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Last Updated: Friday, 2 December 2005, 10:52 GMT
When science meets God
Robert Winston
By Robert Winston

Graphic of satellite in space
The world today is dominated by science, but faith has not withered away. Robert Winston, respected scientist and committed Jew, examines the relationship between science and religion.

If you look carefully, you might see one of those slim, elongated boxes attached to the front doorpost of one of the houses near you. They appear on houses across the world - wherever Jews have lived.

The box contains a tightly rolled parchment on which a qualified scribe will have written Hebrew letters in special ink.

The text contains a commandment from Deuteronomy to attach a sign to all doorposts of your house. It starts with an affirmation, central to Jewish faith, of the existence of a single God.

The little box is called a mezuzah in Hebrew. My house bears such a box, and when I leave home on a workday morning, my head crammed with the usual worldly thoughts and worries, I occasionally touch it.

Simultaneously, as I am closing my front door, an elderly merchant in Tashkent, some 4,500 miles from where I live, escapes the noon heat. Wearing a white lace cap, he stretches an old, small woollen carpet on the floor in his warehouse. He slips off his sandals and prepares to recite Zuhr, the midday prayers.


At the same time, some 4,000 miles away in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a young woman carefully lays out some tropical fruits and flowers on a burnished metal platter.

Faith has not been overcome by science
She lights some incense sticks at a small brightly coloured box - a box that to our western eyes resembles the top of a clean bird table. She bows briefly, then stands up for a second. She bows once more.

Like me and the merchant, she has, for a few brief moments, given her mind and her body over something that was not physically present. These examples of ritualised behaviour or prayer are repeated many times over in many places and nearly all human cultures.

I am a medical scientist, who has spent his career fascinated with one of our more basic human instincts: the compulsion to reproduce. For some of my scientific colleagues, humans are mere expression of an intricate genetic programme which creates that drive to have babies.

For some scientists, this belief - and I deliberately call it that - has some consolations of religion. It attempts to make sense of every corner of existence and of our place within all that exists.

The most enduring is the idea of a supernatural dimension to our existence
Scientists tend to build a reputation on refuting the theories of those who have gone before. Yet, whatever we hypothesize, observe, measure or record about the natural world, it leaves more unanswered questions.

Though a very superficial view might argue the contrary, science does not give us certainty about ourselves or our origin. Some ideas endured and the most enduring is the idea of a supernatural dimension to our existence. I call it the "Divine Idea".

Hindu blessing in New Delhi
The idea of a divinity unites millions
For some people, the very fact that the "idea of God" has survived is proof enough of God's reality. But it is a simplistic theory; things survive for all sorts of random reasons.

But in any case, this is not an enquiry into the existence of God. My purpose is to tell the story of an idea, how humans approach that idea and how that idea has shaped human life.

It does not matter whether you believe there lurks a real God or gods behind the idea. The idea is real and, as a scientist who studies "real things", I believe it deserves to be examined.

Jacob's story

In the book of Genesis there is an extraordinary, puzzling episode involving Jacob and a silent man who he wrestles all night. The man leaves before dawn so that Jacob never actually sees his face.

Many English translations of the Bible call Jacob's antagonist an angel. Some Jewish sources argue he is Jacob's guardian Angel or saviour. Other suggest it is himself, his own conscience. But perhaps it is God.

Whatever the meaning of Jacob's story, it gives a powerful image for the impulse underlying what I am saying. Virtually all of us at one time or another have wrestled with God.

Muslim praying
Ritualised prayer is found in nearly all human cultures
I think humans have always wrestled with the Divine Idea - an idea that unites and separates, creates and destroys, consoles and terrifies. Throughout human history, it is an idea that seems sometimes to have caused whole populations to rise up and slaughter one another.

It is also a kind of bond, a mode of human expression that links me, a Jew, the merchant in Tashkent and the woman in Cambodia.

All paths to the divine involve a wrestling match. Wherever God is considered, there are radically conflicting ideas. Spirituality on its own could not have been sufficient for human consciousness: we need to formalise our beliefs, to give them structure, to arrive at a frame work for the rules of living.

Religion has endured since the dawn of human consciousness precisely because it encompasses so much of being human. No idea has endured so long, gathered up so many disparate needs and wants and feelings, and inspired so many different paths towards understanding it.

Girl at Science Museum in London
The modern age is dominated by science
In some ways, the wrestling match is typified by the apparent conflict between God and science. This dispute is largely vacuous. They are both essentially two different ways of looking at the natural world, though each gives an important insight into the other.

But we must not confuse religion with God, or technology with science. Religion stands in relationship to God as technology does in relation to science. Both the conduct of religion and the pursuit of technology are capable of leading mankind into evil; but both can prompt great good.

My book is not an exhaustive history of the struggle between science and the divine. I have compressed the story, preferring to focus on some influential religious movements and the more interesting examples from science.

I hope also that a personal account of some of my own struggles with God, and an impression of how I continue to attempt to resolve that conflict, as an averagely rational scientists and a Jew will be of some interest.

The Story of God is broadcast on BBC One on Sunday 4 December at 1900 GMT. The Story of God by Robert Winston is published by Bantam Press.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Dear Winston, To sum up, you basically claim that God only really exists in our imagination to provide us with the basis for reality. It's a fair comment, but seeing it all from a logical point of view your argument fails, as below. Using normal common sense I cannot even fathom the odds of how from the big bang (perhaps 'Big Joke'), could produce "everything" so complex and intricately interlaced. Human knowledge still cannot fathom the deepest scientific mysteries, then what about the many paranormal happening (life in other dimensions perhaps?). There's all the proof of intelligent design that you need, so logically I'll lay odds of almost infinity that God exists.
Brad, Lincoln

Thanks, Robert, for your great comments. I'd like to add that religion (not necessarily a belief in a God or gods) also provides for many and maybe most people a cherished hope in a life after death. It is hard for most of us to think of ourselves just going away when we die; without memory, or any possibilty for being ourselves as we now know ourselves. And of course, it's at least equally hard to think of never seeing, speaking to, or touching one's deceased loved ones...
Bryn Lane, Seattle, USA

Prof Winston is misrepresenting the thoughts of scientists like myself who choose to reject religion. He tries to claim that our way of thinking represents a type of "belief". It does not... it's specifically a lack of belief. He'd do well to remember that "not believing that God exists" is not equivalent to "believing that God does not exist".
Chris, Oxford, UK

From primitive beginnings around the world to the present day the understanding of why we worship God or it is becoming more apparent. We are God or it. We created God or it. We are that entity. We, as a whole will attempt to spread ourselves and our beliefs beyond the boundaries of this Earth, which has also become God or it, to wherever God or it takes us so we may create an even bigger God - soul or IT - information technology.
Bill Lucas, Canada

Quite interesting and somewhat diplomatic, as you tread a fine line discussing the relationship of religion and science- As Galilao discovered to his disadvantage! I am very much looking forward to the programme.
Aaron Noone, Hulme, Manchester, England

As a moderate practicing British Muslim I agree with Robert there is no conflict between science and religion. In my own experience Science discovers the rules God makes and can make use of these rules. Inevitably science has only discovered some of the rules and god may decide to change these rules. One prediction from the Muslim tradition is that the Sun will rise one day from the West instead of the East. This may seem barmy to common wisdom but science has proven other planets already change direction for a short period of time. Religion gives man peace of mind and a destination after this temporary earthly life.
A Rana, London, UK

I do not believe in religion. The one thing that separates me from the religious is the idea of "faith". I have no faith in a specific God, but I do have faith in myself, and if we are to follow Buddha, I'm therefore close to Godliness. God is used better as a metaphor for all occasions in life than as a real entity responsible for our being. I believe humans need a figure-head in order to cast a watchful eye on our actions, or as someone for whom we act in certain situations. Personally I believe humans are far more capable of good and evil than any God or Devil can represent, therefore I choose not to believe in either, but instead in our propensity to abide by our nature.
Darren Stevens, Rushden, Northants

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