Cambridge professor bridges worlds of science and faith

In the United States, we have been keenly aware of the alleged conflict between the realm of science and the realm of religion. From the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 to more recent skirmishes over Intelligent Design, the American public has been taught that these two fields are diametrically opposed. One scholar who disagrees with this idea, and who holds that the scientist and the theologian have more in common than many think, spoke at Swarthmore last night.

Dr. Denis Alexander is a biochemist and professor of science and religion at Cambridge University. His lecture, “Beyond the Conflict: Similarities Between Science and Faith,” a part of Religion and Spirituality on Campus Week, provided an overview of the commonalities of these two quests for understanding of the world.

Dr. Alexander acknowledged the presence of a bipolar conception of science and faith, but then said that the “opposite poles of a conflict need each other, and are similar to each other sociologically.” He then went on to state that “fundamentalist atheism looks very much like fundamentalist religion.” As a man of faith as well as a man of science, he instead regards the two realms as “first cousins” that offer (along with aesthetic and ethical pursuits) different types of explanations to the complex phenomena of the world, since the “brain is not up to the task of comprehending life all at one go.”

However, far from operating on entirely different tracks, Dr. Alexander posits that science and faith have a mutually beneficial relationship. Many of the founders of modern science, such as Newton, Boyle, and Descartes, were devout; indeed, a survey of the significant natural scientists of the period from 1543 to 1650 indicates that 61.5 percent of them were devout, 34.7 percent were conventionally religious, and a mere 3.8 percent were skeptics. These statistics, along with an American survey performed in both 1916 and 1996 indicating that there is an approximately even division between scientists who believe in an intercessory god and those who do not, support Dr. Alexander’s view that no serious historian will see the two fields as being in conflict.

During the talk, he laid out four distinct qualities shared by science and faith. The first, the quest for coherence, speaks to the need for a comprehensive system of ideas that does not contradict itself. The second refers to the need for these ideas to be refutable; evolution and the resurrection of Christ are refutable ideas that have not been refuted, Alexander indicated, while string theory and Intelligent Design are not testable. Related to this is the third shared quality, that of the problematic state of predicting phenomena. Finally, both the pursuit of science and the pursuit of faith require a level of committment to sustain them.

To be sure, Dr. Alexander was operating from the particular perspective of the Christian faith, and he makes the argument that the Abrahamic religions, with their conception of a singular consistent, omnipotent God, will better foster the empiricism of science. He also argues that their emphasis on law will allow the identification of natural law with God’s law. However, he also does not like people “to extract [from science] support for a particular ideology,” alluding in particular to crimes that have been done in evolution’s name.

Dr. Alexander’s view of this supposed conflict seems to flow from a quote from St. Augustine, the early Christian theologian, who wrote that “nature is what God does.” The statement that might follow would indicate that explaining the laws of nature is what God does. In the end, Dr. Alexander finds the broad ignorance among religious people of science and among scientists of theology distressing, and hopes that a broader vision of the shared history of these two fields might lead to an evaporation of the conflict between the two – a conflict that need not exist.


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