Mark Pinsky: Science and faith, the British way

Posted by Kendall Harmon

As a religion writer with a growing interest in science, I've wondered how science/religion tensions play out in other cultures. On a recent fellowship at the University of Cambridge, scientists I met did not fit the stereotypes common to American popular culture.

While impossible to quantify, a surprising number of prominent British researchers at the pinnacle of their fields, with worldwide reputations in the physical and biological sciences, proclaim their evangelical Christian faith. And they are not perfunctory adherents, merely showing up for Sunday worship; they believe in acting on their beliefs. Some have taken up weekend pulpits.

Their roster includes Sir John Houghton, former head of the United Kingdom's Meteorological Office; Sir John Polkinghorne, a particle physicist, Anglican priest and author of numerous books on science and religion; Sir Brian Heap, a biologist; geologist Robert W. White and paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris. I asked these scientists the sources of their belief, and the answers they gave me were intriguing to someone who for years has been more immersed in the world of American evangelicals, where I frequently found that hostility toward science seemed to be the norm in public controversies. These Brits cited a disparate mixture of empirical scientific evidence and the veracity of Scripture for their Christianity, based equally on science and faith.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchReligion & CultureScience & Technology* International News & CommentaryAmerica/U.S.A.England / UK

13 Comments
Posted September 30, 2008 at 12:24 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. The_Archer_of_the_Forest wrote:

This is a good book, rather dense, but well done.

September 30, 1:57 pm | [comment link]
2. William Witt wrote:

#2,  I would also recommend Owen Gingerich’s little book, God’s Universe (Harvard University Press, 2006) (Gingerich is Emeritus Professor of Astronomy and History of Science, Harvard); Francis S. Collins’s, The Language of God (Free Press, 2006) (Collins is head of the Human Genome Project), as well as Alister McGrath’s recent scientific theology project, beginning with his The Science of God (Eerdmans, 2004).

Older works to look at would include T. F. Torrance’s numerous works on the relation between science and theology, as well as Stanley Jaki and E. L. Mascall.

September 30, 3:18 pm | [comment link]
3. William Witt wrote:

Of course, the response comments show that Polkinghorne et al have their work cut out for them.  Says one commenter:

“Every competent biologist agrees the development of life on this planet, including the development of the first living cells, was a natural process. The imaginary magic fairy, or what brainwashed people call God, had nothing to do with it.”

Well, no.  If Polkinghorne et al do not believe that the development of the first living cells was an entirely natural process, then it is not true that “every competent biologist” believes that it is.  Every competent biologist who is also a philosophical naturalist believes that the origin of life was an entirely natural process.  But that is a philosophical and theological position, one that scientists qua scientists are no more competent to address than anyone else.

September 30, 3:30 pm | [comment link]
4. William Witt wrote:

Polkinghorne is not a biologist, and thus can’t be put in the category of “competent biologist” either.

Well, yes.  As I understand it, Polkinghorne was a particle physicist. McGrath has a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics (does that make him a “competent biologist”?), Gingerich is an astronomer (not a biologist), and Collins is a geneticist (another “competent biologist”?).  I took the point of the remark to be about competent scientists as opposed to benighted religionists, not necessarily that of contrasting the scientific abilities of a particle physicist (like Polkinghorne) with those of a biologist.

September 30, 5:19 pm | [comment link]
5. William Witt wrote:

Also, Matt Thompson, I think perhaps we were using the word “naturalist scientific process” in different ways.  Both Polkinghorne and Gingerich argue that the physical sciences deal with efficient causality, not formal causality.  Keeping in mind that distinction, to say, as you do, “the doctrine of creation is not inconsistent with a naturalist scientific enterprise,” is not in contradiction with my statement: “Polkinghorne et al do not believe that the development of the first living cells was an entirely natural process.”

September 30, 5:26 pm | [comment link]
6. phil swain wrote:

Pinsky says that Polkinghorne ascribes to the view called “theistic evolutionism” which Pinsky understands to be what is called theistic Darwinism.  However, Cardinal Dulles in an article called “God and Evolution” in the Oct. 2007 issue of FIRST THINGS says that Polkinghorne “holds that Darwinism is incapable of explaining why multicellular plants and animals arise when single cellular organism seem to cope with the environment quite successfully.”  As I understand him Polkinghorne holds to a teleological view which posits the necessity of divine intervention within the created order.  So, Polkinghorne is saying much more then the doctrine of creation and Darwinsim are not inconsistent.

September 30, 6:26 pm | [comment link]
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