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Science, Religion and Faith by Vincent McBrierty

 professor vincent mcbriety

Science, Religion and Faith

 ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Darkness, it was the Spring of hope, it was the Winter of despair,  we had everything before us, we had nothing before us ….’


 Some of you might recognise these first few lines from Charles Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ which in many respects describe our world today.  We are living in an era of unprecedented growth in new scientific knowledge which continues to transform our lives at an unrelenting pace. Prime Minister Nakasone of Japan remarked more than twenty years ago that scientific discovery had spread across the globe, ‘carried forward by a universality that no political power or ideological creed has even begun to approach’.  Such progress reflects the genius of the human brain at work.

We are reminded, too, of Francis Bacon’s famous remark penned some four hundred years earlier, regarding the intimate relationship between power and knowledge: ‘Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est - For even knowledge itself is power’.  Knowledge empowers people in a multitude of different ways – some good, some bad.

 In this brief talk, I would like to share with you some rambling thoughts, from the perspective of a scientist, on the relationship between science, religion and faith.

 Thus far, the Church has not fared all that well in this new order.  The late Dean John Paterson of Christchurch gave an insightful account of the problems and challenges facing the modern church.  He noted that ‘the secularisation of the 20th century has been the startling loss of what we assumed to be Christian civilisation. …. Today church-going is a minority occupation, scepticism is widespread, and neither politics nor business allow themselves to be signally influenced by church teaching’.  He went on to say: ‘If God becomes no more than human values then, deep down, this will not be Christianity, but secular humanism. The continuity of Christianity can only continue when it demonstrates the sovereignty of God.’

 To understand the impact of new scientific knowledge on religion, faith and belief, it is important first to recognise that the pace of new discovery routinely outstrips our ability, in whatever sphere - be it political, social or religious – to deal judiciously with its implications for an impatient society.  As a result, decisions are implicitly based on incomplete information about scientific research findings that are constantly being refined and updated.  This is one of the key problems in addressing, for example, the many ethical questions that arise.

 While attending a conference on science and democracy in Tokyo in 1986 I vividly recall the comments of the representative from Hiroshima, Deputy Fushimi, who said:  ‘Mankind now has God’s skills, but not God’s wisdom; herein lies the problem’.

 The impact of science on religion and faith, has been interpreted in contrastingly different ways:  Scientists like Richard Dawkins try to use science to argue against the existence of God in a most dogmatic and trenchant way.  This, of course, is rich fodder for a tabloid press that is equally dogmatic, alarmist and invariably biased in a world that currently thrives on anti-religious sentiment.

 But there are many other scientists, like myself, who hold the contrary view.    Working at the very frontiers of knowledge, sometimes as practitioners, sometimes as informed observers, we see at first hand the mysteries of the world around us progressively melting away: Scientific discovery is but one manifestation of creativity, akin to poetry, or literature, or music, or art, in the way that it can lift the mind above earthly things.  Science is the language of the workings of the world around us and, as the beauty of new discovery unfolds, we are one tangible step closer to the supreme Creator of it all, thereby reinforcing the relationship between science and religion, not that they are in conflict with one another.

Albert Einstein reminded us that science itself cannot have all the answers:  ‘My religion [he said] consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind’’.  He went on to say that ‘it would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure [on the ear drums].’

Another great Nobel physicist of the last century, Isidor Isaac Rabi, considered that ‘doing great physics was walking in the path of God’.

My late colleague in Trinity College, Professor Ernest Walton, a man of exemplary faith and conviction, noted that ‘We must pay God the compliment of studying his work of art. … A refusal to use our intelligence honestly is an act of contempt for Him who gave us that intelligence’.  Walton believed that our present state of knowledge could not do without faith, arguing, like Einstein, that the human mind is not satisfied with material things alone. He firmly believed that science and religion were not in conflict:  Scientists seek truth, Christians seek truth, and in the end truth cannot conflict with truth. He remains our only Irish Nobel Laureate in science after a lapse of more than half a century.

The bottom line, however, is that science does not absolutely confirm, or deny, the existence of God, although as new knowledge expands, revealing the awesome beauty of creation, there is an ever-growing sense of the oneness of God and creation.  Of course, God’s greatest work of art is humanity itself, created in His own image and likeness and we note, in passing, that to debase in any way the sanctity of human creation is perhaps one of the greatest acts of contempt towards God. Nor can we fully understand the workings of God: Faith is an essential prerequisite if we are to deal with the imponderable questions that cannot be answered with human logic. As one inspiring preacher once summed it up: human reasoning brings you to the door of the church; faith brings you into the sanctuary.

But it is not a blind faith:  It is a faith which draws fundamentally upon the life of Christ on earth, on the prophets, and on sacred scripture.  It is also a faith which grows out of an appreciation of God’s creation, the world around us – and this is where the scientist, the poet, and the composer have an edge.  The poet Keats, one of my great heroes, alluded to the wondrous complexities of life, recognising that the beauty of creation is bound up with the mystery of creation, the unsolved wonders, the unknown, the uncertainty that is a fundamental aspect of human life – in short, ‘unfathomed complexity linked to perfect order’.

[In dealing with the uncertainties of life, Keats remarked: ‘When man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason … the sense of beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration’. ]

I consider faith as defining our intimate relationship with God, with prayer as the means of dialogue.  But like any human relationship it is not static, it is dynamic.  It requires constant nourishment and renewal if it is to grow and deepen.  If it is ignored, it will diminish and even wither and die. 


One’s faith is intimately linked, I believe, to one’s daily life, not merely confined to periods of ritual prayer and devotion.  Every positive action throughout the day I would consider to be a prayer, be it a job well done, or a simple smile to a stranger.  One’s life should be a prayer in itself: in other words, we must continually walk with God.

Christ told us to be child-like, so in my remaining reflections, I will end with a few simple stories taken from memorable sermons - or modern day parables - which left a lasting impression on me.  In one such sermon, the preacher told the story of the sculptor who had created a most perfect sculpture of a horse.  When asked how he achieved such perfection, he simply replied: “I chipped away all the unnecessary bits”. 

This in a way is a metaphor of our everyday life, particularly when in our darkest moments of depression, or worry, or faced with difficult decisions, sorely in need of guidance and inspiration. In your mind’s eye, pare away all the insignificant and confusing trappings of our material world and look at the core essentials, particularly an unswerving trust in God, for faith must be twinned with trust to have full meaning.  The way forward soon becomes clear.

On another occasion, the preacher posed the simple question:  When you look at the crucifix what do you see?   His answer – the gravity of sin and the infinite love of Christ our Redeemer.  This thought is all the more profound and indeed disturbing, when one considers that for some, this ultimate sacrifice was in vain.

My third reflection brings me back to the last memorable utterances of His Holiness Pope John Paul II who in his sufferings was truly and visibly walking in the footsteps of Christ.  He stated, simply – ‘Do not be afraid’.  I continue to get great comfort from those words.

One final remark, on a much lighter note, relates to the way in which scientists, and in particular, physicists like myself are perceived by the public at large.  To say that you are a physicist is often the great conversation stopper.  I once had the privilege of attending His Holiness Pope John Paul II’s morning mass in his private chapel.  Later, in conversation with him, with that engaging twinkle in his eye, we exchanged pleasantries until he asked me the question – What are you a professor of?   When I replied “Physics”, he raised his eyes to heaven, said “God bless you my son” and moved away without another word.

And so we pray that those scientists who are privileged to work at the frontiers of knowledge will use their new discoveries wisely for the betterment of humanity and for the greater glory of God.   Amen.


Vincent McBrierty, Nov. 2007