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What’s Fueling Conflict Between Religion And Science?


What can be learned by seeking a deeper understanding of both science and religion? We speak to one of the world's most renowned voices on the intersection between religion and science.

Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne will be holding a series of lectures on "The Search for Truth in Science and Theology" starting with a two-hour lecture this Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the Crill Performance Hall on the campus of Point Loma Nazarene University.

What can be learned by seeking a deeper understanding of both science and religion? We speak to one of the world's most renowned voices on the intersection between religion and science. Hear what motivated Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne to resign from a prominent professorial chair at Cambridge University to study for the ministry in the Church of England. Find out what he's learned about the world from studying physics and Christianity, and why he thinks scientific theories and religious teachings shouldn't be mutually exclusive.


Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, a fellow, and former President of Queens' College in Cambridge, England. In 2002 he was awarded the Templeton Prize for his contributions to research on the interface between science and religion.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Just a few years ago, we were hearing about the so called war against science. Conservative religious leaders began taking political stands against concepts like global warming and evolution. And in recent years we've also heard from scientists criticizing organized religion, writing books advancing the argument for atheism. In the middle of all this, many people find little conflict between science and religious faith. One of the most prominent voices for the peaceful coexistence of religion and science is my next guest. The reverend doctor John Polkinghorne is a fellow and former president of Queen's College at Cambridge University. In 2002, this renowned British scientist was awarded the Templeton prize for his contributions to research on the connections between science and religion. Dr. Polkinghorne will be in San Diego starting Sunday for a series of lectures at Point Loma Nazarene University. And it's a pleasure to welcome you, Dr. Polkinghorne.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Thank you. I'm very pleased to have the chance of talking.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, science was your first career, can you tell us what inspired you to pursue a career in science.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, I think two things, first of all, I was look at mathematics and I work from the mathematical side of physics and that was a very enjoyable and interesting thing to do. The other thing is I very much see that science helps us to happened the world in which we live. And I think all my life I've been seeking truth and understanding. Science doesn't give you all the truth or all the understanding but it certainly gives you some of it. So I was very glad to spend 25 years working as a theoretical physicist, and being regarded as being --

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And indeed, you decided in 1979 after those 25 years to resign from your professorial chair at Cambridge University to study for the ministry at the Church of England.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: I want to be very clear, I didn't leave because I was disillusioned with it. But in the mathematical subjects, you do your best work when you're young. And I felt for the last 25 years, I had done my bit for physics. And the time had come to do something else, and because Christian belief has always been central to my life, the idea of seeking ordination and eventually becoming an Anglican priest seemed to be the right thing to do. And my main intellectual interests for the last 25 years has been trying to understand how the influx of if science and the influx of religion reinforce each other rather than being at war with each other.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Even before you began your second career, if I could say it that way, in the ministry, did you see that -- did you see that there was an affinity between science and religion? Did you always feel that way?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: I think I always had felt that way since I was old enough to think about these issues. I mean, I think they're friends and not foes because they're both concerned with the search for truth. The search for truth is as central to religion as it is to science. Of course, they're looking at different aspects of the truth. Science is asking you the process of the world, religion is asking in my view, a deeper question, which is why things are happening. If I'm going to understand the rich and remarkable world in which we live, I need to sign on to both those questions, so I think that science and religion have things to give to each other.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Why do you think it's important for people to study and consider both scientific theories and religious teachings?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Basically I think because I believe that knowledge is one and truth is one. And though science doesn't give us all the truth, it certainly gives us some of the truth. And it grieves me when I see religion people fear the world of science. I think they're sincerely wanting to serve the world of truth. And they should welcome truth from whatever source it comes, and some of it certainly does come from science.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with the reverend doctor John Polkinghorne, he's a fellow and's and former president of Queen's College at a Cambridge University. He's also been awarded the Templeton prize for his contributions to research on the connections between science and religion, and he said coming to San Diego starting on Sunday for a series of lectures at Point Loma Nazarene university. Dr. Polkinghorne, I read that you're a founding member of the society of ordained scientists, and you were the first president of the International Society for Science and Religion. So what is the mission of these two organizations?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, I think they both have a future and quite an important future. The Society of Ordained Scientists is for people who are in the ordained ministry and who have a series scientific background, and we are people who can help, I think, others to take seriously both what science has to say or religion has to say. I was very pleased to have an association with the family of the international society of the science of religion. A lot of the work on how science and religion relate to each other had been done in Europe and in North America. And there were insights that we need to draw from all over the world. And indeed, all faith traditions. And the international society is seeking, it's a slow business, but it's seeking to be truly international and truly interfaith. And that I think gives it strength and relevance.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, as I was introducing you, I referred to the conflict that has developed over recent jeers between science and religion. Some very conservative religious figures disputing some scientist theories and findings, and some notable 1269s basically promoting atheism as the only renal approach to studying the world. What do you think is fuelling the current conflict that's taking place between religion and science?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, I think what's fuelling it is the high profile, rather loud and assertive comments that are being made by two extremes. Two fundamentalist extremes, there are religious fundamentalists who think religion and usually specifically the Bible holds the answer to everything. And I don't think that's true. I think the Bible is error important. But it isn't addressing for example -- answering the sort of questions that science asks. Equal three there are scientific people, the new atheists as they're often called who somehow think that science, which is very successful, is so successful it will answer every question worth asking. And I think that's untrue too. Science is very good at answering the question of how things happen, but by its very nature, it doesn't answer the questions of meaning or value or purpose. And those are the questions we have to address. So the two extremes are at war with each other in a way that distresses me about both of them. But I think sensible people are in the middle and trying to take seriously the facts of science and religion, and I think we have a broader and a deeper view of the boo I doing that than either extreme on its own.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We here in America are very attuned to the debate that has been going on in recent years between science and religion on several important subjects. But is the same kind of debate happening in Britain, in other parts of Europe?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, to a much lesser extent, I think of it's one of the things that troubles us on the other side of the Atlantic about how polarized much of the discussion is in the United States. Of course, there are fundamentalists of science and religion in Britain too. But they're a really small section of the population. Not there where they seem to be quite a substantial section of the population. And I'm puzzled with that, I don't know why that should be so, and of course, I'm saddened by it as well.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have had quite a track record when it comes to the theory of evolution. Here in the states, and we also have had a number of iterations of creationism that have challenged the theory of evolution, and many people want some form of creationism taught in schools. What is your feeling about that?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, I think -- I think the science lesson should teach science, and I think so called creationist science is actually not really science. It seizes on the answers it thinks it knows beforehand. But I certainly am in favor of people exploring in suitable settings the question of how science and religion relate to each other. Actually, you know, when Darwin published his great book, the origin of species in 1859, from the very start there were religious people who welcomed his insights. One was a clergyman friend of his called Charles Kingsley, what Kingsley said was this, no doubt god snapped the divine fingers and produced the regular world, but Darwin has shown that God had done something cleverer than that by bringing into being a creation so endowed with potentiality that certain creatures could be allowed to make themselves. And that's the theological way, the richest way of thinking about an evolving world. I find that a very helpful insight to hold onto.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with doctor John Polkinghorne, he is a former president at Queen's College at Cambridge Univeristy, was a theoretical physicist for 25 year, and then decided to study for the ministry in the church of England, he's coming to San Diego for a series of lectures on the search for truth in science and theology. I'm going to ask you though, sir, aren't there some things that really don't mix very well between science and theology? Are there any personal struggles that you've had that you share in your series of lectures in trying to reconcile science, what we're discovering about the world through science and what we are told sometimes to believe in theology?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, of course. I mean there are some puzzles about how different aspects of these two inquiries into truth relate to each other just as there are puzzles within science, how different insights -- insights into biology relate to each other of that's just part of the complexity of the world in which we live, and the complexity of the knowledge that we need to understand it. But I don't think there are real points of conflict. They can arise from the richer side, people in my view misuse the Bible. When you read any form of literature, including of course the Bible, you have to figure out what kind of literature you're reading. If you read poetry, and think it's prose, you'll make some very odd conclusions. My love is like a red red rose doesn't mean his girlfriend's got green leaves and prickels. We understand that. When I read Genesis 1 or 2, I don't think I'm reading a divinely dictated textbook of science to save me the trouble of doing science. I think I'm reading something actually more interesting and profound than that. I'm reading a theological text that says nothing exists in the world except through the will of God. In Genesis 1 it says, God said let there be. So it's very important not to abuse the Bible. One of the ironies of an extreme fundamentalist position, is the people who are wanting to honor scripture are in fact making the wrong use of it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As you tour the you said and you're headed toward San Diego to Quinn your series of lectures, I'm wondering, you say that you find that we are polarized over here in a way that you don't find so strongly in Britain or in Europe between this idea of conservative religion and science, the two polar opposites, so to speak. How would you recommend we begin to bring those two sides together?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, I think it's quite a toss. The way I try it myself is to try to discuss some of the issues, for example to discuss big bang cosmology or evolutionary biology, and discuss how that relates to my Christian belief that the world's is God's creation. I think we have to do by showing it that you can take both science of religion seriously, provided you understand the roles that they're going to play. If you try to make religion out of science's or science out of religion's questions, we're getting right into trouble. That's just a bad mistake. I think we just have to keep plugging away. I want to show people they can take absolutely significantly the importance of scripture and my Christian faith. And what I have to say as a scientist. I like to say I'm two eyed. And I think I see more with those two eyes, further and deeper than I could with either eye on its away.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you think you were trained to do that? Was there something in your back ground that led you to have those two eyes? One on religion and one on religion?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, I have to say I grew up in a Christian home. And I can't remember a time when I wasn't in some way part of the worshipping, believing community of the church. But I don't think I was brain washed by my parents is and have not been able to recover from that. As soon as I was old enough to begin happening science, I wanted to use it in science and I suppose in some way use it to contribute to science as well. I think the desire for truth and the belief in the unity of knowledge, we live in one world of great richness. There's many different layers and levels in world, and I think we need all the insights of human inquiry and truth. To do justice to the remarkable world in which we live. And I think that's remarkable sort of people that we are.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I meant that training, not so much as being brain washed but there needs to be, it seems to me, a sort of a more liberal attitude to the understanding of scripture to allow an appreciation of science.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, I think that's true. Of I think that's true. I think there has to be a realistic understanding of the nature of scripture. I'm an Anglican, and Anglicans say that our religious beliefs, we have basis for them, basis for them in the scripture, in this the traditions of the church, and the use of reason. And I want to use all those resources. I think God's give us all those resources to use and make use of them. And I think that gives a richer understanding than simply taking one of them and the kingpin that answers everything.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you for your time this morning. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: It's been a great pleasure. I've enjoyed our conversation.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking Reverend Dr. John Polkinghorne. He will be holding a series of lectures on the truth for truth in science and theology, it's starting -- it starts with a two-hour lecture this Sunday at 2:30 at the Crill performance hall on the campus of Point Loma Nazarene university. For more information on how you can attend the Sunday lecture, you can go to the These Days page on and indeed, if you want to comment, you can go on-line, Coming up, we're taking your calls about senior pets. That's all ahead as these days continues here on KPBS.

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