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Science, Religion and the Atheist “Surge”

 

I suspect that much of modern atheism is reactionary.  A couple of years ago I coined the acronym, PEAS, to describe the situation of atheists who suffer from the lingering effects of involuntary exposure to excessive fundamentalism - Post Ecclesial Abuse Syndrome (PEAS).   But all theists aren’t stupid, superstitious dupes.  Few liberal arts atheists have a clue just how sophisticated and faithful (in the sense that faith is a heuristic stance of a reasonable mind) much of contemporary theology has become.  The Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne is a wonderful example of a brilliant believer.

 

Sir John Polkinghorne

Profile of a Physicist-Priest

 

The Rev Dr. John Polkinghorne enjoyed a first career as a working mathematical physicist, then as President of Queens’ College, Cambridge (retiring from there in 1989). At Trinity College Cambridge he studied under Dirac, among others, earning his doctorate in 1955.

 

While a physical professor at Cambridge, he published papers and books on theoretical elementary particle physics. Then in he began studies aimed at joining the Anglican Priesthood.  While serving as Chaplain of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, he was surprised in 1989 (“you could have knocked me over with a feather”) to be appointed President of Queens’ College

 

Polkinghorne, who was knighted in 1997, has served as Chairman of the Science, Medicine and Technology Committee of the Church of England's Board of Social Responsibility among other positions 

 

As an “amateur” theologian, his books have explored the boundaries between religion and science from a uniquely sophisticated perspective.  His writing is clear and accessible, even when dealing with highly technical subjects.  As one reviewer put it, - if C. S. Lewis had been a physicist, this probably is how he would write.

 

I’m fond of the account from first Century Judaism about Hillel the Elder who was approached by a non-believer who offered to convert if the famous sage could state the Torah while standing on one leg.  Hillel stood on one leg and said “Do not do to another that which is hateful to you.  All the rest is commentary.  Now go and study.”

 

A POLKINGHORNE BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

  • Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion, Yale 2005
  • Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship, Yale 2007
  • Quarks, Chaos & Christianity, Revised and Updated,  2006
  • Belief in God in an Age of Science, Yale 1998, 2003

Chapter Three, “Does God Act in the Physical World?” was particularly brilliant, lucid and compact. Here are two excerpts --

 

Since talk of God is inescapably analogical, talk about God’s action has recourse, in one way of another, to the only form of agency to which we have direct experience, namely our power to act in the world. ….[O]ur impression of choosing what to do is not an illusion … I shall treat human choice as being an irreducible fact of human experience.  The second assumption I shall make is that we are psychosomatic unties, indivisible animated bodies, not a dual and separable combination of flesh and spirit. (49) …. I look for a solution along the lines of dual aspect monism, a complementary account of matter in “information”- bearing pattern….  Such a stance takes our material constitution seriously, but it does not capitulate to a reductionist materialism… That unconscious atoms have combined to give rise to conscious beings is the most striking example known to us of the hierarchical fruitfulness of the universe, in which there is a nested and ascended order of being, corresponding to the transitions from physics to biology to psychology to anthropology and sociology.” (50)

 

Thus a realist reinterpretation of the epistemological unpredictabilities of chaotic systems leads to the hypothesis of an ontological openness within which new causal principles mat be held to he operating which determine the pattern of future behaviour and which are of a holistic character.  Here we see a glimmer of how it might be that we execute our willed intentions and how God exercises providential interaction with creation.  As embodied beings, humans might be expected to act both energetically and informationally.  As pure spirit, God might be expected to act solely through information input.  One could summarize the novel aspect of this proposal by saying that it advocates the idea of a top-down causality at work through “active information.”  This is a phrase that Peacocke uses also.  I locate the relevant causal joint in chaotic dynamics; he appears to regard God as constituting the “boundary condition” of the universe.

[Citing his colleague, Arthur Peacocke -- See “Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and Becoming-Natural, Divine and Human” 1993.]

 

  • One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology, 1987, 2007
  • Faith, Science and Understanding, Yale 2000, 2001
  • Science and Providence: God's Interaction with the World
  • The Faith of a Physicist, Reflections of a Bottom-up Thinker 1996

 

JBG