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Are Science and Faith Mutually Exclusive? On Cosmos and Anti-Theism

When the first episode of Cosmos—the new reboot starring Neil deGrasse Tyson of the classic show starring Carl Sagan—featured a clear anti-religious narrative, I chalked it up to appeasing some corporate entity or the atheistic bent of one of its executive producers (you know which one!). Now that they’ve gotten that out of their system, I thought, they can now move on to actual science. But I’m sad to report: three episodes into the series and all three have prominently featured an unscientific approach to the relationship between faith and science and an ahistoric approach to the history of religion and science. 1 Even Harvard Professor Emeritus Owen Gingerich has weighed in with a critique. 2

Clearly this is red meat for the growing number of ‘nones’ in the U.S., who have abandoned “organized religion” due to the perception that all religious people and religion itself are anti-science. But the response from this growing constituency has been far less than measured and rational. Instead, the rejection of religious Fundamentalism has produced Anti-theist Fundamentalists. Both groups trade metaphysical attacks that discount the others’ entire worldview. I had hopes Cosmos could rise above this juvenile approach, and not fall prey to this sort of uneducated partisanship. It has unfortunately become a shining example it.

Last night’s episode, “When Knowledge Conquered Fear,” was yet another chapter in a narrative being carefully written that features science as the savior of humanity from the dark evil of religion. It’s a compelling narrative, and one which many millions of Westerners will celebrate, but it is not a narrative without its own social location and biases. As just one of many glaring examples of its jaw-droopingly unscientific coverage, the episode keyed in on Isaac Newton, acknowledged that he was a person of faith (a Christian) and then proceeded to claim the physics he developed did away with the need for God. Cosmos’s extremely low view of their viewership completely expected to get away with that blunder, and the sad reality is: they will. Very few, if any, atheists will call Cosmos out on that logical incongruence, and any theist who points it out will be simply written off as another religious Fundamentalist.

Well, I’m decidedly Not a religious Fundamenalist. I Do affirm the science of evolution. I Don’t believe the earth is 6,000 years old. I Do affirm the Christian faith.

…and there are Millions of Theists Just Like Me!

To claim that all people of faith are anti-science Fundamentalists is as ignorant as claiming all scientists are evil people bent on debunking religion. Neither is true.

Do You Want Evidence that Science and Faith are Not Mutually Exclusive?

JohnPolkinghorneI present to you the Sir Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, a world-renowned mathematical and quantum physicist, as well as an Anglican priest. He is no ordinary scientist. He received a PhD in Physics from Trinity College of Cambridge University in 1955. After that, he went on to teach mathematical physics and received a ScD (Doctorate of Science) in 1974. During his extensive career in physics, he received many awards and taught physics for many years. One of the most amazing aspects of his career is his contribution to the discovery of “quarks.” He later went on to become the President of Queen’s College at the University of Cambridge.

By my count, he has six honorary doctorates to add to the two he earned!

Throughout his long and illustrious career pioneering and innovating science, he never once renounced his faith in God. He was a theist the entire time! And upon his retirement, he went back for more education—this time to become a priest in his tradition: Anglicanism. 3

In addition to the books Polkinghorne has written in his field of science, he has also written 26 books on the relationship between faith (or religion) and science. He is perhaps one of the most qualified persons alive today to comment on their compatibility or conflict. Here’s what he had to say in an interview:

Science and religion are not mutually exclusive, Polkinghorne argues. In fact, both are necessary to our understanding of the world. “Science asks how things happen. But there are questions of meaning and value and purpose which science does not address. Religion asks why. And it is my belief that we can and should ask both questions about the same event.”

As a for-instance, Polkinghorne points to the homey phenomenon of a tea kettle boiling merrily on the stove.

“Science tells us that burning gas heats the water and makes the kettle boil,” he says.

But science doesn’t explain the “why” question. “The kettle is boiling because I want to make a cup of tea; would you like some?

“I don’t have to choose between the answers to those questions,” declares Polkinghorne. “In fact, in order to understand the mysterious event of the boiling kettle, I need both those kinds of answers to tell me what’s going on. So I need the insights of science and the insights of religion if I’m to understand the rich and many-layered world in which we live.”

Seeing the world from both the perspective of science and the perspective of religion is something Polkinghorne describes as seeing the world with “two eyes instead of one.” He explains: “Seeing the world with two eyes—having binocular vision—enables me to understand more than I could with either eye on its own.” 4

And here he is in a series of videos discussing faith and science:

Conclusion

The anti-theist narrative being written by the Cosmos series is unscientific, since science is specifically restricted to matters unrelated to faith. If anti-science theists are wrong to use their worldview to dismiss science (and they most certainly are!), then it is equally wrong for anti-theist Materialists to use their worldview to dismiss faith. Both are forms of fundamentalism.

Sir Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne stands as a shining example of just how perfectly theism can support the rigorous pursuit of truth through the sciences. His career has been spent pushing science to its very limits, extending its reach, and yet he’s never seen it impinge upon his faith. Much the opposite! Like Newton (and so many others) before him, Polkinghorne has seen his faith as a valuable asset to his pursuit of all truth.

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1. How ‘Cosmos’ Bungles the History of Religion and Science by David Sessions

2. Reflections on Tyson’s Cosmos, Episode 1

3. Biography/vita of Rev. Dr. Sir John Polkinghorne
[http://www.starcourse.org/jcp/] [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Polkinghorne]

4. God vs. Science by Dr. Dean Nelson in The Saturday Evening Post