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Friday, April 16, 1999 Published at 15:36 GMT 16:36 UK


Science and religion seek common ground

The Hubble Space Telescope has allowed scientists to peer back in time

By BBC News Online's Kevin Anderson in Washington

Science and religion have historically had an uneasy relationship.

One need look no further than Galileo's confrontation with the church over his advocacy of Copernicus' Sun-centred theory, which ran contrary to the accepted church dogma, to see evidence of the historical antagonism.

But for three days in an effort to foster dialogue, eminent scientists and theologians will discuss questions about the origin of the Universe at a conference in Washington.

Science and religion may provide different answers, but they ask some of the same questions.

To bridge the gap between the two disciplines, the conference focused on three common questions:

  • Did the universe have a beginning?
  • Is the Universe designed?
  • Are we alone?

Cosmic Questions

Humanity has always sought an answer to how the universe began, and long before orbiting telescopes and particle accelerators, religions gave people the answer with stories of creation.

[ image: Joel Primack: New cosmology can trigger social revolution]
Joel Primack: New cosmology can trigger social revolution
In the western world, the Judeo-Christian model of the universe held sway until Copernicus theorised that the Sun, and not the Earth, was the centre of the Solar System.

Historically, new cosmologies have set off not only great change in science but also great changes in society at large, said Joel Primack, a professor of physics at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

The Copernican revolution and the invention of moveable print set in motion the events that led to the Enlightenment, when reason and science were ascendant, he said.

After the Copernican Revolution, cosmology's effect has been largely evolutionary on society, but cosmology is answering key questions about the origin of the Universe in what Professor Primack described as the "Golden Age of Cosmology."

[ image: The Hubble Space Telescope is quickly answering scientists questions]
The Hubble Space Telescope is quickly answering scientists questions
Armed with the observations from the Hubble Space Telescope and other precise satellite-based instruments, cosmologists are "seeing the death of so many theories," he added, meaning that they are quickly eliminating plausible explanations about the origin of the Universe.

With the possible answer in sight, Professor Primack wondered what the broader implications on society would be.

It is because of these broader implications that theology cannot ignore science, said conference speaker Robert Russell.

Dr Russell straddles the perceived divide between science and religion, holding a PhD in astronomy and a Masters of Divinity.

Two worlds?

Both the scientists and the theologians still recognise the divide between the two traditions.

Speaker Owen Gingerich quoted astronomer Georges Lemaitre who said: "Hundreds of professional and amateur scientists actually believe the Bible pretends to teach science. This is a good deal like assuming that there must be authentic religious dogma in the binomial theorem."

But on the edge of human understanding, science begins to sound like religion. Theoretical physics often provides for the existence of phenomena that are as of yet unobservable.

Quoting John Barrow, Mr Gingerich said that science might eventually have a theory so comprehensive that there is no possibility to test it. The only answer is belief.

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