The assumption that science and religion are in conflict is a view that never diminishes.
Many assume that modern science has rendered religious explanations irrelevant, and some go further to say that science alone can answer all of the questions of life.
Not so with Professor Brian Cox, the renowned BBC presenter and particle physicist at the University of Manchester. Professor Cox recently shared a conference platform with Professor David Wilkinson, astrophysicist, Royal Society fellow and Principal of St John’s College, Durham.
Cox expressed concern over the unnecessary “polarisation of the debate” adding that, although he himself has no personal faith, different “opinions and worldviews need to be celebrated and explored”.
Cox’s vision of dialogue between scientific and religious voices is welcomed and shared by many scientist-theologians, not least Alister McGrath, professor of science and religion at the University of Oxford, who holds that these two disciplines are “mutually enriching”.
The history books also remind us that the two have interacted in this way for centuries. Key contributions to disciplines such as mathematics, medicine, astronomy and philosophy, have come from several different civilisations and religious cultures; ancient Greece and Egypt, the far east, the Middle East and, more recently, Western Europe.
Further, the birth of modern science in the West has strong connections to belief in the God of the Bible. Many key scientists, such as Francis Bacon (1561-1626), often referred to as the father of the modern scientific method, were Christian Theists whose belief in God made possible and drove forward their science. Today, we could point to the Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich, and National Institutes on Health Director Francis Collins as professing Christians who are also outstanding scientists.
Cox’s recognition of the need to listen to and celebrate the views of others is especially pertinent to the age of ‘religious tolerance’ in which we live. Yet, there is a need to recapture what ‘tolerance’ really means. Tolerance, properly understood, means that profound disagreement can co-exist with all ‘voices’ being given a fair hearing.
Professor Cox makes this point using an analogy from politics. Democracy, a quality that most would associate with a healthily functioning state, thrives on the very premise of respectful disagreement.
So too with science. Science progresses at its best when there is discussion and debate. There is a long history of scientific discoveries being met initially with disagreement or scepticism. But when the data doesn’t fit the theory, it is precisely this openness to discussion that sends us back to the drawing board time and again before the ‘Eureka’ moment dawns. In whatever arena we find ourselves, be it the laboratory, the boardroom, the lecture theatre or the office, we often have most to learn from those from whom we differ.
That said, there is also much that Professor Cox and Christians can agree about. We have a shared love of science and want to see it thrive and we have a shared recognition of its limits.
Science cannot answer the biggest questions of life, questions of meaning and destiny with which humanity has always grappled.
The conference focussed on the possibility of multiple universes, or multiverses. Cox, in a later interview, made the crucial point that, “even if [multiverses] turn out to be correct, what does it mean?”.
He has said that for answers to questions of meaning we will need to look also to novelists, artists, philosophers and theologians.
In other words, science cannot answer every question.
There are different levels of explanation, often coming from different fields of expertise, that each help us make sense of the world, and together they provide a complete picture. Professor Cox is absolutely correct that there is a greater need for conversation and mutual enrichment between science and religion. This dialogue is a must for all who seek truth, be it in nature or scripture.
Dr Sharon Dirckx is a Tutor at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, and a former brain imaging scientist