Few debates generate more heat and less light than those that take place between science and religion. TIM WATKIN talks to two men who think there is no argument.
The relationship between religion and science has often been presented as a choice, you might say, between two apples: Adam's or Newton's. It's either creation or evolution, faith or observation, design or chance.
But a symposium at Auckland University today, titled simply Science and Christianity, suggests another approach. It honours two of this country's leading Christian academics - theologian the Rev Dr Harold Turner and scientist Professor John Morton - who believe that both Adam and Isaac were holding the same apple.
In the university's MacLauren chapel, the conversation between Dr Turner, aged 90, and Professor Morton, 77, tended towards hearing aids and falls their wives have had. Don't entertain any thoughts about doddery old men, however. Mentally, they run sub-four-minute miles.
The idea that science and religion are combatants, or even divided explorers - friendly but separate - doesn't wash with them.
"The universe isn't like that. It's one uni-verse," said Dr Turner. The sum total of human learning and insight did not, and could not, lead to either the realm of science or of religion.
"No, we end up in the realm of truth, which is a word that is hardly ever used now in our culture, and some people, when they do use it, put it in quotes. So-called 'truths.' Yet it's the only thing that matters," he said.
Professor Morton nodded. "I'd go along totally with that. It's the unity we're looking for ... science and religion blended produce one unity."
Such insistence that science and religion are meshed puts the pair at odds with thinkers such as Stephen Jay Gould. In his latest book, Rocks of Ages, Gould described science and religion as two pictures, side by side in a gallery, "different canvasses, each circumscribed by a sturdy frame.
"I do not see how science and religion could be unified, or even synthesised, under any common scheme of explanation or analysis; but I also do not understand why the two enterprises should experience any conflict," he wrote.
"Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings and values."
In other words they are two separate apples - one relying on reason and testable hypotheses, while the other, no matter how much you study and test it, ultimately requires a statement of faith.
Turner disagrees. "It's a cop-out," he said. "This disjunction between faith and reason is quite wrong.
"I'm saying that there's a whole lot of different rational processes. Faith is the appropriate process to deal rationally with the revelation of God. The appropriate rational process for dealing with rocks is quite different. You won't get anywhere with rocks if you start praying. And you won't get anywhere with God if you start knocking around with a hammer.
"Gould's division is just old-fashioned Greek dualism. I'm saying the universe is a unity, our minds are one mind, everything is interlocked with everything else."
The men's contribution to the tradition of Christian thought in New Zealand - indeed in the world, such is their status - will be outlined this morning by John Stenhouse, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Otago. "They have carried out their Christian scholarship confident ... that, in finding out about the workings of of the world and its creatures, they are obeying the great commandment to love God with mind and heart," said Dr Stenhouse.
Dr Turner has spent much of his career overseas, teaching and building theology courses in West Africa, Britain and the United States. Professor Morton, on the other hand, has had a career as a marine biologist and was the University of Auckland's first Professor of Zoology.
Dr Stenhouse said these were just two of New Zealand's many renowned thinkers who had been marginalised by a repressive state and a distinctively New Zealand desire not to rock the boat.
"Fairly early on, at least mainstream New Zealand decided we'd talk about the weather or the rugby as a way of helping us cope here and get along. But it's had the effect of blinding us to the reality of the diverse traditions that have always existed in this culture."
He told the Weekend Herald, "Turner and Morton are the kinds of people who give the lie to the argument popularised by people like Lloyd Geering and Keith Sinclair that this society is secular and has always been."
Certainly Professor Morton has always looked outside the secular society of scientists, arguing that faith comes first and study follows. He quoted St Anselm: Credo ut intelligam - I believe in order that I may understand.
Dr Neil Broom, an engineer turned biologist, remembers Professor Morton's "10 beautifully presented lectures on evolution" that he attended as a student. Professor Morton then offered an optional lecture - not part of the formal course. "In this lecture he gave the class a glimpse of the vaster horizon that lay beyond the raw science of the preceding 10 lectures."
Those speakers at today's symposium are all scientists and they have a common concern - that science too often claims to be the exclusive and irrefutable path to truth and is bound by the commandment "thou shalt think only materialistically."
Turner said: "There has been a stream in our culture of belief in science as the ultimate and only true form of knowledge, which can tell us anything in the end if we just spend enough on research. But you would call that scientism - it's an ism - and a decent scientist wouldn't hold to that. He'd be too humble."
One such humble scientist is geneticist and author Colin Tudge. Writing in the New Statesman recently, he held that "science is not an edifice of truth, built stone by stone. It is a landscape painting, never finished ... We can be certain at any one time only that there is more to know."
Dr Broom argued for the value of both traditions, saying that while science had unearthed the building blocks of life and its laws, it told us little about how life was shaped and why it was in the shape it is.
To build a stately mansion, he said, no one would order a construction of silicate pyramids, even though they were the molecules that made up clay particles, which, in turn, formed the substance that was made into bricks. Evolutionary steps were required before silicate pyramids could become a mansion.
Science could tell us the material laws crucial to construction, but the question it failed to answer was how those silicate pyramids, by themselves, came to take the form of a stately mansion. Religion supplied an answer in the form of a divine architectural plan.
"What is required is a conscious agent willing that plan to be realised."
Dr Broom said Darwinism actually pointed to the presence of that agent.
"Natural selection, far from being merely an immoral force, as inevitable and uncaring as gravity, is intensely purposeful and goal-centred and is strongly suggestive of a transcendent dimension."
Evolution has been the most public battlefield on which science and religion have fought ever since Darwin returned from the Galapagos Islands.
While the symposium deals with more underlying issues, Dr Robert Mann, formerly environmental studies senior lecturer at Auckland University, has tipped his hat to the argument, making the point that "to admit evolution as a fact is not to deny creation but only to say that it has been more or less continuous."
But the debate goes deeper, beyond questions of what happened to questions of why.
"The Big Bang and the subsequent workings of the laws of chemistry and physics - a dazzling set of efficient causes of the world we now live in - hardly begin to explain why organisms came into existence, or why they so marvellously cooperate in ecology," said Dr Mann.
The clear message is that science and religion are entirely compatible: they are teammates in a three-legged race rather than competitors in a marathon.
Indeed, Dr Turner, in contrast to those who argue that the Genesis story and science are poles apart, takes the radical stance that the Hebrew world-view laid the ground in which science took root. It's an extreme departure from the widely accepted view that science was a gift from the Greeks first and foremost.
But the Greeks, he said, held too many things sacred for science to flourish. "If there are spirits in animated things you can't approach them scientifically, put them on a lab bench and pour hydrochloric acid on them. They're sacred."
Conversely, Hebrew culture drew a distinction between the creator God and creation. While acknowledging the Greeks' laws and philosophies, Arabic numbers and the many other fertilisers that made the growth of science possible, Dr Turner said the Hebrew world-view, as spread through Judeo-Christian religion, was "the greatest cultural revolution in the whole of human history.
"With this new natural philosophy the world was cleared of gods and spirits, and declared to be the good creation of the one rational God; the foundations had been laid for the study of the universe that we know as science."
One truth that the careers of Professor Morton and Dr Turner, and many like them, has laid bare was summed up in Tudge's essay: "Non-scientists who fear that God's mystery has been forever compromised need have no fears; in the end, there is always mystery.
"Those who suggest that it is blasphemous to probe God's intentions are themselves guilty of blasphemy. God is not a conjurer, whose tricks seem tawdry when exposed. The more you see, the more wondrous it all becomes."
* Science and Christianity symposium, 9 am to 5 pm, Maidment Theatre, Auckland University, today.