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Belief in God in an Age of Science

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John Polkinghorne is a major figure in today’s debates over the compatibility of science and religion. Internationally known as both a theoretical physicist and a theologian—the only ordained member of the Royal Society—Polkinghorne brings unique qualifications to his inquiry into the possibilities of believing in God in an age of science. In this thought-provoking book, the author focuses on the collegiality between science and theology, contending that these "intellectual cousins" are both concerned with interpreted experience and with the quest for truth about reality. He argues eloquently that scientific and theological inquiries are parallel.

The book begins with a discussion of what belief in God can mean in our times. Polkinghorne explores a new natural theology and emphasizes the importance of moral and aesthetic experience and the human intuition of value and hope. In other chapters, he compares science’s struggle to understand the nature of light with Christian theology’s struggle to understand the nature of Christ. He addresses the question, Does God act in the physical world? And he extends his ideas about the role of chaos theory, surveys the prospects for future dialogue between scientific and theological thinkers, and defends a critical realist understanding of the activities of both disciplines. Polkinghorne concludes with a consideration of the nature of mathematical truths and the links between the complementary realities of physical and mental experience.

258 pages, Paperback

Published February 8, 2003

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About the author

John C. Polkinghorne

51 books106 followers
John Charlton Polkinghorne is an English theoretical physicist, theologian, writer and Anglican priest. A prominent and leading voice explaining the relationship between science and religion, he was professor of Mathematical physics at the University of Cambridge from 1968 to 1979, when he resigned his chair to study for the priesthood, becoming an ordained Anglican priest in 1982. He served as the president of Queens' College, Cambridge from 1988 until 1996.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 32 reviews
Profile Image for David.
46 reviews4 followers
October 8, 2008
"The poverty of an objectivist account is made only too clear when we consider the mystery of music. From a scientific point of view, it is nothing but vibrations in the air, impinging on the eardrums and stimulating neural currents in the brain. How does it come about that this banal sequence of temporal activity has the power to speak to our hearts of an eternal beauty?

The whole range of subjective experience, from perceiving a patch of pink, to being enthralled by a performance of the Mass in B Minor, and on to the mystic's encounter with the ineffable reality of the One, all these truly human experiences are at the center of our encounter with reality, and they are not to be dismissed as epiphenomenal froth on the surface of a universe whose true nature is impersonal and lifeless."
-John Polkinghorne, from Belief in God in an Age of Science
Profile Image for Hywel Owen.
55 reviews14 followers
July 22, 2009
A disappointing read, as I am told by my non-scientist, religious friends that this is a great essay. Don't get me wrong though: Polkinghorne knows his material inside out - both the high energy physics and the theology - and as an introduction to the issues at the heart of the relationship between science and religion (and in particular, Christianity) it is very good.

However, Polkinghorne offers no compelling resolution of the real difficulties between faith and reason in the late 20th (and now 21st) century. At best, this is a 'one-idea' book, the idea being the notion that God somehow pushes quantum probabilities one way rather than another in our Universe, and that is how his action comes about. The problem of the historical placement of Jesus is way too casually brushed over.

All in all, a frustrating read.
Profile Image for Gregg Sapp.
Author 19 books19 followers
February 25, 2021

It is not uncommon for a scientist to write in defense of religion. By contrast, it is difficult to conceive of any need or reason for a person of faith to write in defense of science. Historically, this has not always been the case. For example, William of Ockham, Pascal, Kepler, Newton were all men of profound faith who justified scientific inquiry as a legitimate method for understanding God’s creation. Today, however, the validity of science is accepted, while religious thinkers must labor to reconcile the tenets of faith with the facts of science.

In “Belief in God in an Age of Science,” knighted physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne seeks intellectual comity between theism and modern knowledge about the physical world. He argues that, at a fundamental level, believers commit to the precept that there is both design and purpose to the universe.

As evidence of design, he cites the uncanny way that mathematics describes the workings of reality from the subatomic to cosmic realms. Not only that, but mathematicians routinely speak of the “beauty” of an equation as being inseparable from its correctness. Polkinghorne concludes “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics… in uncovering the structure of the physical world is a hint of the presence of the Creator.”

Concerning the purpose of this world, he points out reality could not be more perfectly fined tuned to support the existence of the very intelligent creatures wondering about what it all means. If the forces and processes of nature were calibrated just a tiny bit differently, life would be impossible. This truth, manifested in the Anthropic Principle, distresses some theorists so much that they posit the existence of alternative universes not blessed by a coincidentally nurturing set of physical laws. Polkinghorne contends that purposeful design, rather than blind, random luck is a more cogent explanation.

Even for a skeptic like myself, this argument deserves pause to consider.

Polkinghorne proposes a realist theology, wherein “there is a considerable degree of cousinly relationship between the two disciplines [science and theology] as each pursues its search for truth by means of the quest for motivated belief arising from their two very different domains of experience.” This sounds reminiscent of Gould's "two magesteria."

Realist theology supposes that God and His works in the universe are intelligible through both scientific and theological inquiry, without conflict, to the degree that science explores the workings of the physical world, while theology infers design and purpose behind them. They are separated to the detriment of both.

To support his claim of kinship between science and theology, Polkinghorne describes how they both go through similar processes of formulating, testing, and extrapolating upon their core theories. He supposed that God acts in the world through “causal joints” where top-down divine action connects with the myriad reactions in this world that go into making God’s Creation reality.

Furthermore, we exist in a universe in flux where physics and free will interact in a “world whose interlaced causalities correspond to a true becoming, in which the sense of the passage of time is no mere psychological idiosyncrasy of human psychology but an intrinsic feature of reality, because the future is not up there waiting for us to arrive but we play our parts in making it as we go along our temporal way.”

In this slim treatise, Polkinghorne sketches out ideas that require more in-depth discussion elsewhere. Still, ultimately, it comes down to a matter of faith. Theology can inform and advance science, but it remains anti-scientific in that its begins with belief in a God and seeks to explain how reality reflects divine intent, while science starts with an observation of reality and seeks to find the best explanation for why it is so.

The catch-22 facing theology is that, to modern thinking, it must meet the burden of proof, but its central belief is unprovable. Faith is not peer reviewable.

Profile Image for Wahid.
1 review
March 21, 2010
Dr. John Polkinghorne is a trained particle physicist who has worked within the field for 25 years, having initially obtained his PhD under the guidance of the illustrious Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam. He is now an ordained Anglican priest who has spent the majority of the last 15 years exploring themes within the debate surrounding science and religion. He is a major voice in the UK, the author of a number of books and has some very useful things to say about the current state of religion and science, one that is not obfuscated by the "triumphant reductionism" currently attracting public attention from the field of molecular biology. In this book, which is in fact a series of talks he delivered at the Terry Lectures, Polkinghorne outlines his critical realist position, offering a lucid account of science and theology and how, in his opinion, a belief in God accounts for a comprehensive engagement with reality that acknowledges the human encounter, comprising three essential aspects: aesthetic experience, intelligibility, and religious experience.

Several of the themes in this book appear in numerous other works by the same author: ideas concerning consonance, intelligibility, the anthropic principle, and various notions about the verisimilitude nature of scientific endeavor are all aspects of Polkinghorne's new and revised attempts at a rejuvenated natural theology. It is also clear that much of what Polkinghorne has to say stems directly from his perspective as a Particle Physicist, though to his credit, he is not oblivious to the nature of the increasingly perceived threat from molecular and evolutionary biology. Though it is not Polkinghorne's style to write elaborately articulated treatises on the matter, this book like so many others he has authored offers a lucid but academic treatment of a subject that is beginning to show signs of serious academic attention - this fact alone, if the nature of academic interest is anything to go by, suggests that religion and science remain hotly debated and explored disciplines. To someone of Polkinghorne's kind, however, this would come as no surprise, for as many have argued since Aristotle, the nature of mankind's search for understanding is arguably most directly experienced in the areas of religion and science, a quest that both disciplines have serious offerings to make.

Overall, the work is an excellent introduction for anyone seeking to understand the nature of human engagement with matters of ultimate concern, meaning and fate. The work is of interest to anyone who is keen to understand the nature of the debate that fuels the fire among scientists and theologians, many of whom in the modern era, such as Polkinghorne himself, lie on both sides of the fence. Such individuals, though rare, have an invaluable role to play in deciding how the debate between science and religion pans out in the next few years. They offer a serious voice in the debate that the current generation of scholars and scientists cannot choose to ignore.
Profile Image for Scott Pearson.
551 reviews19 followers
December 27, 2021
Religious belief and science are often put at odds with each other in contemporary society and popular culture. One needs only to listen to fundamentalist preachers or read newspapers about anti-vaccine protestors to think that these groups are forever at odds. Further, the histories of religious wars and persecutions turn many educated, reality-based citizens off of the religious path. To this situation, Polkinghorne offers a detente by suggesting that the two fields are cousins in their common search for truth and the unity of all knowledge. Now knighted, he is an eminent physicist and theologian at Cambridge University and offered these thoughts as part of a prestigious lecture series at Yale University in 1998.

Polkinghorne seeks to establish a common philosophy that he calls “critical realism” to unite these two disciplines. He acknowledges that not all religious discussion resides under this intellectual umbrella, such as those who make religious reflection a solely personal matter. Nonetheless, frequently citing Polyani’s Personal Knowledge and other recent scientist authors, he finds much in common with these disciplines. Indeed, he cites the development of Christian doctrines like Chalcedonian Christology and the Trinity in the first five centuries of the Common Era as similar to scientific reflection and debate about atoms and quantum theory in the twentieth century.

Especially in the mainstream press, many present caricatures that science stands up to short-sighted religious doctrines. Polkinghorne shows, at least at the highest levels, that these presentations fall short when tested against reality. Going back to Newton (himself devout), there exists nothing inherently adversarial in science to religion. They share a common interest in understanding the true nature of things. Perhaps some difficulty lies in that both disciplines require high and lengthy standards of training. One cannot fully surmount either.

In these five lectures, Polkinghorne calls for increased interdisciplinary dialogue between science and religion. Given the amount of interest in this topic by recent physicists, he particularly identifies biologists, social scientists, and theologians as needed in this common venture. The mathematics endemic in physics often make it a starting point in the search for beauty, but these other disciplines can contribute through their end-point of alleviating human suffering. Both science and theology are niche fields that often take practitioners away from commercial business, but they have too much in common to eschew each other. This short book reminds us of their mutual reliance as they seek ultimate knowledge.
Profile Image for Ben De Bono.
463 reviews78 followers
May 3, 2011
Belief in God in an Age of Science is an important and challenging read. John Polkinghorne, a theoretical physicist, attempts to bridge the gap between theology and science by the showing the relationship between the two disciplines and how students of both can learn from each other.

The book is far from an easy read, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit there were a few places that were well over my head. I'm a pastor and theologian-in-training so dense discussions of quantum physics are a bit outside my specialty. But in some ways, that's the point. Polkinghorne argues that both scientists and theologians need to reach beyond their comfort zones and interact with topics where they aren't experts.

On that point, I find his argument entirely convincing. If I believe what Paul talks about in Romans 1, that the creation speaks to us of God, than I need to be reading books like this. I'll likely never be an expert in quantum physics or the theory of relativity, but I need to be exposed to those ideas.

Polkinghorne draws many connections between scientific and theological inquiry. I didn't always agree with his conclusions, but his thoughts are consistently fascinating.

This one isn't for everyone, but if you're willing to stretch yourself a bit then Polkinghorne's thoughts are definitely worth your time and consideration.
Profile Image for Christopher Walker.
Author 20 books22 followers
April 29, 2023
I have had many debates with people in recent years about science and belief, and I have often wished for a book that could enlighten me about what science means to the faithful. I have read a lot of Dawkins and Hitchens, so the scientific and atheistic sides are well-represented, but I have not come across so much for the other side. Perhaps I've not looked hard enough.

So what of Polkinghorne's book? I had high hopes for it. The chapter headings sounded very interesting and would help to further the debate, but unfortunately the text is so thick with academic language that I was unable to get much out of it at all. I will have to read it all again one day, more slowly and with a lot of other textbooks to hand to help me.

However, there was one area that I don't think the author addresses, which I think is a key difference between science and theology. It has always been my understanding that when a scientist researches a topic they should be as disinterested as possible: they must not want their thesis to be true or false, only to patiently see what the results reveal. Theology, on the other hand, approaches any situation, any challenge to a belief with the hope and the wish that their belief remains untouched, or is strengthened by what they hand. There is not that same intellectual distance that one finds in science.
Profile Image for Dan Claffey.
278 reviews2 followers
June 25, 2017
I didn't enjoy this as much as I did the last Polkinghorne book I read (Quarks, Chaos, Christianity). There was a lot of material that was redundant and I preferred the presentation in the previous book. I don't know if it was because I was reading it fresh or if the writing style was less dense and more eloquent or if I simply wasn't in the right frame of mind for this one.
It's a fairly through review of Science and Theology and how they converge together (especially regarding physics and math).
Liked, but not loved.
Profile Image for Kevin Murphy.
17 reviews
January 9, 2022
A top theoretical physicist and theologian writes a book and it reads like you're a youth listening to grownups talk about their work so rating is based on my failing's more than the book's. Thankfully it was short so I did finish it.
1 review
December 12, 2012

I read the book Belief In God In An Age Of Science by John Polkinghorne. This book discusses about the contrasts and differences about how the Christian God is related to science. It is a confusing book, as one must have knowledge about physics and science, but it mainly addresses the issue if God acts physically in our world. In some parts of the book, he compares the fact the both and science and religion are searching for an answer to find truth. It is very challenging, and I had to re-read some chapters again in order to grasp the concept and comparisons of science and religion, and how both can relate to each other. An example of this would be how he compares Darwin’s theory of evolution to the Christian belief of Creation. This book is basically a compilation of essay-styled writings of Polkinghorne’s opinion on the similarities and differences of science and Christianity. It is a hard read, and I would only recommend to people who understand physics and theology, as it took me a long time to finish this book.
1 review
December 12, 2012
I read the book Belief In God In An Age Of Science by John Polkinghorne. This book discusses about the contrasts and differences about how the Christian God is related to science. It is a confusing book, as one must have knowledge about physics and science, but it mainly addresses the issue if God acts physically in our world. In some parts of the book, he compares the fact the both and science and religion are searching for an answer to find truth. It is very challenging, and I had to re-read some chapters again in order to grasp the concept and comparisons of science and religion, and how both can relate to each other. An example of this would be how he compares Darwin’s theory of evolution to the Christian belief of Creation. This book is basically a compilation of essay-styled writings of Polkinghorne’s opinion on the similarities and differences of science and Christianity. It is a hard read, and I would only recommend to people who understand physics and theology, as it took me a long time to finish this book.
37 reviews2 followers
February 9, 2012
This is meant to be an introduction to the dialogue between science and religion. The author, Sir John Polkinghorne, is a distinguished quantum physicist and Professor at Oxford University. He is also an ordained priest of the Church of England. His experiences as both a scientist and a theologian place him in a privileged position to speak on both subjects. He is thus at the forefront of ongoing dialogue between these fields, and is well respected by people on both sides. His books, like this one, are very dense and contain many deep insights, but are unfortunately very hard to comprehend! It will definitely need a lot of re-reading and cross-referencing to at least understand what he is trying to say, especially for a non-specialist. But once you do, the pay-off is definitely rewarding.
Profile Image for Kevin Gunn.
35 reviews12 followers
June 15, 2016
A physicist, theologian, and priest, Polkinghorne makes the argument that theology nor science alone can give a comprehensive answer to the realities around us, but rather the two interacting with one another in dialogue is necessary to understand the world we live in. Science offers us the means to understand the physical world while theology gives us insight into God the Creator of the physical world. He continues to make the argument that though some things in our universe can be explained using scientific processes, this does not mean that God does not also interact with our world.

Though some may disagree with his theology, his arguments offer a balanced approach through theological critical realism.
Profile Image for Alexander Poulsen.
21 reviews2 followers
June 22, 2016
John Polkinghorne is both a theoretical partical physicist and an ordained member of the Anglican clergy, so he brings considerable expertise to the table as he discusses issues of science and religion. The book is a bit of a smattering of the author's previous writings, and is based off a series of lectures he gave at Yale. Polkinghorne gets into some very interesting discussions about science and religion and how we seek truth in both of these realms. He also discusses chaos theory and how this could potentially explain how God acts in the physical world (This part went mostly over my head). One part I found very particularly interesting was in the first chapter, Polkinghorne argues that for the universe to be fully understandable, this life cannot be the whole story.
Profile Image for Suzanne.
Author 11 books2 followers
September 19, 2014
Polkinghorne is a quantum physicist who knows his science. He is also a minister who knows theology. Neither side conflict in his view. I love this. I loved how he got right inside Quantum Theory in this book with no intimidation on the level of his readers. I also loved how he has taken nature and physics as a manifestation of God's will, rather than an argument against it. His belief is that science enhances our belief in God and the more we know of science, the more we know of God. I love this. If you want to embrace both theology and science, this is an excellent read. Polkinghorne is one of my favorite authors and lecturers.
56 reviews
May 1, 2012
The book is written in a difficult style, encompassing a fair breadth of knowledge within a relatively short exposition. To appreciate it fully, it would be helpful to know something of advanced physics and possibly some advanced mathematics, as well as some philosophy and theology. It would, additionally, be helpful to have already read some works by Polkinghorne and other science/theology works. I marked it at three stars partly for its difficulty. I would like to read it again in a month or two to see whether it stays at three stars.
Profile Image for Lee.
93 reviews
January 4, 2016
John Polkinghorne tends to repeat ideas in his (many) books, but this is probably one of the better introductions to his overall thought. This volume, based on lectures delivered at Yale University in the mid-90s, is too brief to fully lay out Polkinghorne's arguments or reply to every objection; but it presents the essentials of his case for a "modest" natural theology, God's action in the physical world and a "critical realist" approach to scientific and theological knowledge in clear, accessible prose.
386 reviews
January 15, 2016
Polkinghorne was the president of Queens' College at Cambridge University. Later in his career he also followed a calling into the Anglican Church. This quantum physicist tries to look at faith with a similar approach that he uses in science. His term is critical realism. In some ways it grants God power (more than in process theology) but it also recognizes much freedom in God's creation. He carefully touches on ontological, epistemological and other issues. In the end, he has deep praise for a good and mysterious God.
610 reviews32 followers
June 13, 2009
This is a collection of essays on science and Christian faith by John Polkinghorne, F.R.S., a renowned theoretical physicist who subsequently became an Anglican priest. (Polkinghorne won the Templeton Prize in religion and science a few years ago.) I am still pondering some of his reflections, especially his ideas about freedom (in nature) and Calvinist ideas on human freedom and God's providence and sovereignty in all things.

Profile Image for Maughn Gregory.
1,023 reviews29 followers
March 7, 2011
I heard Polkinghorne interviewed and was impressed by his reasonableness, if not by his theism. Likewise with this book, I didn't care much for (or even about) his arguments for the reasonableness of theism, except as they helped me to understand his "critical realist" epistemological stance on both science and religion. If you're wondering what a critical realist scientist believes about the status of scientific knowledge and method, chapter 5 here is a great summary.
Profile Image for David Monroe.
433 reviews138 followers
June 15, 2008
John Polkinghorne brings unique qualifications to his exploration of the possibilities of believing in God in an age of science: he is internationally known as a theoretical physicist and as a theologian. In this thought-provoking book, Polkinghorne focuses on the collegiality between science and theology, contending that the inquiries of these "intellectual cousins" are parallel.
3 reviews2 followers
June 3, 2010
The comparison of how theology and the natural sciences adapt explanatory models to accomodate new phenomema was insightful. He uses the examples of the particle/wave duality of light in physics and God/man duality of Christ, showing how making sense of observable phenomena in each area required arriving at paradoxical understandings of reality.
Profile Image for Angela.
368 reviews12 followers
November 9, 2010
Hit and miss. I was surprised to find his comments on philosophy of science (usually mentioned as a lead-up to a comment on religion) more interesting and thought-provoking than what he actually had to say about belief and religion.
Profile Image for Trey Meadows.
68 reviews1 follower
April 4, 2015
enjoyed the style and discussion of the author's view of math and science and their place in a religious world view. there is depth to the thoughts discussed here without overwhelming the reader thus making it a great primer for future reading.
Profile Image for Steve.
1,444 reviews81 followers
April 20, 2013
Really very very mixed. A good first lecture, but then after that it goes down hill. Genesis is myth, and the future is open to God. He does not know the future as an action of self-limitation etc.
Profile Image for Vance J..
161 reviews2 followers
June 15, 2015
Good examination. Especially useful is the citation of references - a lot more to read here.
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