A work in progress
This small series of profiles describes people of faith who formed the foundations and current advances of modern science. The faiths considered are Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish. They are not a complete set and each profile is not intended to be a full biography, just enough from sources to illustrate the main point. These have been read critically and some readings from other sources have been discarded because I feel they fail to represent the person’s true position. If you feel I have misrepresented anyone, please show me.
Why do this? I have two reasons. Firstly, these profiles show that the compatibility of faith and science has been demonstrated consistently and variously over ten centuries, so far. In the twenty first century , we have turned to hear Richard Dawkins and others shouting down this connection, but I hope to illustrate that their shouts are not faithful to the history of science. They use the conflicts surrounding the emergence of new paradigms to prove something that is historically unfair.
Secondly, it has often been observed that in the writing of recent history, the contribution of Christianity is simply omitted. This collection shows at a simple level that people of faith , in this collection especially Christians, have founded formed and sustained the scientific culture we so enjoy. To deny this is wilful blindness and obscures both the nature and history of science. I can’t imagine how they think that will strengthen science, which is everywhere in decline, but that too is my goal. Science also has helped religions to avoid superstition and cultural captivity. They argue like a married couple, healthy to be different and working on how to be the best together. They argue about many different things and no one of them is a deal breaker.
Big picture comment: Every new paradigm of knowledge has seemed crazy at first, was rejected by the keepers of the current order, BOTH the church and science establishments, who went through various machinations to quieten the new idea. (Others welcome novelty just because it is novel, somewhat incredulously.) The spontaneous rejection of a new paradigm applies to new moves in dancing, new beats in music, new fashion and new ideas. It is only human.
Please note, this is not a philosophy text, teasing out all the separate questions – what is knowledge? what counts as evidence? does God exist?, arguments from design and from being? can miracles occur? what is consciousness? are healings helped by prayer ? and so on. Nor does it seek to define the relationship between science and faith in philosophical terms. Those are good questions but my hope is to frame those debates more personally, so that the religious do not think they are always right, and so that that scientists do not think that mid-twentieth century philosophies of Reason are the only kind of knowledge. For instance, Bertrand Russell said: “ Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence, it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines” has been shown to be over-optimistic about his brand of ‘reason and science’. His contemporary Max Born, a quantum physicist, said:” Those who say that study of science makes a man an atheist must be rather silly.” Both those voices sound very confident, yet very opposite conclusions – how did we get to this impasse?
At university and in high schools I detect too often an unspoken assumption that scientists must ordinarily be atheists. Some scientists will be quoted with a comment on that. This series is a semi-biographical exercise, listing historical evidence that people have always thought about all this and faith-ful scientists are more common than some would have us believe. We just seem to lack a language for the conversation these days.
May I respectfully ask you to read these profiles carefully.
For instance, we can begin with unmasking this assumption: science is not one voice, and nor is religion. Arguments go on within religion, and within science and between those two plural systems of thinking. It has never been a simple question of ‘faith versus science’. Yet at their best both spheres subscribe to the pursuit of truth, the inspiration from wonder and the driver of curiosity, the knowability of things, the assumption of causality, the observer as a valid point of view, the importance of ethical integrity and the application of their benefit to others’ lives.
A second assumption we must be wary of is this – in history, people’s mindsets were not like today. That does not make us better than them and a radical humility and careful listening to voices is required. In time, we will be shown that we are just as wrong about some things that we are currently convinced of as they were about some of theirs. Science, theology , knowledge are all the same exciting enterprise. For instance, the mainstream church’s rejection of Galileo and Darwin was not because of their adherence to scripture but because churches were wedded to another philosophy of knowledge and their cultural cage was being shaken.
Related to the second assumption is that Christianity has so shaped western culture and science in particular, that its contributions are routinely taken for granted as the inevitable norm or the fruit of reason. A brief glance at non-Christian civilizations will find scientists who are just as brilliant and rational but science as an enterprise there has been reserved for the rich and powerful. Though that is not the subject of this book, let us simply note in passing that a great many of the core values of humanity and education that are the Western legacy arose from Christian philosophies and beliefs. The same can be said in education, law, human rights, arts, architecture, medicine, and more. It is hard to see what has become obvious.
This series cover the periods before and after Darwin. However there have been several paradigm changes of that order of magnitude, so I do not want focus on Darwinism as a single breakpoint.
We will see that the so called ‘Dark Ages’ were not all that dark. Way back in medieval times. in the West and the East, the methods we now call science was stirring. Some of those writers must have been brilliant. Astronomy, maths and medicine were strong in the medieval Islamic world, with significant interchange happening between east and west, between Muslim, Jews and Christians.
We will see that public disputes and personal doubts just keep on coming and going. Today, as modern science grows a huge body of knowledge and as it becomes more and more specialized, fewer people feel able to speak for the intersection of their branch of science with the other branches of knowledge, still less about the points of intersection between faith and science. But there are some.
A young admirer asked Darwin about his religious views (the original inquiry is lost), and the great naturalist answered: "It is impossible to answer your question briefly; and I am not sure that I could do so, even if I wrote at some length. But I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide." See more about Charles Darwin in the entry on Polkinghorne.
Carl Sagan (1934-1996) , science writer
"Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual…The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both."
Wernher Von Braun (1912-1977) -German-American rocket scientist
"I find it as difficult to understand a scientist who does not acknowledge the presence of a superior rationality behind the existence of the universe as it is to comprehend a theologian who would deny the advances of science."
Lastly, this question really matters. There are ‘real world-real people’ outcomes to this set of questions as captured in this quote from the great man who was an acute observer and activist but not a scientist himself: