Since the dawn of modern humanity, our species has sought to reach out beyond the rational and empirical limits of observation. Some facet of our being impels us to seek ‘truth’ in the meaning and significance of our lives and wider existence.
It’s no coincidence therefore that the United States of America, arguably the most powerful nation on Earth, has adopted the maxim; “In God We Trust.” Americans are not alone…. More than 80 per cent the 7 billion adults and children alive today- some 5.8 billion people- consider themselves religiously affiliated. Of those remaining 1.2 billion people, many hold religious or spiritual beliefs (such as belief in God or a universal spirit) even though they don’t identify with a particular faith.
It would be easy to argue such beliefs as out-dated at a time where we have such deep understanding of science, but history shows a constant tension between scientific and theological thought. It is perhaps the greatest debate that humanity has ever created. In ‘ Reason Vs. Religion,’ Tom Laity notes that “superstitions and religious leaders, philosophers, sceptics, laypeople and scientists, throughout history and ancient history, have endlessly argued and discussed the existence or non-existence of God, gods and goddesses”
“Some, who believe that a true religion should be supported by science, believe the tension is real. Others believe that the tension is illusory and based upon a misunderstanding about the nature of both science and religion.” Writes A. A. Sappington. He continues by identifying that “perceived tension between religion and science occurs not only in specific areas of conflict such as different claims about the age of the earth or the authenticity of relics; it also occurs perhaps more fundamentally in that the determinism and reductionism characteristics of science may seem to leave no room for the action of the divine, or even of free will. Psychology especially has threatened many people in that it has often seemed to make irrelevant such concepts as choice or moral responsibility” (The Religion/Science Conflict, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1991).
For every thinker believing in such tension, there have been equally significant peers who saw a balance. As Albert Einstein once commented, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind..” and as Pope John Paul II added, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes…”
In this exclusive series of interviews, we speak to four world experts on religion and science. Fr. José G. Funes (Director of the Vatican Observatory), Prof. Alister McGrath (Director, Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford University), Dr. Deborah Haarsma (President of the BioLogos Foundation), Prof. Justin Barrett (Director, Thrive Centre – Fuller’s Graduate School of Psychology) and Bishop Dr. Rowan Williams (104th Archbishop of Canterbury) . We discuss the fundamental roles of religion and science in society together with their roles in shaping our history, and our future.
Fr. José Funes, SJ was born in Cordoba, Argentina. He completed his masters’ degree in astronomy (licenciado en astronomía) at the National University of Cordoba in 1985, writing on the computational analysis of the photometry of eclipsing binary stars. In the same year, Funes entered the Society of Jesus.
He obtained a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1990 at the Universidad del Salvador in San Miguel, Argentina. In the same university he attained the masters in philosophy (licenciado en filosofía) in 1996. In this master thesis he discussed cosmology as a science from the point of view of scientific realism. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1995 after completing the bachelor’s degree in sacred theology (S.T.B.) at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. In 2000 he obtained his doctorate in astronomy at the University of Padua with the study of the kinematics of ionized gas in the inner regions of 25 disk galaxies.
He joined the Vatican Observatory Research Group as staff astronomer in March 2000 and was appointed Director of the Vatican Observatory in August 2006 by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. Fr. Funes specializes in extragalactic astronomy. His field of research includes the kinematics and dynamics of disk galaxies, the star formation in the local universe, and the relationship between gravitational interaction and galactic activity.
Alister McGrath is the third holder of the Andreas Idreos Professorship of Science and Religion at Oxford University, and Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion. McGrath sees the Idreos chair primarily in terms of public engagement with the great questions of science and faith, embedded in a tradition of outstanding teaching and research.
Alister Edgar McGrath was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He was awarded an Open Scholarship to study Chemistry at Wadham College, Oxford University in 1971, where his tutors included JR Knowles. He gained First Class Honours in Chemistry in 1975, and pursued research in molecular biophysics in the laboratories of Professor Sir George Radda in Oxford’s Department of Biochemistry. He was awarded an EPA Cephalosporin Research Studentship at Linacre College, Oxford, from 1975-6, and a Senior Scholarship at Merton College, Oxford, from 1976-8. He held a fellowship at the University of Utrecht, funded by the European Molecular Biology Organization, in 1976. While at Merton College, McGrath simultaneously continued his research in molecular biophysics, while studying for an Oxford undergraduate degree in theology. In 1978, he gained both his Oxford doctorate, and First Class Honours in Theology. He was awarded the Denyer and Johnson Prize by Oxford for the best performance in the Final Honour School examination. McGrath then took up the Naden Studentship in Divinity at St John’s College, Cambridge from 1978-80, while also studying for ministry in the Church of England at Westcott House, where his tutors included Rowan Williams, and his fellow-students John Polkinghorne. He married the psychologist Joanna Collicutt in July 1980, and was ordained deacon in the Church of England in September 1980. He served as curate at St Leonard’s church, Wollaton, Nottingham from 1980-3, and was priested at Southwell Minster in September 1981.
McGrath served as the first Director of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics from 2004-6, subsequently becoming its President. During this time, he developed a close working relationship with the Oxford Faculty of Theology. He became a member of the Faculty in 1983, and was appointed University Research Lecturer in Theology in 1993. He taught frequently at Regent College Vancouver, and served as its Research Professor of Theology from 1993-7. In 1999, in recognition of his research, McGrath was elected to a personal chair of theology at Oxford University, with the title of “Professor of Historical Theology”. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (FRSA) in 2005 in recognition of his role as a public intellectual. From 2006, McGrath became Senior Research Fellow at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, and retained this role after moving to London in 2008 to take up a chair of theology at King’s College London. In 2009, McGrath also became Associate Priest in the Shill Valley & Broadshire benefice in the Diocese of Oxford, a group of village churches in the Cotswolds.
Deborah Haarsma serves as President of The BioLogos Foundation, a position she has held since January 2013. Previously, she served as professor and chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
She is author (along with her husband Loren Haarsma) of Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (2011, 2007), a book presenting the agreements and disagreements of Christians regarding the history of life and the universe. She edited Delight in Creation: Scientists Share Their Work with the Church (2012) with Rev. Scott Hoezee, an anthology of essays by Christian biologists, astronomers, mathematicians, and other scientists. She and Hoezee directed The Ministry Theorem, a project of Calvin Theological Seminary and the Calvin College Science Division to provide pastors and ministry leaders with resources for engaging science in the life of the church. She also contributed to the Faraday Institute’s Test of Faith (2010) film and curriculum, and to Keith Miller’s Perspectives on an Evolving Creation (2003).
Haarsma is an experienced research scientist, with several publications in the Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal on extragalactic astronomy and cosmology. She has studied very large galaxies (at the centers of galaxy clusters), very young galaxies (undergoing rapid star formation in the early universe), and gravitational lenses (where space-time is curved by a massive object). Her work uses data from several major telescopes, including the Very Large Array radio telescope in New Mexico, the Southern Astrophysical Research optical and infrared telescope in Cerro Pachon, Chile, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory in orbit around the earth. Haarsma completed her doctoral work in astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and her undergraduate work in physics and music at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Justin L. Barrett joined the Fuller School of Psychology in 2011 as Thrive Professor of Developmental Science and Director of the Thrive Center for Human Development. He came to Fuller from the University of Oxford, U.K., where he taught and served as senior researcher for Oxford’s Center for Anthropology and Mind. He has also taught at the University of Michigan and Calvin College, and served as co-area director for Young Life in Lawrence, Kansas.
Most of Dr. Barrett’s academic work has concerned cognitive scientific approaches to the study of religion; a new project in this area will be helping to extend cognitive science of religion to China, for which he won a grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation (2011-2014). His current research interests include cognitive, evolutionary, and psychological approaches to the study of religion; cognitive approaches to the study of culture and archaeology generally; and religious and character development in children and adolescents. Barrett’s main focus at Fuller is to work with others to develop the Thrive Center into a world leader for positive youth development—cultivating spiritual, character, and virtue development and general flourishing in childhood and adolescence.
Barrett’s publications include Psychology of Religion (ed., 2010) and Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (2004), along with the forthcoming book, Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology. His most recent book, released in the spring of 2012, is Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief. He has also published academic articles and book chapters across several disciplines.
Dr Williams took up the mastership at Magdalene College Cambridge on 1 January 2013. He was educated at Dynevor Secondary Grammar School in Swansea, he came up to Christ’s College in 1968. He studied for his doctorate at Christ Church and Wadham College Oxford, working on the Russian Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky. His career began as a lecturer at Mirfield (1975-1977). He returned to Cambridge as Tutor and Director of Studies at Westcott House. After ordination in Ely Cathedral, and serving as Honorary Assistant Priest at St George’s Chesterton, he was appointed to a University lectureship in Divinity. In 1984 he was elected a Fellow and Dean of Clare College. During his time at Clare he was arrested and fined for singing psalms as part of the CND protest at Lakenheath air-base. Then, still only 36, it was back to Oxford as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity for six years, before becoming Bishop of Monmouth, and, from 2000, Archbishop of Wales. He was awarded the Oxford higher degree of Doctor of Divinity in 1989, and an honorary DCL degree in 2005; Cambridge followed in 2006 with an honorary DD. He holds honorary doctorates from considerably more than a dozen other universities, from Durham to K U Leuven, Toronto to Bonn. In 1990 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. Dr Williams is a noted poet and translator of poetry, and, apart from Welsh, speaks or reads nine other languages. He learnt Russian in-order to read the works of Dostoevsky in the original. This led to a book; he has also published studies of Arius, Teresa of Avila, and Sergii Bulgakov, together with writings on a wide range of theological, historical and political themes.
Rowan Williams brings the College its fourth connection to the See of Canterbury. Thomas Cranmer (archbishop 1533-1556) was a college lecturer at Buckingham College, 1515/16. Edmund Grindal (archbishop 1575-1583) was briefly a student at Buckingham College in the mid-1530s, and remembered Magdalene gratefully in his Will. Michael Ramsey (archbishop 1961-1974) was a Magdalene man through and through: son of a distinguished President, undergraduate 1923-1927, professorial Fellow, and Honorary Fellow. Rowan Williams (archbishop 2002-2012) is among them unique in coming to Magdalene after rather than before Canterbury. The 35th Master is of course a Welshman, as was the first, Robert Evans (1542-1545), Dean of Bangor. He makes history as the first Master of Magdalene to be elected by the Fellows, and for that reason alone is particularly welcome
Q: What does God mean to you?
[Dr. Rowan Williams] I grew up in a fairly traditional Christian household, so I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t some sort of religious observance around. It was probably in my teens though, that this intensified. The experience of regular worship deepened for me on many levels, and I found that went hand in hand with what I was discovering in my studies of literature and poetry. I sensed that richness of the imagination and the richness of the spirit existed together, and that’s how I found ‘God.’
At the very least, ‘God’ the word designates the dimension that our usual language and understanding doesn’t capture; it’s the always-more aspect of art, discovery and feeling.
For me as a Christian, God has the shape and characteristic of something more personal, it has not just an elegant mysteriousness, but love.
Q: What is the state of religion and spirituality in the modern world?
[Dr. Rowan Williams] Firstly, we have the standard ‘Western’ narrative where we are advancing slowly towards a secular, rational society and culture where religion at best is something private. For many people, this is what they see as the ‘default’ story.
Secondly, within that story of the North Atlantic world, a lot of people still feel uneasy nostalgia and unsettlement about the lack of the sacred. There is a lot of interest in reinventing rituals, rediscovering means of spiritual seriousness and not often in relation to traditional Christian forms.
Thirdly, the North Atlantic world is very definitely a minority when you consider that in the wider-world; organised religion and religious activities are an immensely powerful part of the function and structure of society- and identity formation- perhaps more so than half a century ago.
Q: How can religion and spirituality aid our contemporary moral philosophy?
[Dr. Rowan Williams] A very significant part of the religious sense, and life, is the feeling that there is ‘more’ to things and people that simply isn’t captured through our day to day observations.
Religion contributes the sense that Human beings are not to be captured, reduced or instrumentalised; that there is something in each Human being that escapes the categories that society and others would have put on it. In simple terms, humanity has ‘basic dignity.’
The sense of mysteriousness and fundamental dignity within the Human person is where a great deal of moral understanding starts, and applies to everything from the legal and civic dignity that should be given to LGBTI people or to refugees or- indeed- to the whole of the natural order.
The rationale for seeing more in the person, and in the natural order is that it informs you that these people and this environment are not there for you to control and squeeze, they deserve the reverence and dignity which you sense in them.
Any secular ethic will have to think of some way of expressing that elusive mysteriousness if it’s going to work.
Q: How can an atheist philosophy reconcile the moral principles of spirituality?
[Dr. Rowan Williams] There are plenty of atheist philosophers with very sophisticated moral perspectives, often not too far removed from that which I would adopt! My question is, what is the rationale for that moral philosophy?
Systematically, atheist regimes over the past century have not had brilliant human rights records. I’m not saying that religious institutions have have had a brilliant human rights record either, but clearly they’ve not cracked this.
What you’ve had in systematically atheist regimes, is the notion that there is some human power in government or in power that has the right to prescribe every area of human experience without mysteriousness, without innate dignity.
Any atheist philosopher therefore, will have to be very clear in their position to resist the aura of the ‘all powerful state’ in the same way that religion would.
The frantic, feverish longing to keep the ego safe, entertained and comfortable has reduced our understanding of humanity, and has been symptomatic of the decline of spirituality in the North Atlantic world.
Q: How did religion and science emerge in society?
[Prof Alister McGrath] Science and religion are two sides of the same coin; they both have to do with meaning. People have always wondered how we can make sense of the world and understand the deeper meaning of who we are and what we’re meant to be all about. I tend to see science and religion as distinct yet related; the problems arise when science begins to think it’s religion, and religion thinks it’s science.
Religious people may sometimes feel they are offering a scientific explanation for things, and I don’t believe that’s generally true. In recent times, some scientists have begun to argue that a scientific explanation of something is the ‘only’ answer.
What we need is a rich engagement of the world and life at many levels of meaning. Science and religion are two of those levels, but we need to realise they are working at very different levels.
There has always been conflict between science and religion, but it’s a complex picture. It’s not simply the fact that there has been conflict; but also the often overlooked fact that there has been synergy, resonance, tension..
[Dr. Deborah Haarsma] I’d like to first tell you a little about my own background to give some context for my answer. I am a religious person myself; I believe in the core tenets of the Christian faith, and am from the evangelical tradition in the United States. I am also a scientist and have a PhD in Astrophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). For me, religion and science are embodied in who I am.
Historians of science like Peter Harrison have written on how the terms ‘religion’ and ‘science’ did not emerge until fairly recently. Before the nineteenth century, the activities we now call “science” were called natural philosophy, and typically seen as a natural part of one’s religion and view of the world. In fact, “science” and “religion” were not independent entities but one whole.
Similarly, before the eighteenth century, people didn’t look for some over-arching term to describe the different religions of the world. Lumping them all together often doesn’t work as they each have a different relationship with science. A Hindu or Buddhist picture of science might differ significantly from the monotheistic faiths of Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.
I prefer the term worldview rather than religion to encompass the different lenses and approaches through which people perceive the world, and how they answer those big questions like “does God exist?” “what is moral and right?” “what is the purpose of human existence?” The term worldview encompasses agnostic and atheistic views as well as the various world religions.
Now top scientists of the past and present have held many different worldviews. They agree on the importance of science and the scientific method, but for different reasons. For example, I am motivated to pursue science for reasons similar to Hoyle and Kepler, because I believe science is the study of God’s creation, the same God I have devoted my life to. But someone who doesn’t believe in God will be motivated by other things. Thus, scientists can agree on the practice of science while having different answers to the big questions and putting a different spin on scientific results.
Conflicts occur when people argue one worldview against another. They may be arguing Atheism versus Monotheism, then pull out science as a weapon saying, “science proves I’m right because of this or that…” In my view, science is rather more limited than this. Science has a lot of interesting resonances with the big questions, and can inform them, but I don’t believe it can answer them. When people claim science has solved these big questions, you end up with battles. I personally do not see a battle between science and Christianity. Many great scientists, like Galileo and Faraday, were Christians.
Q: Is human theism inevitable?
[Prof Justin Barrett] In theological studies, theist means a high-God, one God that is in charge of everything. By this definition I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the claim that theism is inevitable.
If we define theism as the belief of at least one intentional supernatural agent, it seems that our minds do have this belief as a conceptual path of least resistance. Our minds are really open and receptive to that idea, and in the ordinary course of interacting with other humans and our world… that is perhaps where our minds go.
I’m part of a school of thought often unglamorously referred to as ‘by-product’. In essence this means that religious thought is an evolutionary by-product. That doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable, important or true necessarily, but rather that it was not an adaptation that made us more suitable for our environment. We seem to have a constellation of other kinds of adaptations that solve other kinds of problems that conspire or collaborate toward religious belief and action. We know that humans are immensely social beings, and we spend a huge amount of time and conceptual resource thinking about who did what? and why? That ‘who’ is immensely important, we distinguish actions as having intent versus events. This may not be important for other species or our ancestors, but given the kind of social beings that we are – and our need to deal with other ‘minded’ beings, we have developed what can be described as a hypertrophic social intelligence and a tendency to think in terms of intention, desire, goal and purpose rather than simply mechanisms. That floods the way we interact with each other and the world. It’s very easy to see the utility of that kind of thinking.
We have experimental evidence to show that under certain conditions, humans very easily attribute beliefs, desires and purposes to natural events and non-living objects. When it comes to the natural world, there is good evidence that even in early childhood, we see design and purpose in how the natural world is structured. We make early conclusions about why animals behave as they do, why mountains are the way they are and more. We may even spontaneously generate these ideas and- of course- purposes then readily connect with the idea that ‘someone’ intended those purposes.
Q: Why does the core ideas of religion resonate across so many cultures?
[Prof Justin Barrett] We reason from our perceptions and intuitions to certain claims and beliefs. If our intuitions are largely shaped by the unconscious mental processes that make us see purpose, we will invariably look for design and contemplate who created everything… and then these intuitions will resonate across cultures.
The proposition that ‘someone’ accounts for the design that we perceive has an intuitive ring to it… it just makes sense and seems-right. It takes a little more conceptual work along with social pressure to override these intuitions. Research has shown that even trained scientists have tacit preferences thinking about the natural world in terms of design and purpose, and this has to be unlearned. They have to say ‘no, this is not how I do science… that purpose I see is not real… that mountain is not here for a reason…. that river is not here so that people can go fishing…’
When it comes to regarding someone(s) as being behind the events and design that we see in the world that we regard as meaningful and purposeful… the belief that something about us is separable from our bodies and may persist after death… all of those beliefs are rooted in natural intuitions that we all share regardless of cultural conditions.
At the cultural level, these intuitions either get rebuffed or cultivated, in the latter case the details get filled in!
Q: Are science and religion seeking to answer the same questions?
[Dr. Deborah Haarsma] In most senses, science and religion are answering different questions. In my own field of astronomy, we may ask “how does a galaxy change over time?” This is not a question that any religion has much to say about.
Most scientific questions are not about things that worldview, religion, or philosophy would address- and conversely, most questions about relationships, meaning, and purpose are not addressed by science. You could for example do an experiment on your friend to see how true a friend he is, but it wouldn’t be very nice! Instead, we draw on other types of knowledge and ways of viewing the world which allow us to understand how we relate to one another and the supernatural.
John Polkinghorne is a physicist who became an Anglican priest and has written many volumes on the relationship between science and religion. He gives a lovely example which involves a tea kettle. If you ask the question “why the kettle is boiling?” one answer would be entirely scientific: “the water is undergoing a phase transition as heat from the burner is stored in the latent heat of water vapor” or you could say, “the water is boiling because I want a cup of tea.” The two answers are not contradictory, but rather they are answering different questions about the same phenomena.
Many questions related to morality, ethics, love and so on, are questions that science simply isn’t equipped to answer on its own. Science can provide some important context, but religious, historical, relational, legal, and other ways of knowing are needed.
Q: Why do conflicts emerge between religions, and can we resolve them?
[Dr. Rowan Williams] Religion is not the source of conflict, yet it has become the site of many conflicts.
Religion is something that can be reached for insecure, vulnerable or threatened communities, to bolster a sense of identity. If you look at the appalling levels of homicidal conflict between Christians and Muslims in Northern Nigeria for example, many have observed that at heart of that conflict are rootless, jobless young males who have not managed the transition from traditional pastoral life to modernity, looking for something on which to hang their value; and in that sense, religion is a handy ‘peg.’
We need to understand that for huge tracts of Human history, religions have co-existed without intensive, murderous engagement with each other. For us to therefore understand what triggers religiously-motivated conflict we have to look at the economics, sociology and psychology- not just the fact that people of faith are fighting.
It’s surprising how often you see people in religious conflict who have a real vision to move forward, to a different outcome. I’ve spoken with people from Northern Nigeria, for example a Priest and Imam who have done much of their preaching together – showing that even in the midst of extreme conflict, people can identify common interests and common concerns. Part of this involves getting to the root of religious belief itself and saying, ‘if we really believe and trust in God, we don’t need to be killing each other!’ If this goes alongside a real analysis of the concerns, problems and challenges people face? Peace can be built by co-operation, and you can really get somewhere. Just look at the peacebuilding process in Northern Ireland.
Q: What is the relationship to spirituality and art?
[Dr. Rowan Williams] Art has an extraordinary impact on people.
I’ve heard stories for example, of Israeli and Palestinian young people brought together making music- they discover something which somehow is as deep and distinctive as any other facet of their person, and over which they can connect and communicate in a mysterious way. I’m not messianic about art, but I do genuinely believe that it’s part of the exploration of the further dimension, the mystery and the dignity of Human beings and the world around us.
Again and again, we see the point of public art, drama and theatre is to have contained engagement with issues that are often so difficult and painful that they cannot be dealt with elsewhere. This is fundamentally what was being played out in the ancient Greek tragedies; it allowed people to question the security of their city, state and families through the stories of upheavals and disasters.
Q: What is the relationship between science and theology?
[Fr. José G. Funes, S.J.] Firstly, it’s important for us to understand what science and theology are. The definition of each is important to our understanding of the questions they raise.
Science seeks explanations that are based on natural causes, and at a natural level. Science makes progress by proposing new models of nature that are tested and can be used to make confirmable predictions. A good example is the big-bang model.
Theology is the critical understanding not just of the contents of faith, but also the human world and relationships as they are seen in the light of faith. It’s about significance, and making sense of history, nature and more.
Between science and theology have existed many conflicts, Galileo being one of the most often quoted examples. Also, we are in a moment now where dialogue is possible. Pope John Paul II asked the Vatican Observatory in the 1980’s to promote the dialogue between science and theology, and part of contribution of the Vatican astronomers has been to further the understanding of how our universe works.
Q: Are the key questions in science antagonists to religious belief?
[Dr. Deborah Haarsma] This idea of antagonism is long-standing. The first example most people cite is Galileo. In the early 1600s, Galileo found evidence that the Sun is at the centre of the solar-system and that the Earth goes around it. The Church pushed back, condemning Galileo’s views and banning his book. People give this is a prime example of conflict between science and Christianity.
But if you look at the details of this incident, you will see there were many other factors at play. Jesuit scholars in the Church initially supported Galileo, and the Pope who later condemned him started out as one of Galileo’s colleagues. Galileo himself was known to have a rather arrogant personality. There was a lot of politics going on, both in the universities and the Church. So it wasn’t a simple case of religion opposed to science.
For most of the history of science, there have been relatively few instances of conflict between science and Christianity. In most times and most scientific areas, they have gotten along quite well. Several leading scientists today are Christians, including Francis Collins who directed the international Human Genome Project and now leads the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
Q: Does the structure of our universe point towards the existence of a God?
[Fr. José G. Funes, S.J.] The big bang model is the best scientific model we currently have to explain the origin of the universe. Pay attention to the fact that I use the words ‘origin of the universe‘ and not ‘creation of the universe‘. I believe in God, but in the word creation there is theological meaning. In the scientific context I prefer to say ‘origin of the universe’. From the perspective of science, the big bang is the best explanation we have until now.
From the perspective of theology, we have religious views on the beginning of the universe. We say there is a continuing process of creation as God sustains the universe with his will. From the big-bang model, what we can say that there was a beginning… and we have an age for the universe (around 14 billion years). This points towards a universe with a beginning. There would be no contradiction between science and theology therefore to argue that this does point towards the universe having been created.
[Prof Alister McGrath] What we see in the world around us does not prove there is a God, but is easily explained if there is a God. Religion has inferential structure that asks whether, in the light of the hypothesis that there is a God, the world around us makes more sense if that hypothesis is true? My personal view is yes! I would however, be very cautious about using language about proving God’s existence. It’s much more that belief gives us a big picture to look at things, and grasp their interconnectedness.
Q: How could we ever prove divine action?
[Fr. José G. Funes, S.J.] We have to distinguish different levels of reality. When we talk of the dialogue between science, philosophy and theology it’s important to remember they have different languages, different methods, and goals. When we talk of divine causality, this exists at the level of philosophy and theology, not in science- which refers to the level of natural causes, but rather at the metaphysical level.
The universe came from something not from nothing. That is a logical point of view from the world of philosophy, and we (as people of faith) believe that it was God that created the universe.
[Prof Alister McGrath] One of the big debates in philosophy relates to whether natural phenomena exclude or include divine action in some way. If we look at a natural process such as rain falling, we can ask the question as to whether God uses natural processes in some way to engage in the world. Many religions believe that God uses secondary causality; processes within nature that God is able to work through.
I am not a big fan of the ‘God of the gap’ idea in this debate. It seems to me to be saying that God explains everything science cannot. That seems to locate God in areas of the world where science cannot currently offer an explanation. Science is always expanding its scope and so this always changes.
For me, God is about the bigger picture – about the fundamental question as to why we can explain anything at all!
Q: How does cognitive science deal with spiritual concepts such as mind-body, the soul and free will?
[Prof Justin Barrett] The cognitive science of religion operates at the level of understanding why people have the beliefs they do, not necessarily whether those beliefs are true or not. When it comes to understanding the relationship between mind and body for example, most folks working in the field take the view that the mind and body at a certain point are indistinguishable. The mind is some kind of way of describing the functional properties of a complex and embodied neurosystem.
Why, however, do the vast majority of people across culture regard the mind and body as distinguishable? There’s disagreement here, but some threads that are aligned. We have certain kinds of conceptual systems that naturally develop that deal with physical objects, like bodies. They generate intuitions, inferences and predictions about the behaviour of those bodies. We share this with other mammals (especially primates) and these conceptual systems develop very early in life… within the first few months of life, they may even be approaching adult levels of intuition and reasoning. We then have a difference conceptual system to think about minds that don’t seem to approach maturity until we’re about 5 or 6 years old, and is only in a few other existent species and therefore has a different evolutionary story. This conceptual system also has different inputs and outputs to the one we use to understand the physical world. These two systems developed largely independently of each other, operate independently of each other (our mind system has to be able to think about minds that are not bodily present, otherwise we would not be able to have this conversation!). So it looks like these two systems are distinguishable, and zippering the two together is actually quite an achievement – and it is tenuous. It’s very hard to think of minds as bodies, and only bodies. Maybe for that reason we are what Paul Bloom (Yale Psychologist) calls intuitive dualists. The dualistic position that minds and bodies are separable is the natural default position. The difficulty which monists (who think the mind and body are one) experience in maintaining their position is also evidence of this intuitive dualistic nature.
If someone proposes something like a mind, soul or spirit that can be extracted from the body, and which doesn’t stop functioning when it leaves the body? It is at best minimally counter-intuitive!
Freedom is another one of these things. We perceive ourselves as free-will agents and the idea that we are not is radically counter-intuitive. It doesn’t mean that we are free-will agents (although I think we are). Where cognitive science of religion gets into murky water is where there is a confusion between the study of the concepts and how they spread versus whether those concepts themselves are true. A lot of us working in the area are- unfortunately- not well versed in the philosophy of freedom, determinism, mind-body and so on. We sometimes therefore stumble into our philosophical colleagues back-yard uninvited and make assumptions about determinism and so on!
Morality and justice are also interesting. Rather than morality and justice emerging from proto-religious impulses, the two are mutually re-enforcing. There may have been other cognitive or emotive foundations that underlie our moral thinking, normative justice and ethical reasoning. A lot of us are fascinated by ‘moral foundations theory’ which identifies 5 or 6 different adaptive cognitive emotive complexes; moral intuitions…. One of these is harm/care, where we have an intuition that drives our caring for other people- particularly our offspring, and that harming our people is a bad thing. What needs to be worked out is the conditions under which this is violated… who counts as my group? What counts as harm? Fairness and reciprocity is another foundation. We all have intuition that we must reciprocate fairly in fields of life such as material exchange.
When it comes to enforcing our morality and punishing those who defect… and we do defect!… it’s really handy to have supernatural punishers or rewarders around. They’re more likely to catch cheaters and virtuous people privately and reward or punish them in ways that humans can’t pull-off! One of the more prominent adaptationist arguments is that once the cognitive ability exists to think about gods (in the broad supernatural sense as beings who can interact with this world in important ways), and if these gods are morally interested in the world, these beliefs would encourage pro-social behaviour and intra-group collaboration, and pays dividends for the group and the individuals within it. That gene-culture complex that gave rise to that kind of thought, therefore, has a significant advantage over ones that didn’t.
Q: Can science and religion co-exist?
[Prof Alister McGrath] Science and religion can be compatible, albeit they are different modes of thinking. There is an oft-quoted example of a kettle being plugged in and the process being described in scientific terms (the generation of heat), or in terms of wanting a cup of tea… both are true!
When I do science, I don’t invoke God to explain things. I can quite happily leave God out of the research, but can understand this in terms of my belief that God created the structure of the world and the framework that allows science to exist.
A scientific account of many of our areas of human experience such as love, beauty and so forth is not adequate to explain them. You might say that love is the result of certain hormones surging through our bodies, but our experience of it is far more complex.
For me as a human being, I am looking for a deep and rich understanding of the world. Science is part of that picture, I value it greatly, but it is not the whole picture. We need to bring science and religion together collaboratively so that we can see the big picture, and not just parts of it.
[Prof Justin Barrett] It’s too easy to give a broad answer to this. When you say science, which science are you talking about? Are you talking of the premise of science? Which theories? …or if you are talking of religious belief, which religion? Which practices?
On a broad level, do I think that modern epistemological science is an antagonist to religious and supernatural belief? ….no, I don’t. Historically it looks like modern science rose-up because of theological commitments, and folks like Newton and Bacon didn’t see a conflict, but it depends…. Certain religious commitments would be at odds with modern science. Certainly, insofar as how some religious communities make empirical claims about the world… they can be wrong, and science can say there’s a problem. Just to give you a simple example… If an ancient Greek religion claimed that climbing Mount Olympus would put you in front of humanoid beings of approximately ‘x’ size, and if an expedition to the top of the mountain proved this as false, well yeah… science has posed a problem there! That may sound like a trivial example, but religious communities regularly make claims about things such as human behaviour, thought, tendencies and so forth.
The human sciences are challenging or affirming these claims. The religious community does however, have the tendency to rebuff such challenges by saying, “well actually, those aren’t our central claims… our central claim is simply that there is a God or Gods!…” Many religions therefore who announce this as their central claim remain immune to scientific investigation. That doesn’t mean that scientific findings can’t weigh in on theological claims however…
The cognitive science of religion is an interest case study. Most of my colleagues are not religious people themselves, they are agnostic or atheist. Many of them do feel that their findings are a threat or challenge to religious belief. But on the other hand, many religious traditions (including Islam and Christianity) have long affirmed that humans have natural religious instincts or propensities. Cognitive science of religion could be seen as providing evidence in support of those claims.
Just coming up with a naturalistic explanation for cross-cultural recurrence of religious belief does not mean that religious beliefs aren’t true. The fact is that there may be a psychological explanation for why we do or believe the things we do. I believe there is someone with a mind on the other side of the phone line right now, I know there is a scientific story as to why I believe that, but once that scientific story is told, it doesn’t invalidate the truth of the belief; nor does it mean that it is true necessarily.
However, religious belief is incredibly common across culture. Even in parts of the world where you have high rates of atheism, people believe in religious entities and behaviours… they may not believe in God, but they will believe in ghosts… Britain is an interesting case study. As adherence to Church of England has declined, belief in ghosts and spirits has actually increased proportionately. The UK is remarkably less theistic than the United States, but is a lot more superstitious.
Branding is certainly an issue. If you look at the secularisation of Ireland, the priest abuse scandal in the Catholic Church caused a huge number of people to reject the Church itself as an institution. We are seeing the same in China. One of the really fascinating things there is that a huge number of people are atheist, but they are burning money, cars and houses to their ancestors.
Q: Do science and religion have a wider social function?
[Dr. Deborah Haarsma] Both science and religion are social communities, so they play an important social role in the same way as sports teams and musical groups. We are human, so we work together to share experiences and build culture.
One great aspect of science, on a social level, is that it spans the world. Scientists of all nationalities and cultures are studying the same universe and investigating the same physical laws, giving them a bond that transcends other divisions. Another social aspect of science is, of course, the incredible benefits it brings to society in medicine and technology.
Religion plays a major role in every human culture. Evolutionary psychologists like Justin Barrett and Robert McCauley have studied the emergence of religion in various cultures, and they say that everyone is religious. It is an innate instinct. Research has shown that everyone is looking for meaning and purpose. Most people find it in some form of religion or spirituality, although atheists find meaning in other ways.
The world’s religions have also inspired people to devote their entire lives to caring for the sick, educating others, and lifting up the poor. In the United States, Martin Luther King, Jr and other civil rights leaders argued for racial justice from an explicitly Christian point of view. Christian faith continues to play a key role in the work of racial reconciliation – I’ve seen how the Christianity has brought together people of very different views, and allowed them to find common ground.
Q: What formed humanity’s need for purpose and directionality?
[Prof Alister McGrath] If you’re a religious person, as I am, you could argue that God may have made us with a kind of homing-instinct, meaning that faith is a way of finding our way home. You might also offer an evolutionary explanation… but whichever means you use, you find that there always seems to be this inherent sense that humans feel of something deeper beyond the empirical, something greater beyond the horizon that we can somehow reach out and grasp.
To be human is to appreciate that we need to transcend our limits and grasp something bigger than ourselves.
Q: How would religion and theology deal with breakthroughs such as the discovery of extraterrestrial life?
[Fr. José G. Funes, S.J.] There is a well-affirmed field of research called astrobiology in which the Vatican Observatory has engaged in different ways since 1995- where we organised the first summer school on this subject. Astrobiology requires one to be competent in different fields including astronomy, biology, geology and more- this is not easy. We are able to do research, but ultimately we cannot know the results. It may equally happen that we find life tomorrow, or it may never happen…. and that’s just the very primitive forms of life….
I am not saying that there isn’t intelligent life out there, but I do believe that it will be difficult to make communication. [joking] It’s sometimes difficult enough to find intelligent life here on earth, never-mind the rest of the universe!
In the same way that there is science and science fiction, there is theology and theology fiction. Science deals with scientific facts and observations, and as we sit here now, we do not have any evidence of life elsewhere in the universe. If (and it’s a big if) we discover life and more-so intelligent life, I do not believe it is conflicting with our view of creation. It is in accordance with our view of the universe that there will be other spiritual creatures out there.
From a cultural point of view, it would be similar to the experience that Europeans had when they met Native Americans for the first time. The debate which followed raised questions over the dignity and nature of human beings. If we ever do meet intelligent life from outside our planet, we could be faced with similar challenges.
The sort of questions that the search for extraterrestrial life poses are varied. What is life? how do you define life? what are the criteria to say what is life and what isn’t? what is the meaning of a person? what does it mean to be a spiritual being? This research also helps us understand ourselves, life on our own planet, and where life could form elsewhere.
Q: What is the difference between information and meaning?
[Prof Alister McGrath] Information is an accumulation of observation. Meaning is the sense in which we notice patterns in that information, discerning something deeper that lies behind that information. Meaning allows us to make sense of information and understand the bigger picture of what lies beyond it.
One of my concerns is that we live in a culture that seems to be obsessed with information.
One of the great things about science is how it takes things apart to see how they work. Religion however, puts things back together again so we can see what they mean.
Q: Has science impacted our understanding of God?
[Fr. José G. Funes, S.J.] I’m sure that we will have debates and conflicts between religion, theology and science in the future, as we have done through history. What is important is that we sort these conflicts with dialogue, and without human suffering.
Without perhaps realising, Galileo helped us to gain a better understanding of the reading of the Bible. From Galileo’s experience, we learned that we cannot read the Bible literally, or as a book of science. If I am studying binary stars for example, I don’t think it will have philosophical or theological impact. If I am studying those topics on the border such as astrobiology, the origins of the universe or string theory however… those issues should have a theological and scientific dialogue too.
The mission of the Vatican Observatory is to show, somehow, that the Catholic Church wishes to promote and communicate good science. Our aim is to show that it is possible to believe in God and also to be good scientist.
Pope Benedict XVI was giving an address in 2010 to students of Catholic schools. He told the young people that they should always keep in mind the big picture, and not to become narrow-minded.
Science gives us comprehension of the universe and our world, and as Pope Francis recently said, faith is not afraid of science, and the Church rejoices with scientific discoveries. The risk for scientists is that they may be left with a one-dimensional view of reality. We cannot reduce our comprehension of the world to science. We have so many dimensions to life, culture, literature, poetry, music and they each have truth and beauty.
We cannot reduce all human activities to scientific method, I fear we may then lose the inherent truth and beauty within them.
Q: Have we seen a decline in religion and a growth in science?
[Prof Alister McGrath] In the West, we’ve seen a rise in science and a decline in organised religion; albeit there is a lot bubbling under the surface, which we usually call spirituality. Science is now asking deep questions about the meaning of life which have typically been beyond the scope of that mode of thought and its methods; opening the door perhaps to religious thinking.
[Dr. Deborah Haarsma] I do not see the growth of science and the decline of religion as being related, although they are both happening at the same time.
Sometimes it is portrayed this way because of a line of reasoning called “the god of the gaps.” When science only explained some aspects of the world, people tended to point to the aspects that science could not explain and say “there’s a miracle.” This “god” of the gaps is there merely to explain what science cannot. We now understand more and more of the natural world so there are fewer gaps in our scientific knowledge. People sometimes describe in terms of science advancing while religion is being pushed aside. I don’t see it that way. The God of the Christian Bible, and the divine aspect in most religions, is much more than simply a mechanism to explain what science cannot. Looking through the lens of my Christian worldview, I see the growth of scientific knowledge as giving us a better understanding of how God governs the universe, not pushing God aside. I believe that God created all things and continually sustains all things by his divine providence. The laws of physics would not continue to function if God weren’t sustaining them! So, the advance of science is not a demotion of religion, but an expansion of understanding of God’s activity.
Other factors have played a role in the decline of religion in the west, such as the philosophy of the enlightenment. The world wars also had a huge impact on how people thought about religion and about God. Science was advancing at the same time, but it was part of a gamut of things occurring in the Western world during the decline of religion there.
If you look around the globe today, religion is actually skyrocketing. For example, in South Korea, Christianity and science are both growing at a huge pace..
At another level, it is true that science is now starting to answer questions which previously were the realm of philosophy and religion, questions like the beginning of the universe, the emergence of life from non-life, why particles have the masses they do, etc. The scientists have climbed the mountain of knowledge, only to discover that the theologians have been sitting at the top of the mountain this whole time!
I don’t see this as being a convergence of science and religion, because they will be asking different questions of the same phenomenon. Astronomers are looking at the physical properties of the big bang: the expansion rate, temperatures, particles and so on. Scientists construct hypotheses, make predictions, and test them. What scientists discover will inform people’s religious views about the beginning of the universe, but won’t answer big questions like the purpose of the universe and why there is something rather than nothing.
Keep in mind that “converging” implies that the “science” and “religion” were separate or in conflict, but early in the history of science these were viewed as one whole.
Q: Why do we need something to believe in?
[Fr. José G. Funes, S.J.] Humans need to know the answers to the big questions about meaning, behind the universe, and behind the hundred billion galaxies that exist. We are struck with wonder as to why this beautiful universe exists, in which the human-being evolves. Why does this universe exist, rather than nothing? We also ask ourselves why we live in a universe with so much human suffering.
We need to ask ourselves the important questions of meaning. In our search for the answers to these questions, we may find the belief in God or- at least- we may try to find an answer.
Even atheists or agnostics are searching for their answers to the same questions.
[Prof Alister McGrath] Even those who would describe themselves as agnostics actually do believe in something. All of us need to feel that there’s something that helps us to make sense of life, of who we are, and why we’re here. It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not. This quest for meaning is very deep. It’s almost as if human beings are meaning-seeking animals, and we need something to give us orientation, purpose and direction.
[Dr. Deborah Haarsma] Earlier I mentioned research that shows humans all have an innate desire for religion. Now, you can spin this different ways. Some atheists say that everyone is born with the instinct for religion, but it’s just a childish instinct and something that can be overcome with rational thought. But believers can see this completely differently. As a Christian, this need to believe makes perfect sense with my faith. The Bible teaches that God created humans to have an innate desire to know God, that it was his intention. As the Westminster Catechism states, “…the chief end of [humanity] is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”
Q: What happens in a society where belief in God is lost?
[Prof Justin Barrett] The evidence is less than compelling that we’re seeing a general sustained trend away from a belief in God. We also have reason to believe that even if people are not believing in the God of- say- Christianity, they will entertain other supernatural beliefs. Sociologist of religion Rodney Stark has commented that if people don’t believe in God, they will believe in anything… That is, people have natural religious impulses, and they will be exercised one way or another. If we look at the decline of state-organised religions in the USA and UK, something will fill that void…. And often these new beliefs are more idiosyncratic, less organised and more entrepreneurial.The issue then arises as to whether society will be better without religious thought. The optimism around this is very peculiar.
Many making the claim argue that religion is good at regulating society, helping to re-enforce if not dictate what is good or bad. They argue the state can step in and fill this role. However, this then begs the question as to who is good, who is bad and so forth. The evidence presented that Europe is doing swimmingly with secularism is really premature. A lot of us who study religion argue that Europe is still riding on the coat-tails of religious sentiments and morality. It will be a generation or two before we can tell if the pro-social moral sensibilities and compass will be sustained without the presence of traditional religions there. If you turn to China, you see clearly there is a moral vacuum and moral confusion because there isn’t that kind of organised religion… and this is changing… the Chinese are becoming wealthier, and Christianity together with other religions are growing. This goes against the secularisation theory that states that the more comfy and secure you are, the less religious you are.
Many philosophers argue that moral intuitions are not enough, and that you need some kind of reflective system to hold them together and encourage pro-social behaviour. Even ideas like universal human rights may not be able to be supported on non-religious grounds as it’s hard to distinguish humans from non-humans… We’re just a big swoosh of genetic stuff!
Q: Should our political economies have a spiritual foundation?
[Dr. Rowan Williams] We ought to aim to live in societies which are proud of the level of tax they paid. Why? It would imply a level trust between citizen and society that people felt this mechanism would provide security for the most vulnerable. I don’t think any political party would take this baton and run with it, but it would mean we had a genuine vision of what was due to our fellow human beings, and would be engaged and inspired about addressing these questions.
In a world where inequality is spiralling, our society needs a spiritual vision. We don’t have a robust, sustainable enough view of our solidarity- of our belonging together- and the human value of being together in an environment where nobody gets left behind.
In civic, national and global terms, we simply cannot afford to let the inequality gap keep widening. It will be lethal.
We need a spiritual vision for our society.
Whilst the debate over the role of science and religion may seem to exist in the meta-verse, outside the realms of our individual existence, it’s important to note that it is we- as individuals- who contribute to it. Our knowledge of the world (and attitudes to it) are informed from four sources: our senses, our powers of rational thought, the testimony of others, and our memory… The first obvious thing to note about all these sources is that they are fallible (Thomas Dixon, Science and Religion, 2008).
Dixon notes that, “debates about science and religion are, on the face of it, about the intellectual compatibility or incompatibility of some particular religious belief with some particular aspect of scientific knowledge…. Historians have shown that the Galileo affair, remembered by some as a clash between science and religion, was primarily a dispute about the enduring political question of who was authorized to produce and disseminate knowledge…” This ‘authorisation’ component is critical. Our culture (including science and religion) is manifest from a long-process of collaboration and shared understanding, and this requires a ‘benchmark’ from which we develop our thinking. The political component is that which sets the baseline of ‘what’ is generally perceived to be the truth of a particular iteration of man. Through history, this has moved from a view of us being a part of nature, through to organised religious societies, onwards to societies driven by science and perhaps the cynics may argue we are now in one where the primary truth is money.
We may however, be missing something critical in this view. Albert Einstein once wrote that “…the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed… I do not believe that a moral philosophy can ever be founded on a scientific basis. You could not, for instance, teach men to face death tomorrow in defence of scientific truth. Science has no power of that type over the human spirit. The valuation of life and all its nobler expressions can only come out of the soul’s yearning toward its own destiny.”
As humanity has grown-up, so too have our world-views, and with that- our ability to understand them in context of ourselves has grown too. Science has come of age and now understands that rather than a single systematic set of natural laws, there are different concepts of order that exist in different states of existence, and across different branches of scientific investigation. Laws that appear to be true at a quantum-level, for example, are incompatible with our observations of the world at human-scale- albeit both views are empirically equally correct. This may seem like a logical paradox but to understand it simply requires a shift of perception to agree that theories are only relevant in the parameters set by the field (and scale) of their enquiry.
Perhaps we must realise that our understanding of the world is split not just into fields of enquiry, but also levels that are informed by our present experiences and shared history. We have the physical level- informed by the domains of science… we have the cultural level- informed by the domains of philosophy and we have an experiential level- informed by the domains of aesthetics (including religion and theology). I can physically explain the composition of two human beings, I can culturally explain why they may wish to be together, but only aesthetics can begin to touch on the beauty of the love they experience in their brief time together on this Earth. The science, the culture and the aesthetic aspects of their love are equally true- but can only exist in unison.
The universe existed long before our species emerged, and will continue long after we cease. For the brief time we are here (at the universal scale), we are perhaps the only form of life able to contemplate itself, it’s purpose in the universe, and the purpose of the universe itself. The truth is that whether you believe this is a bi-product of millions of years of cognitive evolution in a universe that spontaneously came to be… or through the intended creation of a supreme being, it is still a miracle.