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article imageOp-Ed: From physicist to priest - John Polkinghorne talks about science and religion

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     Dec 11, 2008 in World
John Polkinghorne was once a renowned physicist, until he changed and became an Anglican priest. When someone of his calibre speaks, one listens and hopes to learn. Mary Hynes interviewed John Polkinghorne on CBC radio.
John Polkinghorne truly was a great physicist. His work helped lead us to the discovery of the quark. Quarks are a type of subatomic particle that do not occur on their own in nature. They are always found together in composite particles known as hadrons, the best known of which are protons and neutrons, the particles that make up the nucleus of atoms.
It is not much of a leap of faith to say that someone who is involved in this type of research is a rational, reasonable person with more than average intellectual abilities. So, when someone like John Polkinghorne decides to become a Christian believer, one listens, and one listens very attentively.
John Polkinghorne was recently interviewed by Mary Hynes on CBC radio and that interview has now been posted on the Internet. A friend brought it to my attention and I strongly encourage everyone to listen to it. I cannot describe the entire interview here, as it is more than 40 minutes long. I must confess that I am thoroughly disappointed in what I heard. While it is certainly his inalienable right to believe in whatever he wants to, I had thought and hoped to hear some convincing arguments for the belief in the Christian God he claims to believe in. However, his arguments weren’t even remotely convincing.
In the beginning of the interview, Mary Hynes says that John Polkinghorne uses the lovely phrase “the wistful wariness people have when they approach religion” and asks him what he means by that. Polkinghorne tells us that many of his scientific friends “want a broader and deeper view of reality than science on its own own can afford and they see that religion offers that.” He says that they are wary to go that route because they don’t want to commit intellectual suicide. Polkinghorne says that he doesn’t want to do that either. He goes on saying that he has motivations for his religious beliefs, that it not a question of shutting his eyes but that it is in fact a question of opening his eyes more deeply to reality.
A bit later, John Polkinghorne lashes out to Richard Dawkins, a recently retired Oxford professor of biology. I listened with increasing disbelief when he was accusing Richard Dawkins of putting up straw men and then giving an example that was itself a straw man:
There is at the moment through Richard Dawkins [unintelligible] other people a very militant form of atheism, I which saddens me, not because they don’t agree with me, of course I have read that too. But because it seems to me it is so polemical, it is so argumentative. Its concern is not with truth but somehow to browbeat you into unbelief. And and so Dawkins for example continually puts up straw men to demolish. His typical religious believer is a nice sort of person but a foolish sort of person who thinks the world is 6000 years old.
[interviewer laughs]
That’s not typical of of religious belief and it it’s just dishonest to pretend that’s the case.
While it is certainly true that Richard Dawkins often mentions the strange beliefs of the people in America's Bible Belt, to the best of my knowledge, Richard Dawkins has never (= not even once), claimed what John Polkinghorne says, that would be utterly foolish. This seems to be a constant in Polkinghorne's discourses. He seems to feel that it is necessary to put up straw men to rubbish Richard Dawkins. I think that this diminishes John Polkinghorne, not Richard Dawkins who is in fact, a lot more friendly in his comments about John Polkinghorne.
During the interview, Mary Hynes and John Polkinghorne talk about a variety of subjects, such as the theory of evolution, music, the physicist Fred Hoyle, Albert Einstein, where he explains that Albert Einstein was deeply impressed by the order in the universe, but that he did not believe in a personal God. He also said that this was logical because Einstein wasn't looking in the right place.
Listening to the rest of the interview, it became increasingly clear that John Polkinghorne's God is nothing more than the God-of-the-Gaps, the God which is used to explain what science cannot explain as of yet. It is most definitely so that current science can, for example, not explain how we perceive music or colour, and it is not impossible that we will never be able to do that, but to say that this is evidence for a God, is going unreasonably far indeed.
Near the end of the interview, however, something very interesting happens:
Interviewer: “What what do you make of this argument that that there really there is no sign that any kind of a God is required when you look at the universe?”
“It depends on what you mean by required. I I If you mean by that, that you really, that that you’re stupid if you don’t see it, if there is a logical necessity to believe in God. I think that’s a mistake. But what I would want to say, is that in my view, theism explains more than atheism can […]
In other words, John Polkinghorne, the once-great mathematician and physicist turned priest, is unable to find evidence for the religion he claims is his. I think this is quite enlightening.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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