God and Science

This essay was originally given as an address to a bemused congregation at Evensong a few years ago.

When fragments of the Shroud of Turin were recently subjected to scientific analysis in order to assess their age, I was seized by an almost childish enthusiasm. I felt that it would be wonderful if science could somehow "prove" the Shroud’s authenticity. I also began reading about the strange discoveries of modern physics - both at the sub-atomic level of quantum mechanics, and in the theories of cosmology concerning how the universe has evolved - hoping to find support there for my religious beliefs. I then realised that I had been making the assumption that science was the only true judge of the way things are, and also that I had a nagging doubt that Christianity was somehow "unscientific". (It was said of Michael Faraday that when he went into his laboratory he forgot his religion, and when went to church he forgot his science.)


So I was very glad to come across the works of Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne in that repository of human knowledge, the St Peter’s Church library. This essay is based on his ideas and if you find it interesting but incoherent, or want to find out more, then I would recommend his books to you. Polkinghorne is well qualified to discuss the relationship between science and theology, as he worked for much of his life as a theoretical elementary particle physicist, became Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge, and was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society. More recently he has become an Anglican priest, which goes to show how one can get on in life. (Since this article was written he has been elected President of Queen’s College, Cambridge.) His ideas strike a chord in me which makes me feel that he is not far from the truth. They are also entirely consistent with orthodox Anglican belief. However I must warn you that there is no proof - ultimately an act of faith is required. But I hope to be able to show that it is perfectly reasonable to believe in God in a scientific age - and to show that science, too, requires its acts of faith.

A mechanical universe?

In the nineteenth century great strides were taken in understanding the physical world. The laws of mechanics, electro-magnetism and evolution were discovered. It seemed only a matter of time before the power of Reason led to a complete understanding of an objective and determinate world. There seemed to be little place for God in such a mechanical universe. It is perhaps fortunate that hardly any of that description of the world remains intact today.


In the simple view of science, a theory is proposed which is then either confirmed or disproved by experiment. Thus incontestable truth is gradually established. In fact, all experiments involve interpretation and judgement about what the results actually mean. And the more we know, the more we realise there is to know. Atoms were found to contain nuclei, nuclei were found to consist of protons and neutrons, which in their turn are now thought to be made of strange objects called quarks and gluons. Scientific theories have to be corrected in the light of later discoveries - an ever-tightening grip on a reality which is never completely understood. Moreover, we need to make assumptions. All of science assumes that the world is rational, ordered, and capable of being understood. We expect that under the same physical conditions an experiment will always give the same result. If we drop a stone from the Leaning Tower of Pisa we believe it will always to fall to the ground. But these assumptions cannot be proved by logical means. Even in mathematics there have to be acts of faith, for Gödels’ theorem demonstrates that there are many important mathematical propositions which cannot be proved. So even in the realm of science, much that is true cannot be proved. There is also much that goes against the grain of what we call "common sense". Some of the facts about quantum theory are quite bizarre. Apart from the well-known fact that we cannot know both where a particle is and what it is doing (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle), it is also true that two sub-atomic particles - once they have "interacted" - influence each other no matter how far apart they have travelled. (This is because in quantum mechanics, many properties of a particle are "fuzzy" and do not become fixed until we measure them. It is possible to produce pairs of particles that have to be "mirror images" of each other. If we later measure a certain property of one of a pair of particles, it becomes fixed at a certain value. The same property in the other particle instantly becomes fixed at the opposite value, even if it is by then "at the other side of the universe".) So the scientific view of the world is full of surprises.

…and religion

Religion, on the other hand, is not just a series of arbitrary assertions which the faithful must believe at all costs. Theological ideas, like scientific ones, must be corrected if they do not fit the facts. St Anselm spoke of faith seeking understanding. Theology is an attempt to reflect on and explain the religious experience of men, women and nations through the ages. It must produce an account which is

  • coherent, so that the theories all "hang together"
  • economical with its concepts, not using ten where one would do
  • adequate to explain all matters of concern
  • and consistent with actual experience.

This is very similar to what scientific theory tries to do. But there is a difference. In physics we study matter, which can be put to the test. In theology we study something which transcends us. God is unknowable, but we believe that he acts to make himself known. Our knowledge of God cannot enable us to predict what he will do next (just as we cannot predict what a friend will do even if we know him very well). But that does not mean that we can make any statement we like about him, because we believe that he is constant and faithful.


Why then might we believe in God? Many scientists have felt that there is more to this world than meets the eye. Einstein said "the only incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible". Science does not tell us why the world is like this, because it assumes that the world is comprehensible as its first premise. Furthermore, our minds can understand it. The abstract concepts of mathematics have been found to describe perfectly both the sub-atomic world and the behaviour of objects travelling near the speed of light. Evolution cannot explain this, since such understanding has no survival value. But we can envisage a rational Creator who guarantees the rationality of both the universe and our minds. The old Arguments from Design, which used the complexity of structures such as the eye to "prove" that there must have been a designer, have been superseded by the insights of cosmology, biochemistry and evolution. These explain how life has developed over the past fifteen thousand million years, by the interplay of chance and necessity on the original matter of the universe. But this does not explain why the original matter (with its extraordinary potential) came into existence in the first place, nor why the physical laws of the universe are set exactly as they are. Because the exact setting of these laws was crucial for life to develop. Just after the explosion of the Big Bang, the balance between the explosive energy throwing matter apart and the force of gravity trying to pull it back together again, had to be exactly balanced. If it had been an infinitesimal fraction either way, matter would either have flown apart too quickly to allow the stars to form, or it would all have fallen back together again long before life could develop. In a similar way the ratio of certain inter-atomic forces was crucial - just a little one way and there could have been no water in the universe, just a little the other and there would have been no carbon available. This is sometimes called the Anthropic Principle - that the whole universe had to develop exactly as it did in order for life to have developed on this planet.

A personal God

We may be able to conceive the existence of a Creator God who has called the world into being with the potential for intelligent life to evolve, and who continues to guarantee the unchanging nature of physical laws. But we are a long way from the personal God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who continues to interact with his creation, who cares for us, and to whom we can pray. Can we believe in such a God in a scientific age? It seems that the advance of science has made us expect less of God. Where we used to pray for rain, we now merely give thanks for the weather we have already received. The first thing to say is that we must be true to our experience, however hard it is to understand. In the nineteenth century it was proved beyond doubt that light was a wave of electromagnetism. At the beginning of the twentieth century Einstein proved, also beyond doubt, that light was made up of tiny particles which he called photons. For a while these two facts were irresolvable - it seemed impossible that light could be both. Yet no good would have been done by denying half the evidence. Eventually Paul Dirac discovered quantum field mechanics which explain mathematically how light can be both. In the same way, if our religious experience leads us to believe that Jesus Christ was both man and God, we must not be swayed from this belief by the intellectual problems it raises. In both science and theology it is better to have a confused theory that fits the facts rather than an oversimplification which distorts them.


But can God really interact with our world and with us? Are we wasting our time when we pray to him? It seems quite reasonable to pray for inner strength, for we realise what a complex and deep thing the mind is. It is fairly easy to imagine God as a persuading, sustaining and transforming presence within us. But is it reasonable to pray for rain, or for healing? When we pray for these things we usually add "if it be thy will", perhaps not just in recognition that God may know better than we what is best for us, but maybe also to give him a sort of "escape clause". In a scientific age we find it hard to imagine him in direct control of things. How might he act in our world? The best analogy is ourselves. We know that our bodies and our brains are subject to the same physical laws as the rest of the universe, but we also know that we have free will. We have room for manoeuvre within the physical laws of matter. If God has allowed us to be free to act while obeying the laws of nature, why should he not allow himself the same freedom? Furthermore, we do not live in a clockwork universe. We now know that at the sub-atomic level events occur randomly without any cause, but even at the everyday level things are not predictable. The predictable physical systems described by Newton, such as pendulums and planets in orbit, are unusually simple ones. Most dynamic systems in the world are extremely complex - everything affects everything else, and the behaviour of such systems is open and unpredictable. We can imagine God affecting what is to be in systems where minuscule differences in the trigger have large effects in the outcome. But we should not expect him to break the laws of nature for our benefit. As Origen pointed out many centuries ago, it is useless to pray for summer to be turned into winter (though perhaps he did not have experience of the English climate).


What about miracles? The religious problem is not so much whether they can occur, but why they do not happen more often. Why does an omnipotent God not act frequently to save his innocent children from unmerited suffering? It seems that he will not act against his own nature, so that his action in the world is always consistent and physical laws are not broken. Some miracles, such as Jesus quieting the storm, could have been arranged by what Carl Jung called synchronicity. The storm was going to quieten at that moment anyway, and its quieting coincided with Jesus saying "peace, be still". But this will not explain all miracles, and it will certainly not explain the Resurrection.


Science can offer a pointer here, because we know that physical laws are only constant when the physical régime is the same. Objects travelling near the speed of light are subject to different laws than those which govern them at slower speeds. Some metals, when cooled to very low temperatures, suddenly lose their electrical resistance. This so-called superconductivity was a complete surprise when it was first discovered, and it took fifty years before it could be adequately explained by theory. So it seems reasonable that under conditions which we do not normally experience, the laws of nature may change. When, exceptionally, God himself enters our universe we may expect the laws of nature to change, so that we get a glimpse of a deeper reality which is usually hidden from our sight.

There is nothing special about the particular atoms of which we are made at any one time. After a few years of nutrition, growth and repair, most of the atoms of our body have been replaced by different ones. It is rather the pattern of those atoms which defines our mind and body. There seems no reason why that pattern, dissolved at our death, should not be "remembered" by God and recreated elsewhere in a different environment. It is the Christian hope that in the Resurrection of our Lord we see a glimpse of this possibility, the first example of what will be for all men. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. 

Michael Leuty, June 1989

Read John Polkinghorne's own address on George Green and mathematics, given at St Stephen's Church, Sneinton on 13th July 1993.


Books by John Polkinghorne, published by SPCK.

  • One World (1986)
  • Science and Creation (1988)
  • Science and Providence (1989)
  • Reason and Reality (1991)
  • Science and Christian Belief (1994)

Polkinghorne web-site

Reverend Dr John Polkinghorne

© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997