Polar opposites? A Guest Post by freelance writer and licensed lay minister Barney Leeke

Science and religion are often thought of as polar opposites, an idea created in the classrooms of secondary schools and never challenged for many who take these subjects no further.

Growing up I went through a crisis of faith, like many people who have been brought up as Christians from childhood, during my teenage years. This was of course not just a crisis of faith but an existential crisis of aging. The realisation slowly dawned that an entire world, an entire universe, an entire multiverse, existed outside of my experience and for reasons completely unrelated to my existence. Faith was just another casualty in the firestorm of understanding, which blew away everything that appeared timeless and replaced it with barely understood reason and a mess of hormones.

Never underestimate the power of peer pressure, a major factor in both the assimilation and discarding of ideas and paradigms (even amongst those who consider themselves learned and wise). The pressure to conform, either to a group which itself conforms or to its polar opposite, drives away the youthful beliefs and childish understanding of matters spiritual. There is an equal pressure from another force however. Following mastery of the basics of language and mathematics, adolescence is the time that true learning begins, the mind expanding rapidly to take on the experience of previous generations so that it has time to uncover new revelations of its own.

The GCSE science class is where this process is perhaps at its most powerful, the natural world being opened up and explained as a series of rules and equations, predictable processes and predetermined outcomes. The forces of gravity are neatly described, mass and momentum meet in a dance of mathematical simplicity, chemical equations are neatly transcribed, and biological specimens from flowers to bovine eyeballs meet their fate on dissection boards. Textbooks are filled with carefully stylised diagrams of the essential elements of life produced in glorious technicolour, recreated in hurried homework where blank spaces wait to be filled with newly acquired knowledge. Everything is known, in this simple model of existence there are no unanswerable questions, the textbook holds everything you need to know. At least to pass the exam.

Is it any wonder then, faced with this surgical excision of all mystery from the world, that the natural spirit of curiosity (the natural spirit of spirituality) is also banished from the young minds of its hearers? Faced with such overwhelming evidence and little room for the language of faith, belief or theology, the child turns from childish ways and starts the journey to adulthood.

The rot sets in early however, a heady summer of extended holidays as the exams finish is but the brief honeymoon of scholarly marriage. Returning to school or college in the autumn to study the self-same subjects, one finds that the first step in renewed scientific discovery is to jettison the suddenly simplistic models of the past to make room for more nuanced knowledge. The biological world in particular opens like a delicately unfolding flower, the further one looks into its depths, the more intricate and interesting it becomes. This process of discarding simpler schemes for increasingly complex systems continues into tertiary education and beyond, for those who make that journey.

The precise companionship of molecular interactions, efficient feedback loops and elegant cascades can all be (retrospectively) explained by natural selection of the most competent process, but this still leaves room for a healthy dose of awe. The first time an unfortunate beast is opened up to investigation, revealing the inner beauty of perfect organisation which the multi-coloured diagrams poorly conveyed, there is a new question in the enquiring mind. How is replaced by why with such regularity, that it is no wonder the college chapels of Cambridge are filled as much with scientists as theologians. There they meet with the memories of their predecessors, for whom the line between these two subjects was much less distinctly drawn.

The deeper one searches to understand the underlying principles of existence, the more often one comes up against the stumbling block which is the limit of our current knowledge. Continuing to search drags the scientist into a rabbit hole where we are repeatedly shrunk to smaller and smaller scales of observation, soon lost in the warren of complexity that underpins everything we see, do and think. There is of course progress, truly great thinkers are frequently successful in opening the doors that they push against to reveal another room full of treasures to be explored, categorised, understood. As the universe only seems to become more complex and varied, so the wonder intensifies, the awe is refreshed and the question returns: Why?

The answer to that lies, at least for me, in a place that resists such probing with insurmountable force. The place where certainty is left at the door in favour of faith, where the inexplicable becomes routine. Belief is the stuff of mockery for some, the weapon of others, but it is also a tie that binds. It binds communities together in mutual love and respect; it binds families together in shared experience and understanding; it binds individuals to the hope of a future where the current imperfection of this perfect world is swept away, revealing another reality which we are not currently equipped to comprehend.

The most accepted paradigm of modern culture is that science and religion are incompatible, that it is impossible to engage in scientific reasoning whilst simultaneously accepting faith. This is, of course, nonsense. Even some of the most concrete scientific beliefs are simply that, well tested but open to reassessment when new evidence is obtained. Theory quickly becomes fact in public opinion, but in the mind of the true scientist there is always room for revision.

Many people of faith will have experiences, not possible to reproduce under laboratory conditions but no less real to them for that, which confirm their faith and act as their evidence base. These episodes in Christian experience are broadly the same across cultures and denominations, the n-value is not disputed, it is merely the mechanism of action which is open to debate. That Christians are found as much, if not more, in the sciences than other specialisms, is I believe because of that constant exposure to the wonder of creation. Couple that to an enquiring mind, and a propensity to record results and extrapolate, and you have the perfect recipe for faith.

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