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.
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.
Ted Peters, a CTNS scholar, asks in the recently published book "Science and Theology: The New Consonance" (Westview Press): "If there is only one reality and if both science and theology speak about the same reality, is it reasonable to expect that sooner or later shared understandings will develop?"
"I see science and religion as closely related and similar," says physicist Charles Townes, a Nobel Prize-winner for his role in inventing the laser. "If we make enough progress in both, we may increasingly understand this relationship and the two should, perhaps with radical changes, inevitably overlap."
Indeed, science has commonalities with religion, Dr. Townes says. It also deals in uncertainties, builds on faith, and involves revelatory experiences. It was a revelation one morning years ago, as he sat on a park bench looking at freshly opened azaleas, that gave him the idea for a novel way to produce microwaves, and eventually led to the laser.
George Sudarshan, a particle physicist from the University of Texas, Austin, speaks of moments of discovery as being impersonal. "The discovery is new, but at the same time familiar, as if you are returning to a starting point.... In my spiritual tradition, there is no event in which God is not participating."
According to cosmologist Bruno Guiderdoni of the Paris Institute of Astrophysics, Islam views the entire creation as "God's self-disclosure to Himself," and thus there should not be any contradiction between religion and the results of scientific investigation. As we pursue this, we will, he says, be "regaining what is present within us but we have forgotten, becoming aware of something that already exists."
A watchword for the science-religion interaction is "humility." "One of the most important things we've learned this century is humility," says physicist Cyril Domb, from Israel.
"What is it we can really be sure of?" poses Townes. "The answer is 'nothing.' " We can never prove our assumptions, and despite science's wonderful accomplishments, there are great mysteries and deep inconsistencies, he adds. For example, "free will is completely contrary to present scientific knowledge, but every scientist believes in it."
What is consciousness?
Andrei Linde - a Russian cosmologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., who has developed the theory of eternal inflation, the idea that there are multiple universes rather than one - ponders an implication of the change in physics that is not yet factored into everyday thinking.
Referring to the revolutionary effect of quantum theory in which "the evolution of the universe is directly linked to the possibility that the universe can be observed," he says, "Let us remember that our knowledge of the world begins not with matter but with perceptions.... What if our perceptions are as real (or maybe, in a certain sense, are even more real) than material objects?" Could it be that "consciousness is bigger than the universe, and matter is a theory?"
The humility of physicists is not necessarily shared throughout the scientific world. Biologists still believe they have the answers, some conferees say. While molecular biologist Martinez Hewlett challenges the way colleagues use reductionism to attempt to disprove God and to define humanity by the Human Genome project, Townes asks whether biologists might not eventually come up against a wall as physicists did.
Many theologians accept evolution and natural selection as the "way God is working in the universe." Yet Dr. Domb pointed to various scientific developments that seem to challenge aspects of that theory, particularly discoveries in cell biochemistry. In "Darwin's Black Box" (Touchstone Books), biochemist Michael Behe says the incredible complexity revealed by those discoveries poses a clear challenge to evolution, and that the scientific world is ignoring the results because it doesn't know what to do with them.
Predicts Domb, "The theory of evolution is in a state of flux, and what will appear will be as different as quantum mechanics was to Newtonian mechanics."
Pauline Rudd, a biochemist at the University of Oxford, England, seemed to speak for many when she said, "The models we derive in science or the doctrines we distill out of our collective religious insights are only partial, for both science and religion depend on continuing revelation and both leave a trail of loose ends. These loose ends are not to be despised, for it is precisely because of them and our determination to tie them up that our ideas grow and develop.... If both science and religion are to continue to support our deepest hopes and aspirations, nothing can be thought of as the final word on a subject, but only a platform ... from which to step further into the unknown."