In Search of the 'One Reality'
Copernicus and Galileo set the world spinning more than three centuries ago with the discovery that the earth turned around the sun. Ever since, the changing views of humanity's place in the universe described by the natural sciences have periodically shaken civilization to its core.Skip to next paragraph
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Humanity's "home" shifted from the center of the cosmos to a tiny speck in unfathomable immensity. The view of mankind, from God's unique creation to the descendant of amoebas and apes.
With the clash of world views, science and religion began to operate in separate spheres. And for some, scientific progress even signaled the end of religion or belief in God. British philosopher Bertrand Russell proclaimed, "What science cannot tell us, mankind cannot know."
Yet today, despite a secularized society in which scientific discoveries continue to amaze, the religious spirit retains a powerful hold on the human heart and mind - including those of many scientists.
Now a growing movement aims to bridge the gap, to show that they need each other, if mankind is ever to find a more complete and satisfying understanding of reality.
Known simply as the "Science and Religion" community, this movement has qui-
etly taken form, as scientific breakthroughs transformed accepted theories of physics and nudged scientists toward metaphysical questions.
"Scientists are moving out of labs, knocking on doors, and saying, 'Can we talk?' " says Robert John Russell, founder and director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS), an affiliate of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. Dr. Russell, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, also has a doctorate in physics. His center is one of a dozen around the world devoted to this interaction.
In a project backed by the Templeton Foundation called "Science and the Spiritual Quest," the center last month gathered renowned scientists from several countries in the first public forum to talk about both their professional experiences and their spiritual journeys.
Stunning 20th-century discoveries - including general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the big-bang theory of the origin of the universe - radically revised the accepted wisdom of determinism, in which the laws of the physical world were set and there was no role for God. The rational beauty, complexity, and uncertainty now seen to pervade the universe have provoked fundamental questions:
Where have we come from and where are we headed? Why is the universe so intelligible? Why does mathematics work across so many levels of life? How do we account for the "astonishing fact" of mind in the universe? Why are human beings so much more intelligent than needed for evolutionary survival? Why is it that the physical constants of the universe are such that life could exist as it does only as a result of precise fine-tuning?
And as one conferee put it, "Scientists give 'how' responses, but we have difficulty with the 'why.' "
Answering the big questions
"The questions science raises deserve answers as profound as the discoveries themselves," says Russell. "The answers we give, whether sublime or superficial, will mark our lives and those of future generations. We truly are at a cusp in history of extraordinary ramifications."
Many scientists still believe science alone holds the answers. (A 1997 survey showed about 40 percent of American scientists believe in God, and 45 percent do not, with 15 percent agnostics.) But some are now willing to acknowledge that religion also has "data." It can't be induced by repeated experiments, but it involves the cumulative experiences of "encounter with the sacred," and deals with aspects of life science can't describe.
George Ellis, professor of applied mathematics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, speaks of the intimations of transcendence found throughout human life. Evidence from the physical world and in the spheres of morality, creativity, aesthetics, spiritual experience, and especially self-sacrificing love involves such "superfluity of abundance," he says, that it could not possibly be explained in terms of evolutionary mechanisms alone. Theology can provide a metaphysical base for science, he says.
Several of the participating cosmologists, physicists, biologists, and information technologists (mostly practicing Christians, Muslims, or Jews) spoke of the shared search for truth belonging to science and religion. While science seeks to understand the structure of the universe and how it works, religion seeks to understand its purpose and meaning. The two must be related, they say.