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A God Who Does Not Itemize Versus a Science of the Sacred

Edward Davis

Belief in God in an Age of Science. John Polkinghorne. 133 pp. Yale University Press, 1998. $18.

Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection between Science and Religion. Chet Raymo. 240 pp. Walker and Company, 1998. $23.

What is the meaning of the universe, indeed of life itself? For thousands of years no question has elicited more thoughtful responses than this. At the same time no question has been affected more profoundly by modern science. The authors of these two books, physicists who have written widely on the broader implications of their disciplines, both recognize the fundamental importance of the human struggle to find personal, concrete meaning in a universe that they understand in terms of the highly impersonal, abstract concepts of modern science. Because they see science differently and have very different views on the nature of religious belief, however, they draw quite different conclusions about how best to interpret the world in which we live. Whereas one author views both science and religion as somewhat similar ways of seeking truth about one world through experience, the other views science as a method of skeptical inquiry that leaves no room for traditional religious faith, although he wants to preserve the reverence for humanity and nature that religion upholds.

John Polkinghorne, a particle physicist who as an Anglican priest is the only ordained member of the Royal Society, has written nearly 20 highly literate books, most of them dealing in some way with religion and science. Based on the Terry Lectures he delivered at Yale University in 1996, Belief in God in an Age of Science offers a scholarly presentation that should nevertheless have broad appeal, as Polkinghorne wields technical, scientific and theological terms with alacrity and eloquence without losing sight of the larger lay audience he clearly hopes to reach. In the title essay, Polkinghorne states that belief in God means "that there is a Mind and a Purpose behind the history of the universe and that the One whose veiled presence is intimated in this way is worthy of worship and the ground of hope." Unlike many traditional natural theologies, this one is modestly phrased and should be understood not as an attempt to offer a knockdown argument but as a careful statement of the rational basis for faith—what he calls "an intellectually satisfying understanding of what would otherwise be unintelligible good fortune." Tone is crucial here: Polkinghorne recognizes that the anthropic phenomena and human experience from which he draws ultimate hope can be interpreted otherwise, and more pessimistic readers may well be inclined to do so.

But these are indeed matters of interpretation, and the other four essays explore aspects of an ongoing dialogue between religion and science that has lately generated much interest inside as well as outside the scientific community. Readers familiar with the ideas of Ian Barbour will recognize many of the questions Polkinghorne addresses, though his answers sometimes differ from Barbour's. This is most evident in his rejection of process theology, a metaphysical system derived from Alfred North Whitehead that limits God to working "solely through 'persuasion.'" Polkinghorne finds this "inadequate to the One who is believed to care providentially for creation and to be its ultimate hope of fulfilment." He prefers to think of divine agency in stronger terms, associating divine activity with "gaps" in natural processes that are "intrinsic and ontological in character and not just contingent ignorances" on our part.

It is crucial to understand that Polkinghorne is not calling for the traditional God-of-the-gaps, invoked as a highly visible last resort when scientific explanations fail. Rather he endorses something like the idea (it is clear that his ideas here are still in flux) of William Pollard that God determines the outcomes of certain events at the quantum level, supplementing this with the possibility of further openness in chaotic systems. In this picture, God usually acts invisibly within the laws of nature but without God's actions being strictly determined, so that "it will not be possible to itemize occurrences, saying that God did this and nature did that," leaving such conclusions to faith. Ultimately, he believes, "the scientist and the theologian both work by faith, a realist trust in the rational reliability of our understanding of experience." Thus science differs from "its cousinly disciplines" (such as religion) not fundamentally in kind but "in the degree of the power of empirical interrogation which these various investigations enjoy." Skeptics and True Believers is indeed an ambivalent book, which some will see as its principal strength and others as a serious weakness. On the one hand, Raymo sees himself as a "scientific atheist," because the "organized skepticism" in which he places his trust as a scientist erodes belief in anything beyond the order of nature that science reveals. In the absence of clear and convincing evidence for a realm that transcends our instruments, Raymo applies Ockham's razor to draw skeptical conclusions about many claims of traditional religion, especially those of scientific creationists and the conservative Roman Catholicism of his youth, though astrology (which Raymo finds equivalent to "mainstream religious faiths") and new-age mysticism (including belief in UFOs) are also held up for examination. On the other hand, Raymo rejects the views of some prominent scientific atheists, ontological reductionists such as Steven Weinberg and E. O. Wilson, who believe that human beings and the rest of nature are really nothing more than atoms—or groups of atoms called chromosomes—so that the meaning of nature is that there is no meaning. Slipping surreptitiously past Ockham's razor himself, Raymo turns for an alternative to the mystical tradition, which speaks of God in a "universal, non-sectarian, and inclusive" manner "that goes back to the origins of religious observance." Raymo wants a "creation spirituality" in which "science as a way of knowing is subsumed by religion, so that the world revealed by science is perceived with an abiding sense of the sacred, celebrated liturgically and lovingly cherished."

For astronomy professor and popular science writer Chet Raymo, however, science and religion clearly do differ in kind—the essential rationality of scientific "skeptics" is repeatedly contrasted with the irrationality of "true believers" in heaven, hell, prayer and miracles. Yet Raymo starts his own book with a sympathetic reference to a thought from one of Polkinghorne's other books: that many educated people today "can neither accept the idea of God nor quite leave it alone," to which he immediately adds, "I am one of those people."

Whether this can really be accomplished without invoking the traditional God who created an intelligible world that is not itself divine—and Raymo apparently wants to deify neither God nor nature, though he is a bit fuzzy about the latter—is a key question that is frankly overlooked. He also ignores the many fruitful and highly interesting ways in which theology and science have interacted through the centuries. The God whom Raymo rejects is derived substantially from vulgar superstition, and his understanding of the relationship between science and theology comes straight from Andrew Dickson White, whose shallow scholarship has been soundly discredited by historians of science. Ultimately, one wonders what a deeper conversation between Polkinghorne and Raymo would be like.

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