Jul 20

Books on Science and Religion #8: John Polkinghorne and Science and Religion in Quest of Truth

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


July 20, 2014

In our last six posts (Books #2, Books #3, Books #4, Books #5, Books #6, and Books #7), we have looked at books by Victor Stenger and A.C. Grayling, two writers closely associated with the new Atheist movement.

Stenger and Grayling and the ‘four horsemen of new Atheism‘, swimming against the consensus of modern historians of science, hold science and religion to be in irreconcilably in conflict. Thirty years ago, this would have been met with little or no dissent – and little interest – in the modern academic and intellectual community. That it creates such a stir now is due in large part to the efforts of John Polkinghorne, a Cambridge mathematical physicist and Anglican cleric whose indefatigable efforts over the last 25 years have made discussions of science and religion a central topic in the modern world.

Science and Religion Quest for TruthFrom a Baha’i perspective, i.e., one that endorses the view that science and religion are both essential elements of any practical and long-term solution of the problems of the world, Polkinghorne’s perspective is both closely in harmony and persuasive in detail. Where it differs, however, is with respect to religions that Baha’is view as equal in authority to Christianity – Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. With respect to these, Polkinghorne is admirably open and ecumenical, but holds to the uniqueness of Christ.

In this blog, we review Polkinghorne’s Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, an excellent short introduction to his thought.

John Polkinghorne

John Polkinghorne is a Cambridge mathematical physicist who made a career change to the Anglican church – becoming a priest and a theologian – after 25 years of a very distinguished research career. After spending five years as a curate and vicar, he returned to Cambridge as Trinity Hall‘s dean of chapel and stayed as president of Queens’ College. He studied under Abdus Salam and Paul Dirac, he worked with Murray Gell-Mann at Caltech, he taught numerous students (including Brian Josephson and Martin Rees) and helped discover the quark.

170px-JohnpolkinghornePolkinghorne – who has written 26 books on the relationship between science and religion and five on physics – was instrumental in the resurgence of interest in science and religion that has taken place over the last two and a half decades. Uniquely, due to his experience as leading mathematical physicist, a leading educator, and as a priest serving as a curate, a vicar, and a theologian in the Church of England, he brings a unmatched breadth of experience and an excellent ability to communicate to bear on science and religion issues.

Polkinghorne’s Perspective

Summaries of Polkinghorne’s perspectives can be found at Reverend Dr John Polkinghorne – Star Course, at Polkinghorne on Wikipedia, at Discover Magazine (The Priest-Physicist Who Would Marry Science to Religion), on Biologos, and other places as well.

Briefly, Polkinghorne considers “the question of the existence of God [as] the single most important question we face about the nature of reality.” Belief in God, he proposes “makes more sense of the world, and of human experience, than does atheism.” He consider the intelligibility of the universe, the idea that the universe seems to “fine-tuned” for our existence, and the importance of ethics and aesthetics as support for this view.

Like Stenger and Grayling – whose views we have outlined earlier in this series of blogs – he views the problem of evil as the most serious challenge to belief in the existence of God. Like Stenger and Grayling, he accepts evolution. Unlike them, he looks for evidence of God’s action in the everyday reality of things, speculating, for example, that “the mysteries of quantum objects leave room for God in an explanation of the physical world.”

Cambridge_University,_King's_CollegeBut, this short summary doesn’t capture his appeal as a thinker, which is very broad and brings a well-thought through perspective – extraordinarily well-informed scientifically – to a wide variety of question that engage religious and irreligious people alike. In Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, he displays that broad appeal.

Science and Religion in Quest of Truth

He starts by addressing the view that science deals with facts and “religion simply trades in opinions,” saying that there are two bad mistakes behind this view:

The first is a mistake about science. There are no scientifically interesting facts that are not already interpreted facts. … The second mistake is about religion. The question of truth is as central to its concerns as it is in science. Religious belief can guide one in life or strengthen one at the approach of death, but unless it is actually true it can do neither of these things …

Science is successful in its quest for understanding in large part because of

… the modesty of its ambition. Its sets out to ask only the question of what are the processes by which things happen, bracketing out of its consideration other questions, such as whether there is meaning, value or purpose present in what is happening. Science is principally concerned to explore only one dimension of the human encounter with reality …

And because science progresses – and scientists are ever learning more – what we can say is that “science’s exploration of reality must be seen as resulting in the creation of ‘maps’ of the physical world which are indeed reliable, but only a particular scale.” These maps don’t cover everything. For example, consider the differences between Newtonian physics and quantum physics: “The immense success of Newtonian physics had eventually to be qualified by the recognition that understanding phenomena on the subatomic scale required the quite different insights of quantum theory.”

Centrally, “science requires commitment to the basic act of faith that there is a deep rational order in the world awaiting discovery.” And it is constantly describing unseen things like quarks, meaning that it is not a stranger to “belief in unseen realities.” To Polkinghorne, this means that:

299px-Queens'_College_(Cambridge)_shield.svg… theology can defend its belief in the unseen reality of God by a similar appeal to the intelligibility that this offers of the general nature of the world and of great swathes of well-testified spiritual experience.

But, we have to understand the differences between science and religion as well:

Despite the role of personal skills and judgement in the practice of science, the investigator is able to adopt a detached attitude to the actual objects of his or her inquiry. Theology, like any form of personal encounter with reality, must take the risk of a more vulnerable kind of engagement. God is not to be met with simply in a spirit of intellectual curiosity, but with openness to the experience of awe and a demand for obedience. Religious is much more ‘dangerous’ than scientific knowledge …

And because of those differences – because “science has bracketed out too much (meaning, purpose, beauty) from its consideration” – science cannot be a universal source of understanding. Religion is needed as well:

If we are truly to understand the rich, many-leveled world in which we live, we shall need the insights of both science and religion.

I strongly recommend reading the rest of this engaging book to see Polkinghorne’s rich, many-leveled view of our world.

Differences with the Baha’i View

Because he sometimes writes and speaks as an Anglican cleric, Polkinghorne’s explanations can have a certain edge. Some of the doctrines he defends owe more to church history and a Christian sense of exclusiveness than to an inclusive sense of what religion is. Dawkins in his way points this out, saying he is baffled “not so much by [Polkinghorne's] belief in a cosmic lawgiver of some kind, as by [his] belief in the details of Christian religion: resurrection, forgiveness of sins and all.” (Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 99.)

the-resurrection-of-christ-right-wing-of-the-isenheim-altarpiece.jpg!LargeIn Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, Polkinghorne is clear that he considers Christ’s claim as unique and proven by “the central Christian miracle of the resurrection of Jesus from death to a life of unending glory”. He writes:

If Jesus was simply another prophetic figure, or even no more than a messianic pretender, then no doubt after his execution he stayed dead. Yet if Jesus was more than that, the Son of God in some unique sense, then it is a coherent possibility that he was raised from the dead as a sign of that unique status. Conversely, if Jesus was resurrected, that surely indicates that there was something uniquely significant about him.

The Baha’i point of view, in contrast, is that the significance of the resurrection of Christ is not that Christ’s physical body was dead and then reborn but that Christ’s Cause – his true body – was as dead and then reborn. Here is how’Abdu’l-Baha says it in Some Answered Questions, on page 103:

Therefore, we say that the meaning of Christ’s resurrection is as follows: the disciples were troubled and agitated after the martyrdom of Christ. The Reality of Christ, which signifies His teachings, His bounties, His perfections and His spiritual power, was hidden and concealed for two or three days after His martyrdom … The Cause of Christ was like a lifeless body; and when after three days the disciples became assured and steadfast, and began to serve the Cause of Christ, and resolved to spread the divine teachings, putting His counsels into practice, and arising to serve Him, the Reality of Christ became resplendent and His bounty appeared …

Such is the meaning of the resurrection of Christ, and this was a true resurrection. But as the clergy have neither understood the meaning of the Gospels nor comprehended the symbols, therefore, it has been said that religion is in contradiction to science, and science in opposition to religion, as, for example, this subject of the ascension of Christ with an elemental body to the visible heaven is contrary to the science of mathematics. But when the truth of this subject becomes clear, and the symbol is explained, science in no way contradicts it; but, on the contrary, science and the intelligence affirm it.

The Baha’i perspective can be viewed as a correction to Polkinghorne’s views. Yes, analogies and symbols are at play in talking about something as significant as the Cause of Christ. And how can there be anything more miraculous than the extraordinary rise of Christ’s Cause? The idea of Christ’s physical resurrection misconstrues the point, tying it much too closely to folk agricultural rites and putting it at odds with science.

Are the world’s religious perspective’s in disagreement?

Another area where Polkinghorne’ engagement with Anglican doctrine flavors his views is his quite traditional perspective on other religions. He believes, as a dedicated Christian, that there is an incompatibility of the religious perspectives of the world’s various and diverse religions:

oneness of religionWhat is clear is that all the world faith traditions are all testi­fying to a realm of human experience that can be character­ised as encounter with sacred Reality. The problem is that the traditions seem to have such different and incompatible things to report about the nature of this encounter. The disagree­ments do not relate only to core beliefs, such as the Christian conviction of the unique status of Jesus Christ or the Islamic conviction of the supreme authority of the Qur’an. They also relate to general metaphysical understandings. What is the nature of the human person?

The three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all say that the individual person is of unique and abiding significance. Hindus believe that the person is recycled through reincarnation, while Bud­dhists believe that the personal self is ultimately an illusion from which to seek release. These are not three sets of people saying the same thing, expressed in culturally different ways. They are three sets of people in fundamental disagreement, saying three quite different things.

This of course is a widespread perspective, and he is not among a few in holding to it. Nor does he hold to it in an opinionated and unkind way but as a consequence of his views as a Christian. But the Baha’i view is certainly the more expansive and the more logical, yet also explain the source of the differences between these revealed religions:

Bahá’u’lláh promulgated the fundamental oneness of religion. He taught that reality is one and not multiple, that it underlies all divine precepts and that the foundations of the religions are, therefore, the same. Certain forms and imitations have gradually arisen. As these vary, they cause differences among religionists. If we set aside these imitations and seek the fundamental reality underlying our beliefs, we reach a basis of agreement because it is one and not multiple. 

Disagreement is not fundamental to religion itself but to the “imitations” and interpretations that have grown up around it.

Next Blog

Polkinghorne’s Science and Religion in Quest of Truth is an excellent introduction to illuminating and careful thinking about science and religion by one of the father’s of our modern perspective. If you haven’t yet read Polkinghorne yet or need a good overview of his thinking, reading this book is an excellent way to exploring his thinking.

In the next blog, we consider Richard Olson‘s Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe (University of Illinois Press, 2008.)

Olson – a leading historian of science – brings a careful eye and accomplished understanding of the history of science, of religion, and of ideas to the dramatic changes in the relationship between science and religion in the 19th century, highlighting the important developments in Germany and France – often left unexplored in the English-speaking world – as well as in England.  For Baha’is, it brings to life the context of thought in Paris, London, and the America’s during `Abdu’l-Baha’s visit one hundred years ago, helping to explain the perspectives of those listening to his speeches on science and religion. For everyone, it highlight the rise of materialism, the view that material things are all there is, and positivism, the perspective that science is the latest and highest stage of learning and eclipses all others


This is the 8th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Jul 13

Books on Science and Religion #7: A. C. Grayling and The God Argument

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.



July 13, 2014

A. C. Grayling, author of The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism, has a very impressive resume. He is not only a well-known British philosopher, but also a widely-read columnist, a public intellectual, a prominent educator, and a prolific writer.

He comes recommended to us by Massimo Pigliucci, the scientist, philosopher, and atheist referenced in Books on Science and Religion #6: More on Victor Stenger’s The God Hypothesis. Pigliucci criticizes prominent new Atheist writers – Dawkins, Stenger, and Harris - for scientism, holding them to be philosophically naive as well as anti-intellectual. Atheism needs philosophers, Pigliucci concludes:

What the atheist movement needs, therefore, is not a brute force turn toward science at the expense of everything else, but rather a more nuanced, comprehensive embracing of all the varied ways—intellectual as well as experiential—in which human beings acquire knowledge and develop understanding of their world. … this is precisely the direction toward which some post–New Atheism writers, such as De Botton and Grayling (not at all coincidentally, both philosophers) have been pushing most recently. (Pugliucci, New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement, p.152.)


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Jul 06

Books on Science and Religion #6: More on Victor Stenger’s The God Hypothesis

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


July 6, 2014

Victor Stenger believes that we can prove scientifically that God doesn’t exist, a view he lays out in God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Last week we looked at his introductory arguments in Books on Science and Religion #5: Victor Stenger’s God Hypothesis. This week, we look at Stenger’s arguments in more detail and present critiques of his approach.

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Jun 30

Books on Science and Religion #5: Victor Stenger’s God Hypothesis

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


June 29, 2014

Does God exist? If so, can we prove it? If not, can we prove it?

Victor Stenger thinks we can. Like a creationist – or like a modern intelligent design advocate – he believes that we can scientifically prove – or disprove – the existence of God. He describes his beliefs in God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, published in 2007 shortly after Richard Dawkins‘ best-selling The God Delusion on the same topic. It made it to the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.

Below, I briefly introduce Stenger’s hypothesis about the existence – or nonexistence – of God. Before I do so, let me briefly explain why I believe in God and give an introduction to some of the logical reasons behind such belief. Then, I will touch on typical strategies – usually invoking metaphysical monism – that try to undermine such beliefs. The main part of the analysis of God: The Failed Hypothesis will be in blog #6, the next blog in this series.

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Jun 23

Books on Science and Religion #4: More on Victor Stenger and God and the Folly of Faith

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


June 22, 2014

Our last blog looked at Victor Stenger‘s views on science and religion as described in God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion, one of his recent books. Stenger, a physicist by training, has been active in secular humanist and atheist circles for several decades, and his thought is representative of those circles. He is published by Prometheus, the publisher founded by the secular humanist Paul Kurtz. (Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist was Prometheus’s first New York Times bestseller.)

Like `Abdu’l-Baha, the head of the Baha’i Faith from 1892 to 1921, Stenger is critical of the lack of reason and science in religion. `Abdu’l-Baha wrote:

If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science, they are mere superstitions and imaginations; for the antithesis of knowledge is ignorance, and the child of ignorance is superstition.

220px-VicHead2011Stenger agrees, but goes a step further. Science and religion, he believes, are “forever irreconcilable:”

The differences between science and religion are not merely matters of different points of view that might be harmonized with some effort. They are forever irreconcilable. (Stenger, Victor. God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion, Prometheus, 2012, p.28.)

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Jun 18

Threatening anti-Baha’i posters distributed in Yazd, Iran

Anti-Bahá'í Graffiti

Anti-Bahá’í Graffiti

GENEVA, 18 June 2014, (BWNS) — A highly inflammatory and threatening flier calling Baha’is “godless” was distributed in the city of Yazd, Iran, last week on the eve of an important Shiite holy day.

The anonymously authored leaflet was posted on walls and also placed on the homes and cars of Baha’is, said Diane Ala’i, the representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations in Geneva.

“The distribution of this poster was obviously timed to inflame religious passions against Baha’is, who are a minority in Yazd and throughout Iran,” said Ms. Ala’i. “The basic message of the poster is that it is a religious duty to attack Baha’is and to destroy their properties. 

“The targeting of Baha’i homes and vehicles is also equally ominous, sending a message: ‘We know who and where you are,’” she added.

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Jun 16

Books on Science and Religion #3: Victor Stenger’s God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


June 15, 2014

The modern literature of science and religion is large, growing, diversely rich, and often challenging. It includes philosophical studies, polemical essays, histories, apologetics, surveys, college textbooks, massive reference books, and even incandescent bestsellers when writers like Richard Dawkins take up their pen to have their say. This is the 3rd in a series of blogs surveying this literature from a Baha’i perspective that sees science and religion as two absolutely necessary components in any kind of successful future global civilization.

Our first blog in the series was the less-than-inspiringly named Books on Science and Religion #1: Introduction, a brief overview of the books we are looking at. Our second in the series, labeled Books on Science and Religion #2: Victor Stenger and Not By Design: The Origin of the Universe  looked at the author Victor Stenger and the first of his books (Not by Design: The Origin of the Universe). Stenger lacks the brilliance and flair of Dennett, Dawkins, and Harris – the renowned new Atheists he is sometimes lumped with – but he makes up for that by his plain-spokenness and his persistence. We first give a short Baha’i perspective on Not by Design and then start looking at what he says in God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion. Read the rest of this entry »


Jun 08

Books on Science and Religion #2: Victor Stenger and Not By Design: The Origin of the Universe

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.



June 8, 2014

The modern discussion of the relationship between science and religion – which I take to have begun in the 1990s with the revival of academic and intellectual interest in religion and in the belief in God – can be characterized as having three phases. In the first phase, the growing popularity of books by academics such as Ian Barbour, John Polkinghorne and the like, along with concerted efforts by the Templeton Foundation and other organizations, revived the popularity and intellectual respectability of the study of science and religion. The topic has continually grown more popular at universities, in the press, and among the general public.

The second phase can be taken as the emergence of New Atheism, which started with the 2004 release of The End of Faith, Sam Harris’s impassioned attack against religion inspired by al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center. The End of Faith was followed by Richard Dawkins’ enormously successful The God Delusion (2006), Daniel Dennett’s and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena (2006), and Christopher Hitchen’s polemical God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007).

We are now well into the third phase of the discussion – a phase of widespread dialogue with a growing number of participants that is increasingly international. A significant consequence of this discussion is a growing interest in the histories of science, religion, philosophy, and ideas. Another consequence is the concern to escape from the older parochial view of history as what took place in Europe and ancient Greece. Read the rest of this entry »


Jun 06

In the Arab world, a new discourse on religious coexistence takes root

Dr. 'Abdu'l-Hamid Al-Ansari

Dr. ‘Abdu’l-Hamid Al-Ansari

MANAMA, Bahrain, 4 June 2014, (BWNS) — Throughout the Arab world, a new discussion on how to live peacefully side by side with the followers of all religions has begun to take shape. This discourse is inspired partly by the dramatic call of an Iranian Ayatollah for religious coexistence with Baha’is, but has since taken on a life of its own, becoming a heartfelt discussion about the situation of religious freedom in Arab lands.

“Man was created ‘free,’ and from the Islamic perspective, ‘freedom’ is not a mere right, but rather a duty accountable by law,” wrote ‘Abdu’l-Hamid Al-Ansari, an expert on Islamic law in Qatar, writing in the Kuwaiti newspaper Aljarida on 26 May. 

“Islam grants ‘religious freedom’ to those who are at variance with it in belief and worship [as stated in the Qur'an]: ‘To each among you have we prescribed a law and a system.’  “Hence,” wrote Dr. Al-Ansari, a former dean in Islamic studies and law at the University of Qatar, “what will remain of the meaning of ‘freedom’ if we prevent the followers of other religions from practicing their religions?”

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Jun 01

Books on Science and Religion #1: Introduction

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


June 1, 2014

The topic of science and religion has grown to be widely popular, and now has a large and growing literature. A book search on science and religion at Amazon (www.Amazon.com) gives an idea of the literature’s size. On May 5th, 2014, I found 106,938 books. Of these, 24,364 were hardcover editions, 63,162 were softcover editions, and 6,163 were Kindle editions. (Of course, there are multiple references to the same book for different editions, so not all references are unique.)

Public sentiment about science and religion, a new survey shows, is quite different than usually portrayed in the media. The survey, carried out for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, shows that most American don’t see religion and science as being at odds. Only 27 percent of Americans view science and religion as being in conflict with each other, according to Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund, the survey author. (The survey was commissioned by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion. A news briefing is here.)

Elaine Howard Ecklund

Perhaps more importantly, given the large population of evangelical Christians in the United States (up to 30 percent of the American public by some estimates), nearly half of the evangelicals surveyed said they felt that science and religion were in a collaborative relationship. Other surveys have shown the scientific community itself to be much less antagonistic to religion than sometimes assumed. The most recent Pew Survey of American Association for the Advancement of Science members shows that more the half of its membership believe in God or some higher power.

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