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Science and Religion in Quest of Truth

John Polkinghorne

(Yale University Press; US: Sep 2011)

Theology, revered in the Middle Ages as the ‘Queen of Sciences’, has been pushed off the throne. In today’s globalized and technologically advanced society, it has become a marginal intellectual endeavor, still taught in many universities but largely ignored by the high priests of academic life.


Meanwhile, it has remained redundant to the vast majority of believers, who don’t concern themselves too much with the fine points of intellectual debate and mostly take religion on faith. After all, for the irrevocably committed, religion is faith, and in that sense not unlike patriotism, the profit system, or hot dogs—things that are often accepted unquestioningly, because a life without them would be unimaginably disloyal.


Trouble is, we humans are, by nature, critical thinkers and reality changers, and cannot live by faith and habit alone. When we eventually ask awkward questions, religion replies through theology, so that, in a way, any book written by a theologian is already an admission that faith is not enough.


John Polkinghorne, the author of this book, is a theologian, an Anglican priest, and a theoretical physicist. A highly educated writer, he rejects any ‘simple flat-footed literalism’ (113)  regarding scripture, and rightly deplores ‘the spectacle of some Christian believers turning their backs on science’ (33). He goes as far as to update Christian doctrine by describing Hell not as ‘a place of unending torture, painted red, but of unending boredom, painted grey’ (109)—kind of like an airport without wi-fi.


Still, there’s an infuriating lack of common sense in his arguments. He tells us, for example, that religious belief ‘can guide one in life or strengthen one at the approach of death, but unless it is actually true it can do neither of these things and so would amount to no more than an illusionary exercise in comforting fantasy’ (2).  He conveniently ignores all the people who find guidance and strength in the prospect of reincarnation, or in the thought of 72 virgins waiting for them in Paradise—beliefs that the average Christian theologian would surely classify as illusionary fantasies.


Arguments as poor as this are a sign of theology’s current worn-out state. No wonder, then, that in an attempt to revive the craft theologists like Polkinghorne are now turning, of all things, to science. Theology and science bring ‘cousinly gifts’ (33) to each other, he announces. That would be his own comforting fantasy, because, in truth, science politely showed its ancient religious relatives the door a long time ago. Sponsored by government and big business, it now rules in its own right—and even theology kneels before it.


What we find in this book, then, is neither the queenly and self-assured discourse of medieval scholars, nor your hip cousin’s stylishly-wrapped offering, but more like your other cousin coming to visit, the one you almost forgot you had but now turns up on your doorstep unannounced, giftbox of socks in hand, asking to borrow your shiny new car.


So what does this kind of theology want from science? Above all, the heady feeling of mystery its own traditional texts no longer convey to a sophisticated, urban, and multicultural public. Thus, theologians might echo the esoteric jargon of science, as Polkinghorne does when he compares the wave/particle duality of light with the human/divine duality of Christ (17), forgetting that some dualities only exist in our heads (a zombie, for example, is a duality of the living and the dead).


More cunningly, theologians of this school might suggest that science, too, is based on faith. Science, says Polkinghorne, ‘is no stranger to belief in unseen realities’ (11) such as quarks, the fundamental elements that make up protons and neutrons but cannot be observed in isolation. OK, but science never assumes quarks or any other ‘unseen realities’ it deals with to be otherworldly. They are natural (or man-made) entities whose existence must be inferred through logic and observation, not through faith.


Alternatively, in a variation of the famous ‘God of the gaps’ gambit, theologians might conjure up an air of mystery by pointing at what science supposedly cannot deal with, and pretending that religion covers everything else. In this vein Polkinghorne argues that science only asks about how things happen; but that religion asks about why things happen. Here he neglects to consider, for instance, medical and environmental science, which do raise questions of meaning, value, and purpose, since they’re closer to human concerns than waves and particles are; as well as ethical and political thought, art, and philosophy.


In stressing the why over the how, Polkinghorne admittedly has a valid point, since his aim is to reject the mechanistic approach that reduces human beings to lumps of matter—a view that is sadly not uncommon among scientists. ‘If we were simply machines,’ he writes, ‘human discourse could be no more than automatic mouthing’ (34). True, but the alternative does not have to be supernatural; it can be humanistic. Here’s his own example: ‘The kettle is boiling both because gas heats the water (the scientific explanation) and because I want to make a cup of tea (an explanation invoking purpose)’ (21). Exactly. Humans make tea for a variety of cultural and personal reasons; gods and goddesses need not be involved.


The same goes for his other example that a scientist ‘can say no more about music than that it is vibrations in the air, but speaking as a person there would surely be much more to say about the mysterious way in which a temporal succession of sounds can give us access to a timeless realm of beauty’ (4). Speaking as a person, the beauty of music seems human and temporal, which probably also explains why some music is vile.


Other mysterious questions this sort of theology attempts to exploit are ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ (78), and the so-called problem of fine-tuning, or ‘why is the universe so special?’ (74). Such questions aren’t really that mysterious. Logically, nothingness cannot ‘be’; anything that does exist is necessarily a something. As for the universe, as Polkinghorne himself reminds us, its evolution will eventually ‘lead to carbon-based life disappearing everywhere within it’ (102). Some fine-tuning.


Yes, life is short, but not so short that it has to be meaningless. Potentially, we humans have ahead of us thousands, perhaps millions of years to develop our creative powers. It’s been an assortment of social needs and limitations that have so far diverted those powers towards the production of mythologies and other comforting fantasies, no matter how deficient the theological arguments. By contrast, modern science, in developing rational methods for understanding and changing reality, could help rid society of injustice and superstition—if only we learn to use its gifts for truly human purposes.

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Paula Cerni is a teacher and independent writer who holds a degree in English, and an MPhil in social science from the University of Sussex (UK). She writes non-fiction from a radical and progressive perspective. www.paulacerni.wordpress.com.


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