Originally created 09/12/98

Scholar: Science, religion don't have to clash



GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- As an atomic physicist, Matt Walhout spends hours trying to understand the structure of the world around him. But as a Christian, he's never felt the same desire to dissect his own faith, even the aspects that defy scientific explanation such as Jesus walking on water.

"I think there are deep mysteries in physics that no one understands, just like religion," says Walhout, a professor at Calvin College, a Christian school in Grand Rapids. "My world view allows me to accommodate both."

Walhout was one of more than a dozen scientists and theologians who attended a recent seminar on faith and science at the college.

The overlap between the two disciplines is not always harmonious.

School boards have battled over whether children should be taught creationism, the belief, based on a literal interpretation of Scriptures, that God created the world, or evolution, a theory that explains the origin of life as a combination of science and chance.

The possibility of human cloning has led to concerns that scientists are "playing God."

There's no need for the tension, believes Sir John Polkinghorne, a British physicist-turned-Anglican priest who advocates a more harmonious relationship between the two disciplines.

Polkinghorne, who taught the Calvin College seminar, is not alone.

Several conferences have been held on faith and science this year, in addition to discussions in mainstream and specialty publications and television reports.

"What we're really witnessing is perhaps the growth of a new field of study," says C. Stephen Evans, a dean and philosophy professor at Calvin College, who began planning his school's seminar four years ago.

"A lot of people are realizing that common prejudice -- that religion and science are at war -- is really a gross simplification. There are a lot of interesting ways they are compatible."

Polkinghorne agrees. "I think science and religion have one very important thing in common," he says. "They're both looking for truth."

The difference, he believes, is that science concerns itself with how something occurs, while religion looks for why. One example: The "Big Bang" theory may explain how the universe came into existence, but Polkinghorne says God is the "divine mind" behind it.

"Science provides knowledge but not wisdom," he says. "The religions of the world provide reservoirs of wisdom."

And in an era when scientific discoveries are coming at almost breakneck pace, he says, there's an absolute need for scientists and theologians of all faiths to work together to make decisions that are ethically right in the short and long term.

As an example of the consequences of ignoring such issues, Polkinghorne points to the development of the atomic bomb during World War II at Los Alamos, N.M.

The records from the time show how exciting the work was for the scientists, Polkinghorne told his class. "But many only realized what they were working on when they saw the tests," he said.

"It's pretty clear people should have been thinking about ethical issues before then."

Lois Kieffaber, a physicist at Whitworth College, a Christian institution in Spokane, Wash., says the notion that science and religion can be compatible is gaining popularity -- even among her secular colleagues.

"I would not read the Bible as a science book," says Ms. Kieffaber, who took Polkinghorne's class. "And among my secular colleagues there's more a tolerance for accepting religious beliefs. Twenty years ago, there was the view that it had no place at all in science."

William Hurlbut, a biomedical ethics instructor at Stanford University, is pleased by the growing numbers of students and colleagues interested in faith.

Although he cautions that scholars should make sure faith-based explanations don't replace investigative science, he says the benefits of a more interdisciplinary approach outweigh the disadvantages.

"On a practical level of discovery in science, you have more if you include the possibility of religion," says Hurlbut, who is Christian. "Certainly from an ethical perspective, you draw in sources for values you could never derive from pure science."

The debate doesn't surprise Joan Richards, a Brown University history professor, who says science today is frequently viewed as a way to find answers to everything. Conflict arises, she says, when people try to prove something as abstract as a belief system.

"You know what an atom is and can play with it, but you can't do the same with angels," she says.

Polkinghorne, however, sees no need to prove the existence of angels. For him, religion provides a code of ethics to live by and a way to view the world. He says God gave humanity the power to think and create, as well as the responsibility to use those abilities correctly. That's where religion comes in.

"Sometimes people criticize new developments in science as `humankind is in danger of playing God,"' he says. "But if by playing God, we mean using our God-given powers, we do that all the time."