When the physicist Russell Cowburn reached the end of his PhD studies, he had a choice to make. Having become a Christian at the age of eighteen, he thought deciding between a job in science or the church was choosing between the spiritual and the material. Several decades into his career as a scientist, he isn’t quite so sure difference between the two options was as stark as he thought at the time. Continue reading
How can we understand some of the social and cultural factors that influence our attitudes to science and religion? This is one of the questions that social anthropologist Caroline Tee is asking as she begins to study the ways in which Christian and Muslim scientists interpret their scriptures. In this month’s podcast (transcript below) Ruth Bancewicz met up with Caroline at the Faraday Institute, to catch up with the latest on her research and find out what motivates her in her research. Continue reading
3 years ago I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. 5,925 injections later, I find it difficult to describe it in a factual, scientific way. Although the biology is fascinating, Type 1 is so much more than that. It’s the joy of having hot chocolate to treat a medical emergency. It’s the awkwardness of Continue reading
All scientists get to feel a sense of wonder at some point in their career, whether it comes from the interpretation of a new data set, the observation of a surprising phenomenon, or something particularly beautiful. They may come to different conclusions about what they’ve seen and what it points to, but wonder seems to be part of the package for a scientist.
I remember wondering as a child how my food and drink knew where to go in my body when I swallowed them, in order for their waste products to exit so neatly from different places. I was clearly destined to be a biologist. The answer provided by my medical parents – that food and drink were swallowed down the same ‘tube’ and mixed up in my stomach – was not as satisfying as a the complex series of pipes that I had imagined, and I lost interest. But when I studied biology in more depth at university I learned about the exquisite physiological detail and complex biochemistry of the gut, liver and kidney, and my sense of wonder at the way my body works returned.
When I ask scientists about the positive interaction between science and faith, awe and wonder nearly always play a large part in the conversation.
Awe is the mixture of overwhelmment, wonder and fear that we often feel when we encounter something larger, more beautiful, powerful or complex than anything we see in our everyday lives. Sometimes even reverence, or respect come into it. The night sky, vast landscapes and the mighty forces of wind and sea are accessible to most people on this planet, and frequently leave us speechless.
Wonder, on the other hand, is a more active and hopeful emotion. When we’re confronted by something new, unexpected, or especially beautiful, we often want to examine and understand it. We might doubt what knowledge we thought we had about it, and enjoy the process of asking questions and beginning to untangle its mystery. Continue reading
I’m a scientist who believes that miracles can happen. I don’t think I’m all that unusual. I could name a lot of other scientists who believe the same thing, and from time to time they make themselves known – as in this Nature article.
First of all, what’s a miracle? Miracles are signs of God’s particular grace to his people in particular circumstances. They are events that happen in response to prayer or a desire to connect with God. Their mechanism or timing defies normal scientific reasoning, and show us something special about God’s character. I think this is a Biblical definition of a miracle – a sign; a wonder; something that shows us how amazing God is and how much he loves us. And a miracle doesn’t HAVE to defy scientific explanation – some miracles are ‘ordinary’ events with incredible timing.
Why should a scientist believe in this sort of thing? Put quite simply, if God created the universe he can do what he likes with it! We know from experience that things in the universe can often be reduced to ordered, rational principles, like the ‘law’ of gravity, the speed of light, and so on. I believe that God sustains the universe: if he wasn’t there the whole thing would disappear. And God chooses to sustain things in an orderly way – so we get seasons, patterns and the ability to do science. But is God bound by these laws? I don’t think so! Why should he be? Occasionally he chooses to act in a different way: in a way that defies scientific explanation, and the resurrection of Jesus provides a powerful example – something that all Christians believe happened.
Going back to whether a scientific explanation can be found for a miracle, I think our desire to find stories that defy scientific explanation is a symptom of our scientific culture. If you want to say anything significant these days you need some sort of scientific evidence to back it up, and Christians often buy into this. This makes it extremely tempting to spend a lot of time justifying miracles – especially miracles of healing – as events that cannot be explained scientifically, and dismissing miracles that can be explained scientifically as nothing remarkable, when something very remarkable indeed has happened – someone prayed and God acted.
The Bible doesn’t differentiate between miracles that defy scientific explanation (like Jesus turning water into wine) and those that don’t (like the wind blowing all night and driving the waters of the red sea back – the picture in this cartoon I think overdramatises it a little, but it was nonetheless an incredibly remarkable event that etched itself on a whole nation’s consciousness for thousands of years afterwards) – both types of event are possible, and both are ‘signs and wonders’ pointing to God’s incredible power and care for us.
More importantly, Jesus recognised that miracles alone will do nothing to convince people that God is serious about caring for us. Miracles were an important part of Jesus’ ministry, and are still important today, but some of the people who watched Jesus heal person after person were the same people who cheered for his execution. And Jesus himself said that even if someone rises from the dead people still won’t believe if they don’t want to. It’s only within the whole picture of what Jesus came to do that miracles really make sense.