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 . Opinion: 'How the Heavens Go'

According to a study released last year, 40 percent of American scientists believe in a personal God – not merely an ineffable power and presence in the world, but a deity to whom they can pray.

Ptolemy
(Gianni Dagli Orti/Corbis)
   
To Joel Primack, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, "practicing science [even] has a spiritual goal" – namely, providing inspiration. It turns out, explains Primack, that the largest size imaginable, the entire universe, is 10 with 29 zeros after it (in centimeters). The smallest size describes the subatomic world, and is 10 with 24 zeros (and a decimal) in front of it. Humans are right in the middle. Does this return us to a privileged place? Primack doesn't know, but he describes this as a "soul-satisfying cosmology."

Although skeptical scientists grumble that science has no need of religion, forward-looking theologians think religion needs science. Religion "is incapable of making its moral claims persuasive or its spiritual comfort effective [unless] its cognitive claims" are credible, argues physicist-theologian Russell.

Although upwards of 90 percent of Americans believe in a personal God, fewer believe in a God who parts seas, or creates species one by one. To make religions forged millenniums ago relevant in an age of atoms and DNA, some theologians are "incorporat[ing] knowledge gained from natural science into the formation of doctrinal beliefs," says Ted Peters of Pacific Lutheran Seminary. Otherwise, says astronomer and Jesuit priest William Stoeger, religion is in danger of being seen, by people even minimally acquainted with science, "as an anachronism."

Science cannot prove the existence of God, let alone spy him at the end of a telescope. But to some believers, learning about the universe offers clues about what God might be like.

As W. Mark Richardson of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences says, "Science may not serve as an eyewitness of God the creator, but it can serve as a character witness." One place to get a glimpse of God's character, ironically, is in the workings of evolution.

Arthur Peacocke, a biochemist who became a priest in the Church of England in 1971, has no quarrel with evolution. To the contrary: he finds in it signs of God's nature. He infers, from evolution, that God has chosen to limit his omnipotence and omniscience. In other words, it is the appearance of chance mutations, and the Darwinian laws of natural selection acting on this "variation," that bring about the diversity of life on Earth.

This process suggests a divine humility, a God who acts selflessly for the good of creation, says theologian John Haught, who founded the Georgetown (University) Center for the Study of Science and Religion. He calls this a "humble retreat on God's part": much as a loving parent lets a child be, and become, freely and without interference, so does God let creation make itself.

It would be an exaggeration to say that such sophisticated theological thinking is remaking religion at the level of the local parish, mosque or synagogue. But some of these ideas do resonate with ordinary worshipers and clergy.

For Billy Crockett, president of Walking Angel Records in Dallas, the discoveries of quantum mechanics that he reads about in the paper reinforce his faith that "there is a lot of mystery in the nature of things." For other believers, an appreciation of science deepens faith. "Science produces in me a tremendous awe," says Sister Mary White of the Benedictine Meditation Center in St. Paul, Minn. "Science and spirituality have a common quest, which is a quest for truth."

And if science has not yet influenced religious thought and practice at the grass-roots level very much, just wait, says Ted Peters of CTNS. Much as feminism sneaked up on churches and is now shaping the liturgy, he predicts, "in 10 years science will be a major factor in how many ordinary religious people think."

Not everyone believes that's such a hot idea. "Science is a method, not a body of knowledge," says Michael Shermer, a director of the Skeptics Society, which debunks claims of the paranormal. "It can have nothing to say either way about whether there is a God. These are two such different things, it would be like using baseball stats to prove a point in football." Another red flag is that adherents of different faiths – like the Orthodox Jews, Anglicans, Quakers, Catholics and Muslims who spoke at the June conference in Berkeley – tend to find, in science, confirmation of what their particular religion has already taught them.

Take the difficult Christian concept of Jesus as both fully divine and fully human. It turns out that this duality has a parallel in quantum physics. In the early years of this century, physicists discovered that entities thought of as particles, like electrons, can also act as waves. And light, considered a wave, can in some experiments act like a barrage of particles. The orthodox interpretation of this strange situation is that light is, simultaneously, wave and particle. Electrons are, simultaneously, waves and particles. Which aspect of light one sees, which face an electron turns to a human observer, varies with the circumstances.

So, too, with Jesus, suggests physicist F. Russell Stannard of England's Open University. Jesus is not to be seen as really God in human guise, or as really human but acting divine, says Stannard: "He was fully both." Finding these parallels may make some people feel, says Polkinghorne, "that this is not just some deeply weird Christian idea."

Jews aren't likely to make the same leap. And someone who is not already a believer will not join the faithful because of quantum mechanics; conversely, someone in whom science raises no doubts about faith probably isn't even listening. But to people in the middle, for whom science raises questions about religion, these new concordances can deepen a faith already present.

As Feit says, "I don't think that by studying science you will be forced to conclude that there must be a God. But if you have already found God, then you can say, from understanding science, 'Ah, I see what God has done in the world'."

In one sense, science and religion will never be truly reconciled. Perhaps they shouldn't be. The default setting of science is eternal doubt; the core of religion is faith. Yet profoundly religious people and great scientists are both driven to understand the world. Once, science and religion were viewed as two fundamentally different, even antago-nistic, ways of pursuing that quest, and science stood accused of smothering faith and killing God. Now, it may strengthen belief. And although it cannot prove God's existence, science might whisper to believers where to seek the divine.

— With Marian Westley

Newsweek 7/20/98 Society/ 'Science Finds God'

Page One

1998 by Newsweek, Inc.

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