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See Inside September 2005

Clash in Cambridge

Science and religion seem as antagonistic as ever
WORLDS APART?



JULIA VITULLO-MARTIN
In the very first lecture of the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship in June, a University of Cambridge biologist assured the 10 journalists in his audience that science and religion have gotten along much better, historically, than is commonly believed. After all, scientific pioneers such as Kepler, Newton, Boyle and even Galileo were all devout Christians; Galileo's run-in with the Church was really a spat between two different versions of Catholicism. The notion that science and religion have always butted heads is "fallacious," declared Denis Alexander, who is, not coincidentally, a Christian. Other lecturers, who included four agnostics, a Jew, a deist and 11 Christians, also saw no unbridgeable chasm between science and their faith.

As the two-week meeting unfolded, however, conflict kept disrupting this peaceable kingdom. Lecturers and journalists argued over a host of questions: Without religion, would humanity descend into moral chaos? Are scientific claims in some sense as unprovable as religious ones? Can prayers heal, and if so, is that evidence of the placebo effect or of God's helping hand? Why does God seem to help some people and ignore others? By the end of the conference, the gulf between science and religion--or at least Christianity--seemed as wide as ever.

Take the exchange between biologists Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge and Richard Dawkins of the University of Oxford. Morris contended that intelligence is not a freak occurrence but a recurring theme in evolution, appearing in dolphins, parrots and crows as well as in primates. He speculated that any of these species might be capable of discovering God, but we had help--from Christ, whom God sent to Earth for our benefit. Dawkins, by far the most antireligious lecturer, praised Morris's evolutionary views but called his Christianity "gratuitous." Morris retorted that he found Dawkins's atheism "archaic" and asserted that the resurrection and other miracles attributed to Christ were "historically verifiable." After more give-and-take, Morris, crossing his arms tightly across his chest, grumbled, "I'm not sure this conversation can go any further."

Dawkins also challenged the faith of physicist John Barrow, an Anglican. Like several other speakers, Barrow emphasized how extraordinarily "fine-tuned" the universe is for our existence. Why not just accept that fine-tuning as a fact of nature? Dawkins asked. Why do you want to explain it with God? "For the same reason you don't want to," Barrow responded drily. Everyone laughed except Dawkins, who protested, "That's not an answer!"

Disagreement divided believers as well. Physicist John Polkinghorne, a winner of the $1.4-million Templeton Prize, given annually to those who "advance spiritual matters," contended that physicists' understanding of causality is "patchy" and hence allows for a God who answers prayers and carries out the occasional miracle, such as parting the Red Sea. Another physicist and Templeton Prize winner, Paul Davies, discerned tentative evidence of design in the laws of nature but added, "As a physicist, I feel very uncomfortable with a God who intervenes" in human affairs.

Tension was evident not only between speakers but also within individual minds. Nancey Murphy, a philosopher at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., described herself as a materialist who does not view the soul as a "spirit" separate from the body. Yet she believes in phenomena that many scientists might find hard to swallow, such as the resurrection of Christ and, at the end of time, of all humans. When a journalist pressed her to explain how resurrection might work, Murphy acknowledged that at times the discussion between science and religion "breaks down" because they involve "incommensurable schemes" for understanding reality.

Peter Lipton, a Cambridge philosopher, spoke of his struggle to be a practicing Jew in spite of his lack of belief in a supernatural God. "I stand in my synagogue and pray to God and have an intense relationship with God, and yet I don't believe in God," Lipton confessed with a rueful grin. He compared his religious experience with that of someone who gets pleasure and meaning from a novel even though he knows it is not literally true. "Are you having your cake and eating it, too?" asked journalism fellow Shankar Vedantam of the Washington Post. "I'm certainly trying to," Lipton replied.

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