Science and the Sacred

Science and the Sacred

No Room at the Inn?

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Every Monday, “Science and the Sacred” features an essay from one of
The BioLogos Foundation’s leaders: Karl Giberson and
Darrel Falk. Today’s entry was written by Karl Giberson.

Watching the discussion surrounding Francis Collins’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) appointment has been enlightening in so many ways. I was especially interested in the argument made by various critics, including Sam Harris in the New York Times, that someone with faith in God cannot be a good scientist because those two agendas are incompatible. This is not a new argument, of course, but the present occasion has brought it out of the archives and given it a bit of life.


The argument that belief in God interferes with doing good science is wrongheaded in so many ways.

For starters, there is the historical argument. Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Faraday, and Compton were all religious believers and giants in the history of science. Their faith hardly prevented them from doing great science but, more than that, their faith in God actually contributed to original ways of thinking that spurred their scientific creativity.

Newton, for example, was the first person to articulate the concept of a universe. Prior to Newton, science–such as it was in those days–had been shaped by the worldview of pre-Christian Greece. The Greeks believed that reality had two distinct physical realms, one earthly and one heavenly. The earthly realm, extending to the moon, was a locus of decay, suffering, and imperfection. The heavenly realm was perfect and unchanging, with entirely different properties. Thinkers up to and including Galileo, who died the year Newton was born, accepted this Greek idea that the heavens were somehow “different.” (Galileo, for example, thought there was something called “circular inertia” that forced the planets to move in circular orbits, rather than Kepler’s ellipses.) Newton, however, rejected this notion and established to everyone’s satisfaction that the heavens and the earth were the same. His famous law is called universal gravitation because Newton believed the laws of nature were the same everywhere, even in those parts of the universe he could not see. Part of his inspiration for this reckless extrapolation from our solar system to the entire cosmos was his radical monotheism. Newton believed the entire universe was the creation of a single God and it would be incoherent for this universe to be a patchwork of regions with differing physical laws. A couple centuries later Michael Faraday would be similarly inspired to suggest the important idea of invisible, omnipresent electromagnetic fields, based partly on his belief that God was, in some sense, everywhere.


Not only have many great scientists found no conflict between their science and their faith, the latter has often enriched and even inspired the former.

An argument from the present confirms the argument from the past. I was privileged not long ago to meet Bill Phillips, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1997 for his work on laser cooling. Phillips is an enthusiastic Christian, who even sings in his Methodist church choir. I am also happy to count John Polkinghorne among my personal friends. Polkinghorne, who held a chair of mathematical physics at Cambridge University for many years, is a distinguished particle physicist and now an Anglican priest. He helped develop the theory of quarks and has written extensively about science and religion. Now, if Phillips and Polkinghorne can do world-class science while believing in God, how can those things be incompatible?


There is something strange about atheists and agnostics who have made only modest contributions to science claiming that they can do good science because they don’t believe in God, but other scientists, far more distinguished than they are, cannot because their belief in God interferes. How does this argument work, exactly? This seems to me like lecturing at bumblebees that they cannot fly because we don’t understand the relevant aerodynamics. We can make this case as strongly as we want but, at the end of day, bumblebees still fly and we still wonder how.

And finally, I would challenge the claim that a religious scientist’s belief in God has no counterpart in the worldview of the agnostic or atheist scientist. E. O. Wilson, one of our greatest living scientists and the father of the field of evolutionary psychology, told Robert Wright in Three Scientists and Their Gods
that we need to “worship the evolutionary epic.” Let’s suppose that this actually happens and a new religion springs up in consequence, worshipping the evolutionary epic. Would a religion based on this practice be more or less conducive to good science than a traditional one, where we worship the creator of the world, rather than a process within that world?


Richard Dawkins wrote in The Ancestor’s Tale that he objects to supernatural beliefs because they “miserably fail to do justice to the sublime grandeur of the real world. They represent a narrowing-down from reality, an impoverishment of what the real world has to offer.” Would such a deeply rooted conviction that the world has a “sublime grandeur” interfere with scientific research? What if the fundamental character of the world is “mundane triviality”? Will Dawkins’s assumption to the contrary make it hard for him to discover that?


Our worldviews are shot through and through with idiosyncratic personal ideas about the nature of the world’s mysteries. Nowhere is this truer or more relevant than at the foundational level where we speculate about the fundamental character of the world. Here the questions are too deep for science and, as they say, people of good will can disagree. Is the world fundamentally rational? Mathematical physicists say “yes,” but many biologists, confronted with the higgledy-piggledy of natural history, are not so sure. Francis Crick, who shared the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA, reflected on this in his autobiography What Mad Pursuit. His movement from physics to biology required him to abandon the physicists’ intuition about nature “elegance and deep simplicity.”


The scientific community, like the gene pool of a species, is strengthened by the presence of diversity. Science, in fact, is a most congenial home for all manner of creative geniuses, including eccentrics like Einstein who snuck in the back door of science and became the face of genius without ever once combing his hair. Nothing would be any more damaging to science than to impose some peculiar requirement that only people who think a certain way can participate.

Karl Giberson is executive vice president of The BioLogos Foundation and director of the Forum on Faith and Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass.


Comments read comments(10)
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Emiliano M

posted August 17, 2009 at 10:00 am

I just finished reading ‘Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory’ by Edward J. Larson (I liked it).
I was amazed to discover, while reading, the spiritual beliefs of many naturalists with an important role in the history and development of evolutionary thinking.
Amongst the fathers of the modern synthesis, Theodosius Dobzhansky was an Orthodox Christian; Fisher (who Dawkins described as “the greatest of Darwin’s successors”) was an Anglican; J. B. S. Haldane embraced hindu spirituality and Sewall Whright process theology.
Paz de Cristo

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Ray Ingles

posted August 17, 2009 at 11:08 am

For an interesting counterpoint, see Neil Degrasse Tyson’s essay, “The Perimeter of Ignorance”:
…which points out precisely where Newton’s beliefs interfered with his scientific questioning.
And, of course, Harris’ objections weren’t that Collins couldn’t do science in general. His concern was about Collins’ potential funding choices for areas of science that he thought science couldn’t apply – for example, the neurological bases for moral thinking. (See the essay above for why.)

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posted August 17, 2009 at 11:24 am

Isn’t it interesting how close-minded the “New Atheist” is.
They will be an embassament to history as they go the way of the albino dodo.

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posted August 17, 2009 at 11:46 am

The problem with the appointment of Collins to the head of the NIH is his distinctly unscientific views on a host of issues that can impact his decisions on science.
While I am not the fundamental atheist that Harris is his arguements are powerful and razor sharp. Collin’s does not just believe in a spiritual essence to the world. Instead he believes that there is a big guy in the sky that intercedes in each of our lives to mete out justice, provide counsel, and deliver rewards when we have been good boys and girls. Now, my problem with this belief besides it profound absurdity is the negative and narrowing impact it has on legitimate discovery and curiousity. It is not enough to say “God wants it that way.”
Granted, science is not perfect but it’s the best method of thinking we have right now. And minimizing it’s impact by engaging in “straw man” arguements (i.e. How can harris criticize esteemed scientist since he has contributed so little to the progress of science? The same way I can criticize former president bush without ever having been president myself. Because it is what we do and who we are as humans.)
The appointment of Collins by president obama was a mistake not because he can’t do good science, but because as head of the NIH he can stop other from doing so.

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posted August 17, 2009 at 12:27 pm

I really appreciate these blogs. I watch debates on youtube between Atheists and Christians, and what first was a battle of sloppy rhetoric between the two camps, has now become intensely philosophical, and many of the rhetoriticians have been shown for what they are and their respective bigoted agenda’s such as Theism being a “mind disorder” have been trashed. If we keep blogs like these with good argumentation going, then I am confident that New Atheist bigotry will pass.
God bless.

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janet knori

posted August 18, 2009 at 8:55 am

I have NOTHING to add, being an ardent Christian and just barely tuned in to the scientific process, a little to the history of science.
BUT – read Giberson’s last paragraph again. Great.
Pax vobiscum

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posted August 18, 2009 at 10:25 pm

How anyone can believe we came from microbes and monkeys is beyond me, I AM AN AVID BELIEVER THAT GOD CREATED MAN AND WOMAN. I know that athiests believe there is no God, Heaven, or Hell. They are not only fooling themselves, but they are also bringing followers of their belief into hell along with themselves. I pray that God enlightens them to the true origins of man, before the are dead and in Hell.

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Your Name

posted August 25, 2009 at 1:38 am

“Nothing would be any more damaging to science than to impose some peculiar requirement that only people who think a certain way can participate.”
I love it! Now the God People see themselves as adding “diversity” to the scientific community. That’s a clever twist. In addition to these superstitious beliefs, lets also inject more cultural prejudices, sexist traditions and belief in aliens from outer space! And why reject racism and fascism? They might have something useful to contribute to the scientific “gene pool”.
It can only make science richer and stronger to embrace any cockamamie idea that burbles up from the philosophical ooze.
Sure. That makes so much sense.

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posted September 1, 2009 at 4:03 pm

The notion that evolutionary theory and belief in a supreme creator are compatible models is a very valuable system of belief. Humans who are subject to pride can be humbled by the notion that, though a divine creator envisioned and provided for existence, we developed from tiny microorganisms and, yes microbes (though I believe Genesis 2:7 uses the word dust or rubbish which is terminology far easier to grasp for ancient peoples and the majority of humans alive today). I believe that God has many ways to speak to his people and he takes advantage of all of them. Some are readily spiritual and can be spoken to directly, some are naturally inquisitive and rational so the natural world is the only medium through which they can be reached and everyone who is not closed off to the idea can derive insight from the Bible. The message that can be derived from these and a multitude of other sources is that we are here for a reason and that we must love always.

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posted September 5, 2009 at 4:46 am

I once spoke personally to Howard J. Van Till about his book “The Fourth Day” and he said to me, “When creationist and evolutionist come together to argue their respective agendas, they bring all of the wrong questions to the table.” Evolution and creation are not mutually exclusive. They are the same story from different view points. But it took dedicated men and women of science to clearly define that amazing parallel and to put it into solid proven fact so that those of us who believe in creation can embrace the nuts and bolts of all living things.
I love this site and these blogs bring me great peace.

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