GOD AND THE
by Mike Poole
- AND OTHER ARGUMENTS ABOUT SCIENCE AND FAITH
THE BIG BANG
One of the most dramatic ideas of modern science is the Big Bang. But the Big Bang was not a cosmic explosion at a point in time in
empty black space, but the beginning of space and of time itself (space-time). The idea that
time is part of the creation is very difficult to grasp. But it is similar to the view which St.
Augustine held, back in the 4th century! Realising that the Bible teaches that God transcends
time, he said that creation was 'with time', not 'in time'. So the Bible's opening words, 'In the
beginning', better express the idea than the traditional 'Once upon a time'.
'If the universe is so big, and so old, aren't humans just insignificant specks in the vastness of
So goes one view of our place in space-time. But the size and age of the universe can
be looked upon as telling a very different story ...
On current scientific thinking, the chemicals we are made of were cooked up in giant nuclear
furnaces - stars - bigger than our sun. Because gravity is a weak force, these stars took
thousands of millions of years to form and to make these elements. Then the stars exploded
scattering the atoms into space. Objects near the edge of the universe are still moving away at
nearly the speed of light today, so if that has been happening since the Big Bang, it's easy to see why the universe is now so enormous. Some of the scattered atoms eventually became human flesh and bone - our bodies
are the ashes of long-dead stars. So it seems that if the universe was not ancient and vast, the
atoms of our bodies would not have been made, which would stand the argument for
insignificance on its head.
The sense of human smallness was around long before modern astronomy. Psalm 8 in the
Bible says, 'When I consider your heavens ... the moon and the stars ... what is man that you
are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?' This Psalm shows why we are
significant - we are important to God who created us to enjoy a relationship with him.
THE GOLDILOCKS EFFECT
But however the universe began, it appears to be 'fine-tuned' for our existence.
If certain physical properties were minutely different, even by about one in ten to the power of sixty, we would not be here. This is about the accuracy needed to hit a square inch target on the other side of the observable universe. The physical constants and laws of nature, like Baby Bear's bed and
porridge, are 'just right' for us.
This doesn't provide a knock-down argument for the existence of God but it is fully consistent
with a universe planned by God.
'Another source of conviction in the existence of God ... follows from the ... impossibility of
conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity for looking
far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity.' Charles Darwin
ALLIES OR ENEMIES?
Some people think of science and Christianity as in conflict. But is it true? The 'conflict thesis'
is a relatively recent idea, from the 19th century. But for most of its history - certainly
the first 300 years - modern science and Christianity were regarded as going hand-in-hand.
But, as a contemporary historian of science points out, ideas of conflict
'are not adequate as general claims about how science and religion have been interrelated in
history ... Much historical research has invalidated the conflict thesis.' Dr Geoffrey Cantor, University of Leeds
Even today the idea of conflict is still deeply entrenched in the folklore of society. So why has
it persisted for so long? Another historian of science suggests a reason:
'To assert that the findings of science have gradually eroded or disproved the cherished
dogmas of the church is one of the ways by which a secular society justifies its unbelief.' Professor John Brooke, University of Lancaster
ARE SCIENTISTS ATHEISTIC?
The media love confrontation - it's good for viewing figures and sales. A few vocal scientists,
given a disproportionate amount of air time and column inches, often give the impression that
scientists are a bunch of atheists. But there is no evidence that they are any more unbelieving
than the rest of society.
'Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind'. Albert Einstein
Many of the greatest scientists in history believed in God: Newton, Boyle, Faraday, Pasteur,
Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, to name but a few. Today there are plenty of scientists who are
committed Christians. One UK organisation, Christians in Science, has members and contacts
numbering some 1500 scientists, including university staff, scientists in industry and science
teachers. Other such organisations also exist. But that is not 'news', so they receive little
'Physical laws came into being because there is a Creator who made them.' Prof. Sir Ghillean Prance, Director of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
'Science is dealing with things that are given ... awe, wonder and humility before the facts are
essential if man is to be in harmony with both his environment and his creator.' Sir John Houghton, Former Director General, Meteorological Office
SCIENCE AND PROOF
YOU CAN'T PROVE SCIENTIFICALLY THAT GOD EXISTS!
No - but that is hardly surprising!
Science is the study of the natural world - of nature. Questions about God are questions about
whether there is anything other than nature. It's no use going to science, the study of nature, to
find out whether there is anything other than nature!
Science just can't answer questions like this.
IS SCIENCE THE ULTIMATE TEST?
In the early 20th century, some scientists and philosophers thought so. But, curiously, science
itself turned out to be the first victim of this way of thinking. This is because, in order to get
started, science has to make certain assumptions that cannot be proved scientifically. They are:
These basic beliefs, necessary for science, can't be proved scientifically, so any idea that
science is the final court of appeal for everything we believe shoots itself in the foot!
- Rationality - that our thinking processes are basically reliable. (This assumption is needed in
every area of life - even to discuss rationality!)
- Orderliness - that there is an order to be discovered in nature - otherwise why do science at
- Intelligibility - that our minds are able to discover this order.
- Uniformity - that doing exactly the same experiment twice gives the same results. The scientific enterprise would be impossible without the assumption that there is a general
uniformity in nature.
CAN SCIENCE EXPLAIN EVERYTHING?
There are different types of explanation ...
These four types of explanation are compatible with each other. No-one would deny the
existence of the creator of a thermometer, or his purpose, just because we have a complete
scientific explanation of it. Yet some popular books about origins, like Stephen Hawking's A
Brief History of Time and Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker question whether there is
any need for God at all, simply because we have scientific explanations.
- Interpretive - what something is - e.g. a thermometer is a device for measuring
- Descriptive - what it is made of - a sensor, microchip and battery.
- Reason-giving (scientific) - temperature changes in the sensor change its electrical
properties and these can be measured.
- Reason-giving (motives) - its creator's motives and purposes in making a devise
useful for medicine, cooking, science, etc.
If all that was meant by 'having no need of God' was 'can we have a complete scientific
account of origins without mentioning God?', then the answer is clearly 'yes'. There is no
need to talk about God in a scientific explanation of the birth of the universe, any more than
one would need to talk about Henry Ford in a car repair manual. But that does not rule out the
existence of either! Having one type of explanation doesn't preclude others.
Although scientific explanations tell us how something came about, or how it works, they
cannot go further. They can't tell us whether there was a creator or a plan.
Professionals often concentrate solely on one type of explanation. For instance, a pathologist's
scientific explanation of the cause of death of a murdered woman might be the effect of
cyanide on the human body. But this doesn't identify who killed her, and it in no way
invalidates another explanation for her death - that her husband wanted to get rid of her.
Ultimate purposes are not part of science, but that does not mean they are any less important;
indeed people frequently ask 'is there any meaning to life?'
DOES SCIENCE PUSH GOD OUT?
Imagine someone trying to fit Baird, the creator of television, into gaps in someone's
understanding of TV, saying, 'you don't understand how that part of the TV works; that's Baird, see!'
Yet some writers who attack Christianity do something similar. They say that science has filled
in so many gaps in our knowledge that God has been pushed out of the picture. But the idea
that only the gaps in scientific knowledge indicate God's handiwork - called the
'God-of-the-gaps' - is muddled.
The problem arises through confusing two different types of explanation - an explanation of the
actions of an agent (Baird or God), in creating something, with a scientific explanation of the
workings of the created object (a TV set or the universe).
Consequently, those who believe in God but unfortunately swallow the 'God-of-the-gaps'
idea, are likely to feel that scientific discoveries are a threat to their faith because they close
the gaps and squeeze God out. Being aware of this, those who don't believe in God
sometimes show additional enthusiasm for science because they imagine it displaces God.
But the 'God-of-the-gaps' is not the God of the Bible. There, God is presented as involved in
what we already understand, just as much as in the parts we don't yet grasp. Professor C.A.
Coulson, who coined the phrase 'God-of-the-gaps', wrote as a Christian when he pointed out,
'When we come to the scientifically unknown, our correct policy is not to rejoice because we
have found God; it is to become better scientists.'
Claims like 'Human beings are nothing but a lot of chemicals with computers on top' imply
that scientific explanations of human beings are the only valid ones. Such are the claims of
reductionism - the belief that by reducing explanations of people to the chemicals that make
them up, everything has been said and the spiritual side of human beings has been debunked.
Give-away words are 'nothing but' ('just', 'only' and 'simply'), which is why reductionism has
been dubbed 'nothing-buttery'. On the one hand, such a view overlooks the extra
characteristics which emerge because of the way all the parts work in combination. For
instance, when the two gases hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water (H2O), a new
property, 'wetness', emerges which was not there before. On the other, it overlooks the fact
that science is limited to a study of the physical world, and so can give no grounds for saying
there is nothing in the universe that is not physical. It cannot therefore deny God or a spiritual
dimension to human beings. That would be like concluding, 'There are no fish in the sea
smaller than 2 cm in size' after fishing with a net of 2 cm mesh.
IS RELIGION EXPLAINED AWAY?
Some people naively think that by naming something, or explaining it in scientific terms, it has
been explained away. Take the phrase, 'Christianity is all psychological'. It suggests that
labelling Christianity as 'psychological', or having a psychological explanation of it, has
explained it away and therefore disproved it.
Psychology is the study of behaviour, and religious experience is part of human behaviour. As
such it is open to psychological study. But no threat is posed by psychological explanations of
Christian experience. The two types of explanation, psychological and spiritual, operate at
different levels. They are different but compatible approaches. Explaining at one level is not
explaining away, any more than explaining Marxism explains away Karl Marx. Different
types of explanation can each be valid, as we notice in everyday life: the car breakdown might
be explained as due to (i) a faulty part, (ii) old age, (iii) bad maintenance.
It is also significant that psychological and sociological explanations typically try to explain the
origins of belief without examining their claim to be true. Their concern is with the causes of
belief rather than with the grounds for judging them to be true or false. Ultimately the issue of
truth or falsity is of central importance, not why we choose to believe things are true.
DON'T MIRACLES 'BREAK' SCIENTIFIC LAWS?
Scientific laws are shorthand descriptions of how nature normally behaves. They don't force
nature to behave that way. Unlike the judicial use of 'law', scientific laws don't legislate that
something must happen, only that on the basis of previous experience, we can expect it to
happen. So it's misleading to talk about scientific laws being 'obeyed' or 'broken'. Scientific
laws can be looked upon as reflecting the orderly and regular ways God works - the 'customs
of God'. But if God wishes to act differently for a particular purpose, and perform a miracle,
that's up to him. He's free to do things differently.
DOESN'T NATURE BEHAVE UNIFORMLY?
The uniformity of nature is simply an assumption about the normal pattern of events. It can't be
treated as a hard and fast rule meaning things could never be otherwise.One could only know
that nature was absolutely uniform if one knew for sure that no events like miracles had ever
occurred nor ever would. So to try to use the uniformity of nature to show miracles cannot
occur is to argue in a circle! Or, to put it another way, nature has only been studied for a
minute part of its history. So, in order to do science, you have to suppose that nature, when
unobserved, behaves the same way it does when observed. But that assumes the uniformity of
nature, rather than proves it!
DO MIRACLES MATTER?
A miracle is ...
Miracles are not optional extras to Christianity. Indeed, Christianity is founded upon the
beliefs that God became man (incarnation) and that he has power over death, shown in the
resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus said, 'I lay down my life - only to take it up again. No-one
takes it from me but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and
authority to take it up again' (John 10: 17-18).
- Something out of the ordinary that catches the attention.
- Intended by God as a sign of his love and/or power.
The word means 'bringing-into-being' and here it refers to 'bringing-into-being-by-God',
however it happens. 'Creation' stresses that God is the instigator of the universe and of life,
but does not lay down the processes involved.
CREATION V. EVOLUTION - A PHONEY WAR?
The process of evolution is not a logical alternative to the act of creation by God, despite what
a few popularisers of science say in the media. The act of creating an entirely new type of car
is not denied by saying the process of automation was involved. Evolution is only
incompatible with the idea of separate creative acts, an idea known as Special Creation.
Charles Darwin, a self-confessed agnostic, said: 'In my most extreme fluctuations I have never
been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.'
EVOLUTION AS RELIGION
Some people have tried to make a religion out of evolution, hoping for a 'secular substitute for
God'. Such attempts belong to the belief-system of 'evolutionism', rather than to the biological
theory of evolution. But evolutionism has infiltrated the popular mind and become closely
identified with the biological theory itself. However, attempts at extracting philosophical ideas, such as moral progress, from evolutionary theory cannot be justified. Biology tells us what is, not what ought to be. Equally, the presence of chance processes in evolution does not dispense with divine plan and
purpose. 'Chance' in science is to do with unpredictability. It does not mean 'unplanned' or
'purposeless' as it does in everyday speech. Plans and ultimate purposes fall outside the remit
WHERE CHRISTIANS DIFFER
Some Christians who are scientists understand the early chapters of Genesis as teaching a
young earth and separate acts of creation of all the different kinds of creatures. Others, with
equal respect for the authority of the Biblical record, see no necessary conflict between the
Biblical text and an ancient universe, the evolution of stars, chemicals and living things. Both
groups believe their views are consistent with the scientific evidence available. Despite their
differences, both assert that the world is God's creation.
WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE!
Charles Darwin prefaced the 'Origin of Species' with this quote from Francis Bacon:
'Let no man ... think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the
book of God's word, or in the book of God's works.'
Bacon was referring to God as the author of ...
Galileo said that 'two truths cannot contradict each other'. But the Bible is written in a variety
of different literary forms so it is important to distinguish between history, parable, poetry,
letters, proverbs, allegory and so forth. As in science, figures of speech are used to get the
concepts across. Things that can't be seen, or new ideas that are difficult to grasp, are
compared with familiar things to help us understand. Both science and religion do this. For
example: 'atoms are like little solar systems'; 'electricity going through a wire is like water
flowing in a pipe'; 'God is like a good father' and 'God's Spirit is like the wind'.
- The Book of Scripture - the Book of God's Words
- The Book of Nature - the Book of God's Works.
But 'every comparison has a limp', and so it becomes silly when people try to press all the
details. Sometimes people do it deliberately to make Christianity look ridiculous. Also,
Galileo warned of the difficulties of trying to read current science, which changes, into Bible
texts. This is what some well-meaning people in his day were trying to do with astronomy.
'the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes'. Quoted by Galileo
Both the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature need reading carefully, with an attitude
always open to fresh understanding. Our own prejudices and preconceptions, creationist or
evolutionary, can powerfully affect our understanding.
THE VALUE OF SCIENCE
The rise of modern science, starting some 400 years ago, took place within a Christian culture.
Many key scientists were in Holy Orders. A very positive attitude to science and faith was
often in evidence. The astronomer Kepler spoke of 'thinking God's thoughts after him'. Isaac
Newton hoped that his famous 'Principia' would 'persuade thinking men to believe in a deity'.
Examples could be multiplied. Moreover, the Bible itself seemed to provide encouragement
to do science, for ...
Science is of course practised by fallible human beings, and so isn't perfect. But it is still a
worthwhile activity that can be done to the glory of God.
- God had commanded humans to manage the earth responsibly (Genesis 1). It seemed they needed to understand how it worked in order to do that.
- God could be glorified by acquiring knowledge that would both help to relieve pain and suffering and reveal his wisdom and power.
- The Bible removed one hindrance to experimental science - the ancient philosophy of 'pantheism'. Pantheists regarded experimentation on creation as sacrilege because God and nature were the same thing. The Bible taught that God was distinct from his creation.
SCIENCE AND THE FUTURE
When we think about how we are destroying our planet, we may wonder how long it can
sustain such abuse. When we see a giant meteor crash into the planet Jupiter, it's easy to get
worried about how long humanity will survive. Science can only make speculative predictions
about the future, based on current knowledge. It does not offer security about our future.
The Bible maintains that the universe is not a cosmic accident, but is part of a plan. John 1:3
says about Jesus, 'Through him all things were made'. The world has intrinsic worth because
God created it.
Hebrews 1:3 says that he is 'sustaining all things by his powerful word.' In other words, God
hasn't set the world off on a course of its own, and then left it all to fend for itself. He is not
only the Creator, but the Sustainer.
One day, 'Creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay' (Romans 8:21). As for us,
God loves us and wants us to enjoy the future with Him. His condition is that we receive His
forgiveness, since Christ died for our sins. The Apostle John was given this vision of the
'Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed
away... And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dwelling of God is with
men, and he will live with them ... He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no
more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away' (Revelation 21: 1-4)
MEET THE AUTHOR
Occasionally, for effect, authors write themselves into their own plays or novels as one of the
characters. This creates surprise and bewilderment, because the world of the characters and
the author are so different - so too are their views of time.
When Christ became a man it was like the author of creation writing himself into his own
drama. Some people were puzzled and offended by his claims. When Jesus said, 'Before
Abraham was born, I am!' (John 8:58) it was a powerful statement of his divinity. Not only was
he saying that he existed before Abraham, who lived some 1800 years before Jesus was born,
but he was applying God's sacred Hebrew name ('Yahweh', meaning 'I am') to himself. The
Jews knew what he was saying, because their outraged reaction was to try to stone him to
death for blasphemy!
Probably the most famous verse of the Bible tells us why Jesus came to earth:
'For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes on him
should not perish but have eternal life' (John 3:16). Such a declaration requires a response. It
is possible to meet the Author of Life and begin a personal relationship with him, which will
last beyond time: 'Jesus replied, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father
will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him"' (John 14:23).
© Michael Poole, Visiting Research Fellow, King's College, University of London,
with thanks to science colleagues who made useful suggestions, and special thanks to Andrew
Halloway for his valuable editorial guidance.
It would be unrealistic for the author to enter into correspondence about the many points
touched upon here. Those who wish to follow up the ideas can do so in his book, A Guide to
Science and Belief (2nd ed.), Lion Publishing, 1994. A teachers' resource book to accompany
the use of the book in schools is also being published by Lion: God-talk: Science talk. The
specific issue of miracles is treated in Miracles: Science, the Bible and Experience Scripture
Union, 1992. Science specialists and teachers will find an academic treatement of many of the
issues in Beliefs and Values in Science Education Open University Press, 1995.
Berry, R.J. (ed.) Real Science, Real Faith. Christian Impact, 1995. Sixteen successful
professional scientists discuss their science and personal faith.
Holder, R.D. Nothing But Atoms and Molecules? Probing the limits of science. Monarch,
Lucas, E. Genesis Today. Christian Impact, 1995.
Polkinghorne, J. Quarks, Chaos and Christianity. SPCK, 1994.
Wilkinson, D.A. God, The Big Bang and Stephen Hawking. Monarch, 1993.
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