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Has physics disproved the existence of God?

Dr. Ard Louis, PhD, is a Royal Society University Research Fellow and a Reader in Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford, where he leads an interdisciplinary research group studying problems on the border between chemistry, physics and biology. Dr. Louis is the International Secretary for Christians in Science and an associate of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion based at St. Edmunds College, University of Cambridge.

My initial reaction: this question is not a very good one.

As a physicist, I am often asked the question in the title. Sometimes I’m tempted to respond with these quotes from the Oxford Nobel Prize winning scientist (and atheist) sir Peter Medawar, who wrote:

'That there is indeed a limit upon science is made very likely by the existence of questions that science cannot answer and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer… It is not to science, therefore but to metaphysics, imaginative literature or religion that we must turn for answers to questions having to do with first and last things.'


'Science is a great and glorious enterprise - the most successful, I argue, that human beings have ever engaged in. To reproach it for its inability to answer all the questions we should like to put to it is no more sensible than to reproach a railway locomotive for not flying or, in general, not performing any other operation for which it was not designed.' [1]

Many of my colleagues, religious or not, would probably .agree that science derives its great power from its self-imposed limitations and that it is wrong to ask it to speak to issues outside its jurisdiction. Many professional scientists also feel uncomfortable with the “God language” that appears with increasing frequency in the popular press [2]. We worry that overstatements of the implications of our work could, in the long term, actually erode the public’s trust of science [3].

At the University of Oxford, where I teach theoretical physics, I can attend a termly dinner where 25 or so of my academic colleagues gather to discuss the interface of science and religion. Anecdotally, it may be interesting to mention that the majority of those who attend this dinner are Oxford physicists. Plenty of  physicists at top universities today are believers, and some of the greatest scientific minds in history were people of strong faith, including Isaac Newton (in his own heterodox way), Robert Boyle, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin, J.J. Thompson and many others . More recently, Nobel Prize winners in physics Arthur Schawlow, Charles Townes, Bill Phillips and others have spoken publicly about their faith [4].

Listing Christian scientists that I know personally, or famous ones from history, is a shorthand way to counter the popular myth that the dominant characteristic of the historical relationship between science and Christianity has been one of antagonism.   The professional literature on this topic provides a completely different and more nuanced picture. Historian of science Prof. Colin Russell (Cambridge University) concludes:

“I don’t know any historian of science, of any religious persuasion or none, who would hold to the theory that conflict is the name of the game between science and religion, it simply isn’t true. [5]

A reader who has followed me this far may feel that I am being somewhat defensive, like a grumpy academic who says: go back and read the literature first. Perhaps that is true. Like many scientists, I want to be left alone to practice a profession I love without unnecessary ideological entanglements or influences, and that may explain my initial gut response.

A more charitable response suggests that at the heart of the question lie important issues.

However, I should really be more charitable and recognise that, though the question is poorly formulated, it acts as a proxy for important and difficult questions like:

“How do I obtain reliable knowledge about the world?”

This big question of life is sometimes framed in science v.s. religion terms because people consider science to be a reliable way to obtain knowledge, and may think that other ways (including religious ones) are, by contrast, unreliable. Questions regarding how to obtain knowledge about the world are terribly important to each of us; they help determine how we live our lives and evaluate the choices we make. They have also been the subject of sustained professional debate, particularly in philosophy and theology. For example, the (very relevant) question of God’s existence has been debated by many of the greatest minds in history:

'The debate between atheism and religious belief has gone on for centuries, and just about every aspect of it has been explored to the point where even philosophers seem bored with it. The outcome is stalemate.' [6]

Writes my Oxford colleague Prof. Alister McGrath. Although these subtleties are well know to philosophers and historians of science, public discourse on science and religion often operates as if blissfully unaware of them [7].

So, perhaps with some trepidation, I will revisit the question of the title and ask: Can my experience as a scientist shed any light on these big questions of life? [8] I’ll start with a definition of science.

Defining Science is not that easy

The problem of where to draw the lines around science has vexed generations of philosophers. Like many unsolved philosophical questions, it has been given its own name, ‘the demarcation problem’.   Although one can determine with some degree of consensus what the extremes of the science/non-science continuum are, exactly where the boundary lies can be fuzzy. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t recognise science when we see it [9], but rather that a watertight definition is difficult. What is clear is that the old-fashioned idea (still taught in many schools) that scientific practice follows a well-defined linear process from first making an observation, then a hypothesis, and then testing that hypothesis, is certainly far too simple.

Science as a tapestry of many threads

Rather than attempt a careful and precise definition of science or scientific practice, I will instead resort to a favourite metaphor of mine. It originates with one of my former teachers at Cornell University, the physicist David Mermin, who describes science as a “tapestry” woven together from many threads (experimental results, interpretations, explanations, etc...) [10]. It is only when one examines the tapestry as a whole that it will (or will not) make a convincing pattern. Creating scientific tapestries is a collective endeavour among the scientific community, building on mutual trust and the communal experience of what kinds of arguments and evidence are likely to stand the test of time. In part because the skill of weaving reliable scientific tapestries relies on subtle judgements, a young scientist may work for years as an apprentice of older more experienced practitioners before branching out on their own. Many parallels could be drawn with the professional guilds of old. I am fond of this metaphor because it describes what I think I experience from the inside as a scientist. Moreover, it also emphasises the importance of coherence and consistency when I weave together arguments and data to make an “inference to a best explanation” [11].

The strong communal element inherent to scientific practice has sometimes been seized upon by sociologists of science to argue that scientific knowledge is just one more type of human construct with no more claim on reality than any other form of knowledge. Scientists as a whole have reacted badly to this proposition [12]. Although they agree that all kinds of economic, historical and social factors can play a significant role in the formation of scientific theories, they would argue that, in the long run, the scientific process does lead to reliable knowledge about the world. The view of nature that most scientists I know take could be described as critical realism. They are realists because believe that there is a world out there that is independent of our making. The adjective critical is added because they recognise that extracting knowledge about that world is not always straightforward. Thus the primary role of the collective nature of scientific process is to provide a network of error correcting mechanisms that prevent us from fooling ourselves. The continual testing against nature refines and filters out competing scientific theories, leading to advances in the strength and reliability of our scientific knowledge tapestries.

The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences

Although there are similarities between the ways scientists in distinct fields assemble their tapestry arguments, there can also be subtle differences. These are forced on us in part by the types of problems each field attempts to address. For example, as a theoretical physicist I’ve been trained in a tradition of “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”, a phrase coined in a famous article by the Nobel Prize Winner Eugene Wigner:

The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift, which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning. [13]

An iconic example would be an astounding calculation by Paul Dirac, who showed in 1928 [14] that it is necessary to postulate antimatter (the positron) when you derive a description of the electron that combines quantum mechanics (the theory of very small things) with Einstein’s special relativity (the theory of very fast things) in a mathematically consistent way. I remember very clearly being confronted with this as an undergraduate in Utrecht, the Netherlands.  How can mathematics demand something so fantastical from nature? I was sure it couldn’t be true and spent many hours trying to find a way out. When I finally gave up and saw that there was no way around Dirac’s result, it gave me goosebumps. I remember thinking that even if I never used my years of physics training again, it would have been worth it just to see something so spectacularly beautiful. Most things that we can calculate with the methods of theoretical physics may not be that spectacular, but they still have their own sort of beauty. An elegant mathematical description of the natural world, especially one that reveals something unexpected, never ceases to amaze me.

Physicists believe, based on a history of spectacular success, that mathematical consistency between threads is a key indicator of strong tapestries. These days, I spend much of my time interacting with biologists who view my confidence in the ability of theoretical models to extract knowledge about the physical world with great suspicion [15]. I, on the other hand, am often instinctively sceptical of the huge error bars that can afflict their data [16].

To an important degree, these cultural differences are necessary given the kinds of questions we study. Physics is self-limiting because we simply don’t deal with the level of complexity that biologists encounter every day. If an experiment is too messy, we tend to define it away by declaring, “That isn’t physics”, and move on. Similarly, molecular biologists can often afford to be pickier about their data than medical scientists or psychologists can [17]. But, despite these cultural differences, which can lead to heated and sometimes exasperating discussion, we do agree on a number of ground rules for what makes a tapestry strong. For example, what we either predict or measure should be repeatable. If I claim to see an effect in an experiment, someone else in a different lab should be able to reliably measure the same [18]. That simple requirement has all kinds of implications for the types of problems we are able to address.

The limits of science

As Peter Medawar makes very clear in the quotes at the beginning of this article, there are many questions that simply are not open to purely scientific analysis. The most important decisions in life cannot be addressed solely by the scientific method, nor do people really live as if they could. In the words of Sir John Polkinghorne, former professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge, and an Anglican priest:

We are entitled to require a consistency between what people write in their studies and the way in which they live their lives.  I submit that no-one lives as if science were enough. Our account of the world must be rich enough – have a thick enough texture and a sufficiently generous rationality – to contain the total spectrum of human meeting with reality.

The alternative to the scientific method is not irrationality

But just because we don’t live life by the scientific method doesn’t mean that the only alternative is irrationality. For example, imagine that I want to get married. A truly irrational approach to finding a wife would be to just pick a random woman off the street. Instead, assuming I find a potentially willing partner, it is wise to get to know each other. We may ask for the opinion of wise friends. There are helpful counselling programmes and myriad compatibility tests to which we can submit ourselves. Such tests, in fact, often apply knowledge that scientific techniques have extracted from our collective experience and wisdom. But, at the end of the day, I can’t demand scientific certainty before deciding to marry someone. Nor is it often advisable to perform repeatable experiments! In order to marry, I must make a step of faith because there are aspects of marriage that I can only see from the inside [19].

Another example of a method of obtaining knowledge is the legal process, which, although it is a tightly organised system, is not strictly scientific. Similarly, a historian will use a combination of evidence (manuscripts, etc.) and understanding about the thinking patterns of a particular era to make informed judgements about what happened in the past. Each of these represent non-scientific, yet widely accepted, means of acquiring knowledge and evaluating information.

Everyone has a worldview upon which they base their lives

The big questions of how to extract reliable information about the world, and how to separate fact from mere opinion are clearly complex.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that we can simply ignore them or remain agnostic about them. These questions are critical to the construction of our worldview, that is, the set of values and assumptions upon which we base our lives. Our worldview may be carefully thought out, or it may consist of a hodgepodge of unexamined ideas that we have picked up from family, friends, school, or the media. However it emerges, every person has a worldview, and it plays a critical role in how we live our lives.

As a Christian, the Bible is key foundation upon which I build my worldview. Therefore, it matters greatly to me whether or not this text is a reliable source of knowledge. This is a fascinating topic that I don’t have space to address here. But, I believe that there are strong rational grounds to believe that the Bible is indeed reliable [20].

Science and the Bible

I am often asked whether I sense a tension between my science and what I read in the Bible, which is in part a proxy to more general questions about the reliability of the Bible.  How science and scripture interact is another big topic. I find it helpful to start with a famous quote by the reformer John Calvin who said:

The whole point of scripture is to bring us to a knowledge of Christ --- and having come to know him (and all that this implies), we should come to a halt and not expect to learn more. Scripture provides us with spectacles through which we may view the world as God’s creation and self-expression; it does not, and was never intended, to provide us with an infallible repository of astronomical and medical information. [21]

But that doesn’t mean that the Bible says nothing “scientific” about the natural world.  For example, the creation narratives in Genesis make it very clear that the universe had a beginning (as opposed to always having existed), and that the sun moon and stars are “lights in the sky”, not living beings. To us that may seem obvious, but at the time these words were written, astrology was dominant. Claiming that the stars and planets are in fact inanimate would have sounded about as crazy to the intellectual elite of the day as if I were to claim today that they were in fact alive.

Science studies the “customs of the creator”

To further understand how modern science fits into the framework of the Bible, we need to see how it describes God’s action in the natural world. For example in Psalms 104, that great poem about nature, we read:

He makes springs pour water into the ravines, it flows between the mountains.

The first part is attributed to God’s direct action while the second part suggests that water flows through its own natural properties. Read the Psalm for yourself and notice how fluidly the point of view changes back and forth between what we might call the “laws of nature” and the “direct action” of God. Such dual descriptions can be found throughout the Bible. The New Testament is more explicit when it says:

The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. (Hebrews 1:3)


He is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Col 1:17)

In other words, if God were to stop sustaining all things by his powerful word, the world would stop existing. That is why, when describing nature, the Bible so easily switches perspectives depending on whether it is emphasising the regular behaviour of natural phenomena, or their origin in God’s providential sustenance. So the great fourth century African theologian St. Augustine could say:

Nature is what [God] does. [22]

St. Augustine didn’t mean that nature is the same as God (pantheism), for, as he also argued, God operates outside of space and time. Nevertheless, (and this is a very subtle point [23]) a case can be made for ascribing some independent causal power to the laws of nature. On the other hand, there is no room within a robust Biblical theism for the opposite deistic notion that God started the world up, and then left it to run on its own, completely independently, because descriptions of God’s continuous care for creation can be seen throughout scripture:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. (Matthew 10:29,30)

As Christian thinkers throughout the middle ages wrestled with the questions of miracles and God’s action in the world, the following ideas emerged: If the regularities of nature are a manifestation of the sustenance of God then one would expect them to be trustworthy and consistent, rather than capricious. The regular behaviour of nature could be viewed as the “customs of the creator” as it were. Christians glorify God by studying these “laws of nature”. A strong case can be made that such theological realisations helped pave the way for the rise of modern science [24].

By the time that the Royal Society of London, the world’s first scientific society, was founded in 1660, Christian thinkers like the metaphysical poet John Donne, then Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, could write:

The ordinary things in Nature, would be greater miracles than the extraordinary, which we admire most, if they were done but once... only the daily doing takes off the admiration [25].

God of the gaps

A similar sentiment lies behind a famous exchange between those old adversaries, William Gottfried Leibniz and Sir Isaac Newton. The latter noticed that the orbits of the planets did not appear to be stable when calculated over long periods, and postulated that the solar system needed occasional ‘reformation’ by God. Leibniz objected that

If God had to remedy the defects of His creation, this was surely to demean his craftmanship [26].

In other words, the regular sustaining activity of God, as evidenced by natural laws, should be sufficient to explain the regular behaviour of the solar system, without the need for additional ad-hoc interventions. Making it right the first time is more glorious than having to fix it later.

In the same passage, Leibniz also emphasised the theological nature of miracles:

And I hold, that when God works miracles, he does not do it in order to supply the wants of nature, but those of grace. Whoever thinks otherwise, must needs have a very mean notion of the wisdom and power of God. [27]

A more modern version of Leibniz’s general objection can be found in a famous statement by Charles Coulson, the first Oxford professor of Theoretical Chemistry who wrote:

When we come to the scientifically unknown, our correct policy is not to rejoice because we have found God; it is to become better scientists. [28]

He popularised the phrase “God of the gaps” for those who, think that God is found primarily in the lacunas of our scientific understanding.

There is a link to the question of demarcation in science, since within a robust Biblical theism the regular working of God’s action; the “customs of the creator” (or natural laws) are, almost by design, amenable to scientific analysis.

As a scientist, I feel the Bible provides a rich and harmonious framework within which to understand why the world around me is regular. Moreover, this framework helps me make sense of some remarkable aspects of nature such as the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” that Eugene Wigner speaks about. Rather than finding God in the gaps of my knowledge, I find glimpses of him in those things that I do understand:

It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings. - Proverbs 25:2

What about Biblical miracles and science?

Of course there are also descriptions of events in the Bible that defy description in terms of current science. These are often called miracles. A Christian would say miracles are by definition times when, for divine purposes, God does not act in the way He usually does when sustaining the universe. Perhaps the most significant would be the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If anything, science has strengthened the case for this not occurring through the ordinary actions of God that we describe with science. For example, in John 19:34 we read:

Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.

Modern medicine would suggest that this is clear evidence that the pericardium, a membrane around the heart, was pierced, confirming that he was really dead. The more we know about the processes of decay that set in after death, the less likely that Jesus could have risen from the dead by any natural means. Rather, science strengthens the case that if Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, then this occurred through a direct injection of supernatural power into the web of cause and effect that under girds our world. Of course the resurrection is central to Christian teaching:

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (I Corinthians 15:14)

Given that almost every great Christian thinker in history has emphasised the fact that miracles cannot be understood in isolation from their theological context, perhaps one could invert this argument and say that it is not surprising that the central event in history would be miraculous [29]. And by definition, such a theological dimension would make it non-repeatable and not easily amenable to scientific analysis [30].

However, that is not to say that there are no alternative ways to judge the reliability of the resurrection stories. We can, for example, employ the tools of professions like history or law to examine Biblical miracles. There is significant extra-Biblical historical evidence that Jesus Christ indeed lived. Much has been written about the general trustworthiness of the Gospel accounts of his death and resurrection. For example, there is much internal evidence from both the style and content of the narratives that the writers themselves were convinced that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead. Tradition holds that 11 of the 12 first apostles were martyred for this belief that turned a group of cowards into a people who “turned the world upside down”. Although it is well beyond the scope of this chapter, a very strong case for the plausibility of the resurrection can be made [31]. And I think it is important to ask hard questions about these miracle claims. After all, every meaningful system of thought must be open to careful scrutiny.

The decisive role of worldviews.

In spite of what I think are very substantial arguments for the actual historical resurrection of Jesus Christ, I often find that I make little headway in conversations with those who wonder how I as a scientist can believe such things. This may be in part because history is littered with claims for the miraculous that seem bizarre, or smack of superstition, and in part because the incredible advances of modern science and technology inspire awe, so that we can intensely feel the attraction of identifying with the latter and not the former. This disposition is exemplified in the following quote by the theologian Rudolph Bultmann, famous for his attempts to de-mythologize the New Testament:

It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles. [32]

By getting rid of the miracle stories in the Bible, Bultmann and his followers hoped to make the Christian story more palatable to modern man. Although I recognise the emotional weight of this sentiment, I am not convinced that it is an intellectually coherent approach, mainly for reasons of self-consistency. If the New Testament itself asserts, both directly and indirectly, that the historicity of the resurrection is foundational then it would seem to stand or fall by that fact.

Tapestry arguments and worldviews

As a physicist, I have a natural desire to see how an idea relates to more basic principles. To analyse the validity of a quote like the one above, we must take a cold hard look at our fundamental presuppositions. In the words of John Polkinghorne:

If we are to understand the nature of reality, we have only two possible starting points: either the brute fact of the physical world or the brute fact of a divine will and purpose behind that physical world. [33]

Where do each of those two fundamental starting points take us? When we use them to construct a worldview, what kind of sense does it make of experience, morality, truth, beauty, and our place in the world? This is not an easy question. There is so much mystery around us. Perhaps the best way forward would be to borrow Mermin’s tapestry analogy and carefully investigate whether the different threads of historical evidence, philosophical consistency, and personal knowledge can be woven together into a worldview that is robust. In particular, does our tapestry posses those qualities of coherence and (surprising) fruitfulness that characterise the best scientific tapestries? If I start from the brute fact of nature, I personally am unable to construct a tapestry that is both rigorous and rich enough to fully make sense of the world.

By contrast, I believe that the case for Christianity is much more persuasive. And it is the sum total of those arguments that convince me of the veracity of Biblical claims to make sense of the world around me. To use a famous quote from C.S. Lewis:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen-not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else. [34]

When thinking about the natural world, rather than asking something like “does science prove/disprove the existence of God?”, to me it makes more sense to ask the following question:

Does starting from a theistic world-view make more sense of the physical world we can investigate by science than an a-theistic world-view does?

And then I think the remarkable order and intelligibility of the world around us, including more subtle aspects of physics such as the remarkable effectiveness of mathematics in the physical world or the anthropic fine-tuning of the universe, are much more coherently understood from within a theistic worldview than within an a-theistic one.

Nevertheless, I recognise that if I start from a different worldview, then I may not find these arguments from physics persuasive at all. Similarly, no matter how cogent say the historical evidence for the resurrection is, if I start from a worldview that does not allow miracles, as Rudolph Bultmann seems to do, then it will be virtually impossible to accept that the resurrection was a real historical event with enormous significance for my life.

In conclusion then, I argue at the beginning of this piece that the question I was asked to write to, “Has physics disproved the existence of God?”, is poorly formulated, mainly because the limits of science make physics unsuited to adjudicate on such philosophical issues. However, this question does often act as a proxy to a tremendously important set of questions that have to do with how we obtain reliable knowledge about the world, and how we construct the world-views that govern the way we think and act. Although I make no pretence at giving full answers to such big questions, I do develop the analogy to tapestry arguments in science to argue that the validity of a particular world-view can only be properly assessed by taking it as a whole. Furthermore, I argue that a Christian worldview makes more coherent sense of the world, including that part which is illuminated by science, than an a-theistic worldview does.

Finally, I would also argue that the question of whether God exists or not, and whether Christianity is true or not, is too important to stay agnostic about. I wish science could easily provide an answer to these questions, but in my view, it cannot. But that doesn’t mean it is impossible to arrive at a well thought out worldview. I claim in this piece that there is justified warrant for the Christian world view, though I lacked the space to provide much detail about why I believe this particular tapestry is strong. Many of my favourite arguments can be found in the literature that I quote in the footnotes to this article. So perhaps at the end, I have returned to my original stance: that of an academic suggesting that you go back and study some more and make up your own mind! As in most study, I recommend starting with the primary literature - why not have a go with the gospel of Mark?

© Ard Louis 2005

Suggestions for further reading

Denis Alexander, Rebuilding the Matrix
Francis Collins, The Language of God (2006) ….


[1] P.B. Medawar, The Limits of Science, (Oxford University Press, Oxford (1987)

[2] One has to only see repeated references to physicists’ quest for the “God particle” etc…

[3] We also worry that the appropriation of the prestige of science in support of atheism by authors like Richard Dawkins, Peter Atkins and others may, in the long run, lead to an erosion of support of science by the general public. I would take this out.

[4] Exactly what fraction of scientists believes in God and why is a complex and contested question. Important selection effects and other barriers to gathering reliable data make it a difficult one to accurately answer. Some readings on the topic include Scientists are still keeping the faith, Nature 386, 435 (1997) which showed that 40% of American scientists believed in a God to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer, a result that hadn’t changed much since 1916. But note a follow up by the same authors entitled Leading scientists still reject God, Nature 394, 313 (1998) which showed that the fraction of believers was significantly smaller among elite scientists. For a more recent and comprehensive sociological study of elite scientists I recommend Elaine Howard Ecklund, Religion and Spirituality Among Scientists, Contexts 7, pp12-15 (2008).

[5] This quote is taken from the video Encounter, put together by Christian Students in Science. Russell is a well respected historian of science, especially know for his work on history of Chemistry. The origin of this “conflict myth” can be traced to 19th century Victorian thinkers and it is interesting to note the similarity between many of their arguments and those employed by modern popularisers of atheism like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. For a good introduction to the history of the interaction between science and faith I recommend Colin Russell’s book Cross-currents: Interactions Between Science and Faith (InterVarsity Press, Leicester 1985)

[6] Alister McGrath, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life, (Blackwell, Oxford 2005) p 92.

[7] A good example would be Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (Bantam, London 2006). Contrast the confident verities proclaimed in his book with this extract from the professional literature by the atheistic (naturalist) philosopher Quentin Smith, who commented that :

If each naturalist who does not specialize in the philosophy of religion (i.e., over ninety-nine percent of naturalists) were locked in a room with theists who do specialize in the philosophy of religion, and if the ensuing debates were refereed by a naturalist who had a specialization in the philosophy of religion, the naturalist referee could at most hope the outcome would be that “no definite conclusion can be drawn regarding the rationality of faith,” although I expect the most probable outcome is that the naturalist, wanting to be a fair and objective referee, would have to conclude that the theists definitely had the upper hand in every single argument or debate …. Their justifications have been defeated by arguments developed by theistic philosophers, and now naturalist philosophers, for the most part, live in darkness about the justification for naturalism. They may have a true belief in naturalism, but they have no knowledge that naturalism is true since they do not have an undefeated justification for their belief. If naturalism is true, then their belief in naturalism is accidentally true.

Q. Smith, Philo 4, 2 (2000).

The disconnect between Dawkins’ analysis of science vs. religion questions, and that of the professional literature may explain the remarkably caustic review of The God Delusion by the Marxist Literary Critic Terry Eagleton entitled Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching, which starts with the sentence: Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.

[8] In the interests of accessibility, I will try to avoid as much as possible philosophical terms like “epistemology” or “ontology”. I am aware that commonly used words such as “knowledge” do not have simple definitions. I hope that those with a more formal philosophical training will forgive my simplifications.

[9] I am reminded of a famous quote by US Supreme Court judge Potter Stewart who, when asked to distinguish between art and pornography, noted that although it was hard to define, “I know it when I see it” (Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964)).

[10] N. David Mermin, “The Golemization of Relativity”, Physics Today 49, 11–13 (1996)

[11] Peter Lipton, Inference to the Best Explanation, (Routledge, London, 2004)

[12] In the 1990’s this tension between sociologists and the scientific community erupted into the so-called ‘Science Wars’. See e.g. J. A. Labinger and H. Collins (eds), The One Culture? A Conversation about Science, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2001), for a good overview.

[13] E. Wigner, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”, Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics, vol. 13, No. I (February 1960).

[14] P.A.M. Dirac, Proc. Roy. Soc. A, 117, 610 (1928)

[15] The differences in culture between more mathematically minded physical scientists and more empirically minded biological scientists is discussed by Evelyn Fox Keller, in a fascinating book: Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors, and Machines, Harvard University Press, Boston (2002).

[16] Such instinctive reactions are what make interdisciplinary research so difficult. Clearly biology has been incredibly successful despite the differences with my scientific culture.

[17] I also suggest that as the questions we ask become ambitious (often the case for applied subjects like medicine) then tapestries, by necessity, become more fragile.

[18] I realise that this is subtler for historical sciences like geology and cosmology (we have, for example, only observed one universe). Nevertheless, even in these fields, parallel concepts apply.

[19] There are interesting analogies here to making a religious commitment. Christians would argue that important aspects of the Christian life that can only be understood and experienced from within a relationship with Christ. That is not to say that a step of faith is just a blind leap in the dark. It should be a decision that is informed by careful thinking and weighing of evidence. But it is more than just that.

[20] See for example F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are they reliable? (IVP 2003).

[21] Cited in Alister E. McGrath, The foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion (Oxford, UK ,Blackwell 1998) p 124

[22] Augustine, Literal Commentary on Genesis, c AD 391

[23] See e.g. C. J. Collins, Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? (Crossway, Wheaton, 2003) ch 11.

[24] See e.g. R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids,1972)

[25] John Donne (Eighty Sermons, #22 published in 1640)

[26] Leibniz as quoted by John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion , CUP, Cambridge (1991), p147.

[27] Leibniz, as quoted by C. Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind, (Paternoster, Exeter, 1984), p 75.

[28] Charles Coulson, Christianity in an Age of Science, 25th Riddell Memorial Lecture Series, Oxford University Press, Oxford, (1953). Earlier uses of the phrase include the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997 , see "Letter to Eberhard Bethge", 29 May 1944, pages 310-312, but I think it was Coulson who really popularised it.

[29] The Cambridge evolutionary biologist Simon Conway Morris notes: “I am not surprised at those [NT miracles] reported, I am surprised that they are so few. What else would you expect when the Creator visits his Creation?” Hulsean Sermon, Great St. Mary’s Cambridge 26 Feb, (2006).

[30] In the same way, I have been dismayed by “scientific” studies that tried to see whether prayer, offered anonymously, helps with patient outcome. Surely if there is a God, he would be very unlikely to subject himself to such a simplistic test. It is not clear to me what we can really learn from this type of study.

[31] For a popular exposition I recommend the classic Who moved the Stone, (Faber and Faber, London, 1975) written by a lawyer, Frank Morrison, who initially set out to disprove the resurrection. For a more sophisticated and modern discussion I recommend The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, G. Habermas and M. Licona (Kregel, Grand Rapids, 2004) and especially The Resurrection of the Son of God, N.T. Wright (SPCK, London 2003).

[32] R. Bultmann in Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. H. W. Bartsch, trans. R. H. Fuller (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 5.

[33] John Polkinghorne, Serious Talk: Science and Religion in Dialogue, (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1995).

[34] This quote comes from the essay “Theology as Poetry”, in C.S. Lewis, The weight of glory,Harper Collins, San Francisco (2001).