The Durham Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (DASH) hosted an event this evening with guest speaker Prof Chris Done entitled “Are Science and Religion compatible?”, and I came back with so many thoughts I had to write them down.
First, let me give you a bit of context. Prof Chris Done is both a professor of Astrophysics at Durham University and one of the leaders of Emmanuel Church Durham, which describes itself as a “charismatic, family church”. The focus of her talk was to explain how, as a “gabby, seventeen year-old atheist”, she became a Christian only when presented with “evidence” of Jesus Christ’s divine identity. For her, Jesus —specifically, Jesus accepted as the son and embodiment of God— is the only way us humans can know that God exists. God is above anything we can understand, so He reveals Himself to us through Jesus, who shares our human nature while retaining the identity of God.
Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? (John 14:9)
She therefore presents herself as living proof that science and religion are, indeed, compatible.
As an atheist scientist, I don’t actually have a problem with her position. That is, I do believe that science and religion can be compatible — just not in the way she proposes. Hear me out.
The goals of Natural Science are to describe and explain (and sometimes to predict or control) reality. Science deals with evidence to come up with the truth about the natural world. It seeks knowledge. It does not, however provide proof of it (only Mathematics and Logic can provide proof of anything). Religion provides knowledge through faith in a supernatural deity and the truth that it delivers. Importantly, Religion also delivers meaning to Life, something Science never set out to do. So their jurisdictions do not completely overlap. Were there to be a problem with the compatibility of Science and Religion, it would lie in the area where they both attempt to tackle the same questions: where they both provide truth; but only if their versions of the truth are contradictory.
So my question is: are Science and Religion’s versions of “The Truth” (about the Universe) truly contradictory? Well, that depends on the religion (Science there is only one), but I think that overall they are not — at least not inherently. Let’s pick Christianity, the world’s most followed religion: once you strip The Bible of all that is open to interpretation (for example, 7-day view creationism, which is not accepted literally by most Christians), once only the core, non-negotiable beliefs are left, the scriptures do not contradict Science’s view of reality. The key problem is that they add elements to reality that Science has no explanation for — but nor does Christianity! For example, Natural Science’s current best explanation for the origin of the Universe is the Big Bang Theory. This is not incompatible with the notion of a creator. The problem is, science is a tool built to deal with reality (the Universe: time, space, energy and matter), so it can’t explain where the singularity that originated the Big Bang came from, because in the absence of time, space, energy and matter these tools are useless. Religion solves this problem by introducing the idea of a creator. This creator could have “made” the singularity that exploded to create the Universe. As a scientist, I don’t have a problem with this, because it is supernatural: Natural Science is not able to argue against it! Much in the same way as I don’t have a problem with the concept of miracles: if a deity created reality, it created the rules for reality, which we call the “laws of nature”. If it created the rules, it could very well break them! This is what miracles are: events which the known laws of nature cannot account for.
However, as a scientist, I personally (and I stress personally, because I can see why other scientists would not share my problem) choose not to believe in the existence of a deity because there is no evidence to support it. However, in the absence of evidence, I cannot claim that there isn’t a deity either! That is why some people describe themselves as “agnostic”. They accept that there could or could not be a god, because they have no evidence to support either claim.
For this very same reason, I do not believe in miracles, even though the concept of them seems reasonable to me from a creationist point of view. There is no evidence that any event ever witnessed on our Universe has escaped the laws of nature: those we cannot explain still have the potential to be explained by Science in the future. I am confident that Science will get to them eventually, and while I do not feel the need to resort to a deity to explain them, I can understand why some people would.
So that is why I don’t understand Prof Chris Done’s position. She claims to be a scientist through and through, and therefore refused to accept Christianity until she was presented with “evidence” (Biblical accounts) of Jesus’ identity. I do not believe she has evidence of any sort. It would have made much more sense to me if she had just chosen to accept the mysterious nature of Religion and embrace Christianity in faith. She herself said that she could not understand why some Christians tried to explain miracles through science when they are clearly beyond natural order (and that is the point). In any case, both her Christian faith and her scientific attitude were palpable, and for this strength in her convictions I respect her. When asked how she could prove that God was real and not inside her head she wittily drew upon Dumbledore’s words:
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”