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Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation
By John F. Haught
Paulist Press, 225 pages

Religion does not have an enemy in science, but it does in pseudo-scientific philosophy that goes by the name of “scientific materialism.” This philosophy gives a powerful, coherent, and”for many people”persuasive account of reality. In Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation , John F. Haught, a theologian at Georgetown University, has attempted to meet its challenge. His effort, though laudable and interesting, is ultimately unsatisfactory.

First, Science and Religion is not wholly free from scientific errors. There is an embarrassing page in which Haught”attempting to explain what the technical term “nonlinear” means when applied to the equations studied in chaos theory”gives three completely unrelated explanations, all of which are nonsense. In another passage, he assumes that the universe is known to be finite in size, when in fact this is one of the major unanswered questions in cosmology; and his use of Special Relativity shows that he does not understand that theory.

The more serious problem with the book is that Haught is a theologian writing for theologians about theologians’ concerns. But the people who need to be addressed are scientists and those whose minds have been shaped by the scientific worldview, for it is they who feel most strongly the undertow of materialism. If they turn to this book hoping to learn what is wrong with the materialist’s seductive picture of reality, they will be disappointed. Haught is not so much interested in demonstrating what is wrong with materialism as in showing what is wrong with theology. More precisely, he is eager to show that the discoveries of science can “find a place” in theological speculation”if theology is suitably “revised””which is little help to a reader who has been made to wonder why he needs God at all.

Haught writes:

Of course it takes a considerable amount of reflection and readjustment of our religious sensibilities to think through consistently what God’s purpose for the universe might be in the light of modern science. Such an undertaking, it seems, is probably too much for many religious believers. A large majority of them have never allowed evolutionary theory or big bang physics deeply to affect their consciousness, let alone their religious imaginations. For many genuinely religious people the kind of revision we have in mind is simply impossible, and we have no wish to belittle their faith which is often generous and deep.

His own errors make this tone of condescension a little absurd and entitle one to wonder whether either science or theology are safe in his hands. And his notion of the required “revision” of theology remains hopelessly unclear.

Consider the chapter, “Is Life Reducible to Chemistry?” Even the title is ambiguous, for Haught nowhere clearly distinguishes the life of plants and animals from human life. He does end up arguing that all life is irreducible to chemistry, but what he means by “irreducible” is itself unclear. There is a weak sense of “irreducibility” in which even many materialists would agree that biology is not “reducible” to chemistry, or chemistry to physics. In more complex systems qualitatively new phenomena emerge; and the higher-level disciplines that study them require concepts that go beyond those needed to understand more elementary systems. But there is also a stronger sense of “irreducibility” which asserts that some essentially new element or principle operates at the higher level.

At times, Haught seems to be saying no more than that all life is irreducible to chemistry in the weak sense. But that is insufficient for his argument. Whatever “emergent properties” rose bushes, earthworms, or frogs have, they are still only physical systems, just as the materialist says they are. If human beings were irreducible in no other way than this, the materialist would be right about them also. At other times, however, Haught seems to say that all life is irreducible to chemistry in the stronger sense. But this is neither compatible with the scientific worldview nor implied by any Christian doctrine.

The correct answer is that life is reducible to chemistry, but that man is not. Man possesses something that goes beyond the life of plants and animals. We know this from Genesis 2:7, we know it from cogent philosophical arguments, and there are developments in modern physics and mathematics that seem to point in the same direction. However, Haught fails to make this case.

Haught is so careless with words that he seems in one passage to imply that God Himself is an emergent property of the cosmos. Citing Paul Tillich, he says that God could not transcend the universe without “first being in it.” The word “first” is characteristically ambiguous, but can any interpretation of it”temporal, logical, or causal”make this an orthodox statement? Haught goes on to say that God’s immanence in the universe may be analogous to the way “life embeds itself in matter.” He says elsewhere, however, that life is the “unfolding of a potential always resident in matter.” Is God, then, the unfolding of a potential always resident in the universe?

In spite of all Haught’s fuzziness of language, one thing seems clear, and that is that the dogmas of God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and providence are targeted for “revision.” It is hard to read his book in any other way. He explicitly redefines God’s omnipotence to mean “capacity to influence.” God takes “risks.” At most there is “a gentle constraining of the initial conditions, so that the cosmos will at least tilt in the direction” God wants it to go. The universe is open to “future outcomes that take the shape of unanticipated beauty.” (Ambiguous, as usual. But it seems to be God who is not anticipating.)

Haught is not embarrassed to say, “Too often we have understood the conception of God as ‘all-mighty’ in a way that leads to theological contradictions, many of which have been pointed out quite rightly by scientific skeptics.” He is referring, of course, to the age-old mystery of predestination and free will. Haught resolves this mystery by the tried-and-false method of denying one of its poles.

Given his desire to appease the scientific skeptic, one might have expected him to dispense with the pole of human freedom, for it is very hard to derive any meaningful kind of freedom out of physics and biology. Curiously, however, Haught chooses to dispense with God’s omniscience. He substitutes a God who “struggles” along with His universe and is open to being taken by surprise. What is ironic about this is that it is as much nonsense from the scientific as from the theological point of view. One of the actual lessons of General Relativity and “big bang physics” (which, remember, we have not allowed to “deeply affect our consciousness”) is that time is not a metaphysical category but something physical. Thus, unless God is a physical object or being, it makes no sense to speak of Him as changing.

It is interesting that traditional theology did not have to wait around to be deeply affected by big bang physics in order to grasp this fundamental point. St. Augustine so well anticipated some of twentieth-century physics’ insights about time that Bertrand Russell was able to praise his “very admirable relativistic theory.” Steven Weinberg observed that “Book XI of Augustine’s Confessions contains a famous discussion of the nature of time, and it seems to have become a tradition to quote from this chapter in writing about quantum cosmology.”

There is a lesson to be learned here. St. Augustine in meditating about time was faithful to the revealed truths about God he found in the tradition of the Church, and his insights seem fresh and profound to the modern cosmologist. The process theologian tries to be up-to-date and ends up with a primitive, time-bound, anthropomorphic conception of God.

At times Haught’s theological agenda actually disarms him in the face of materialist assaults. In his chapter on evolution, for example, he answers a number of the atheists’ arguments but fails to face squarely their main claim, which is that evolution undercuts the Argument from Design. Haught is so intent on God as influencing events rather than causing them”as “prodding,” “enticing,” “luring,” and “wooing” rather than “dictatorially” “forcing” things to happen according to a “preconceived plan””that the notion of a divine Designer fades out of his theology almost entirely. Haught’s response to the atheist’s claim that the universe “designs itself” is to enthusiastically embrace it.

Its back cover proclaims this “the book on science and religion that every college student is waiting for.” I hope not.

Stephen M. Barr is Associate Professor of Physics at the Bartol Institute, University of Delaware.