informing theological debate. The question of whether life formed by law or chance can, and I believe will, be settled by observation and experiment. If life is finally made in a test tube, or discovered on Mars and shown to be completely independent of earthlife, then the meaningless fluke theory will be disproved. Life and mind will be revealed as part of the grand cosmic scheme, embedded in the nature of things at the deepest level of reality. Our own existence will be seen as linked to this deep level in an intimate and purposeful way. Instead of us playing a trivial role as incidental cosmic extras, with life on Earth an insignificant accident in a pointless universe, our place in the cosmos will be far more inspiring. True, it wouldn’t return us to the centre of the universe or to the pinnacle of creation – our place is far more humble – but nor will it relegate us to the status of mere moving mounds of atoms.  In my view, the discovery that life and mind have emerged as part of the natural outworking of the laws of the universe will be strong evidence for a deeper purpose in physical existence. Since it is easy to imagine other universes and other sets of physical laws that would prohibit life, the fact that our universe is so ingeniously bio-friendly would surely be a fact of the utmost significance. I hope you see the drift of my thinking. Invoking a miracle to explain life is exactly what is not needed to see evidence of divine purpose in the universe.

So I conclude my remarks on a positive note. As we enter a new century likely to dominated by sweeping scientific and technological developments, the need for spiritual guidance will be stronger than ever. Science alone cannot adequately cater for our spiritual needs, but any religion that refuses to embrace scientific discovery is unlikely to survive to the 22nd century.