One scientist’s faith

This review appeared in Physics World the Journal of the Institute of Physics – April Issue

It is not in the public web section and is re-posted by permission, with one correction* made by permission,

Since quitting theoretical particle physics in 1979 to train as an Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne has made something of a cottage industry out of writing about science and religion. Indeed, in 2002 he received a prize then worth £700,000 from the Templeton Foundation “for progress towards research or discoveries about spiritual realities”.

His latest offering, Questions of Truth, is a compilation of over 50 responses to queries he has received from readers and critics over the past few years. Written with longtime collaborator Nicholas Beale, the book is a curious mixture. Many of the questions clearly come from sceptics, who wonder how the authors can reconcile their Christian beliefs with what scientists know about the physical world. The chief concern of more religious-minded writers, in contrast, seems to be finding out what science has to say about morality and the reasons (if any) for the universe’s existence.

These two groups of readers – and all the variations in between – clearly want very different things, and Polkinghorne and Beale deserve credit for handling their diverse correspondents in a remarkably even-handed way. Many of the questions do, however, assume considerable prior knowledge of either Christian doctrine or philosophy – one, for example, begins with the daunting phrase “I wonder what Polkinghorne thinks of the Euthyphro dilemma?” – and this may limit the book’s appeal to novices.

On the other hand, lengthy appendices on the anthropic principle, the mind/body relationship and evolution contain lucid explanations of how these ideas relate to Christianity, and some scientific-minded readers may wish to start here. As for the rest, Questions of Truth at least offers some insight into the concerns of both sides – a valuable lesson for anyone wishing to wade into the science and religion debate.

* The original review said “a Catholic priest”.

“a refreshing contrast to the polemic and misinformation that have characterized much of the writing in this area” William Phillips

“Richly nuanced responses … simply a fantastic resource” Francis Collins

“Wonderfully accessible, informative and authoritative.” Alister McGrath

“an important contribution” Martin Nowak

“this matters to every man and every woman” Onora O’Neill

“of universal interest. Many readers will welcome this accessible format” Publishers Weekly

“antidote to Richard Dawkins … intriguing … a thought-provoking work” Library Journal

“deals eloquently with many of the issues…in the science-religion debate.” Times H. E.

“commendably clear…those who would most benefit from reading it are… atheists who believe that the religious are manifestly irrational” FT.

“remarkably even-handed …lucid explanations … a valuable lesson” Physics World

“rich…digestible..intriguing” Church Times

“evokes the shimmering beauty of a stained glass window … will repay rereading and rereading” Living Church.

One Erratum has been found in Appendix A – see here.

The new Polkinghorne Q&A website is now here.