On Science and Religion

Popular prejudices would have it that science and religion are always bound to be at odds. But it was not always that way. At one time, clergymen like Roger Bacon, Nicholas Copernicus, and Gregor Mendel, just to name a few, were deeply involved in science, and many of the greatest scientists, like Descartes, Kepler, Newton, and even Galileo -- despite his quarrel with the Church -- were men of faith. In fact, in England, until two centuries ago, it was almost impossible to be taken seriously as a scientist unless one was also a member of the clergy!

Today many people are uncomfortable with this. They'd rather that religion and science, like religion and politics, be kept apart. But can they? If religion can be considered "the quest for ultimate meaning", then believers also must come to grips with ultimate reality -- which must certainly include the best possible information they can have about the world in which we live. And if scientists seek to know the whats and hows of the workings of the universe, who can blame them if they sometimes want to speculate on the whys? Yet all too often we see people discouraged from trying to do both.

For this reason we should be especially thankful for those rare persons who been able to combine the function of scientist and clergyman. There have been, even in more recent times, quite a number of such persons, but three especially come to mind.

One was the Belgian Catholic priest and mathematical physicist Georges Lemaître, who after he proposed his theory of the expansion of the universe from a "primal atom" back in the 1920s, might be called (in more ways than one) "The Father of the Big Bang."

Another was the French Jesuit paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Co-discoverer of the Peking Man in the 1930s, Teilhard went on to devote most of his life to rethinking the meaning of Christianity in terms of the evolutionary history of the human race.

And even now there is the English astrophysicist, John Polkinghorne, a colleague of Stephen Hawking at Cambridge University. Polkinghorne also happens to be an Anglican priest. It is the example of people like these (regarding whom I'll have more to say) that proves science and religion need not be at odds.

True, science and faith involve very different ways of knowing. But they still very much need each other. Science, especially technology, without the input of religious values, can too easily become a Frankenstein's monster. On the other hand, religion, without a grounding in science, can too easily turn into fantasy or mere wishful thinking.

R. W. Kropf      April 1, 2000                                Science & Religion.doc       00-04-01.html


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