February 2005

The brave professor and the predictable reaction

New Scientist Magazine

An interesting controversy developed in the New Scientist before Christmas. Professor Keith Ward, who has long had an interest in the dialogue between religion and science, wrote an article. He sought places where modern Physics and Christian theism could meet. His observations ranged through the search for a ‘theory of everything’, possible worlds and the so-called anthropogenic principle that ‘our universe is fine-tuned for intelligent life’. However, the temerity of a theologian to appear in a scientific periodical provoked a reaction, much of which was dismissive, some trenchantly argued but some considerably less than polite. One correspondent declared: ‘His article has shown me that even if there is a limit to what science can explain, there is no scientific bandwagon too high for these lunatics to jump onto to justify their lame-brained notions of sky fairies.’ [1]

Regular readers will know that this slot has considered before some of the issues concerning the relationship between religion and science. Indeed it does seem that this is one of the important areas for our consideration of the Gospel and contemporary culture. It is a place where we itch. Certainly it is one of the areas within our ‘faith and culture’ remit in CASE we have identified as demanding special attention.

When our bishops went to Rome for their ad limina visit in 2003, this was one of the specific issues raised in their meeting with the Pontifical Council for Culture. And I am delighted to be going to a day conference next month at Blackfriars, Oxford , when Cardinal Poupard , the head of that dicastery will be a keynote speaker on this very subject.

Cardinal Poupard







Cardinal Poupard has been an important voice in this debate. He said in an address in Ireland in 2001:

The basis for all I say is the firm conviction that there is no inner contradiction between the viewpoint of any scientist and that of men and women who believe in God. Nor should there be any conflict between religion and science. Those who say there is are rehearsing a tired and unconvincing litany of inaccuracies. Suffice it to say that the present Pope made it clear from early on in his pontificate that “the Church freely recognizes… that it has benefited from science”; on several occasions he has drawn attention to the fact that “collaboration between religion and modern science is to the advantage of both, and in no way violates the autonomy of either” ( Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Commemoration of Albert Einstein, 10 November 1979 ). This conviction is at the heart of the Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio, and it is worth remembering that the Pope told everyone who took part in the Jubilee of Men and Women from the World of Learning, in May two thousand, that “the Church is not afraid of science”. [2]


In terms of evangelisation, it is clear that the sense that Science has disproved God – or has at least given us a plausible and simpler alternative explanation of things is one of the frequently given reasons for not believing. However a hostile response of ‘we’re right, so you must be wrong’ won’t work for either side. Rather the need is for an informed conversation in which the human achievement of science and the rationality of religion can speak to each other. Perhaps this won’t always be with agreement but surely it is possible for differences to be held within mutual respect. Certainly on the Christian side it is a matter of the authenticity of our claim for the Gospel to touch all dimensions of humanity that we listen to, learn from and engage with all men and women of goodwill – in which class I would still place most scientists.

[1] See New Scientist issues 2475, 2477 and 2479- 27 th November, 11 th   December and 25 th December respectively.

[2] http://cctv.mic.ul.ie/Poupard's%20Speech.htm