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Holland Park Press

Two Sides of the Same Coin

4 March 2012 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Arnold Jansen op de Haar

Recently, as part of Jewish Book Week, I went to a discussion about religion and science. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and atheist and mathematician Marcus du Sautoy were the speakers.

The audience included elderly mothers with their sons, beautiful young women, eccentric types and a lot of yarmulkes. Everyone was well dressed and looked like someone who thought things through. Being intellectual and religious; there are simpletons who think these attributes are mutually exclusive.

The host, Jonathan Glaser, informed us straightaway that another discussion was taking place in Oxford that same evening between Richard Dawkins and the archbishop of Canterbury. Suddenly, discussing the interaction between science and religion is all the rage. It must be something in the air.

In London they treated each other with kid gloves. So they agreed that science and religion often cover the same ground, such as questioning infinity. According to the speakers, the difference was whether or not there was a deeper meaning underlying the System. It was amusing that some of the questions from the audience where so spot on that they left the panel speechless.

The thought occurred to me that if this was a top-level debate about religion and science we were completely stuffed, because the discussion was all over the place.

I was in the company of Dr B., a believer who has a Ph.D. in calculations about ‘colliding particles’. This is the best description I can give, because it isn’t my cup of tea. I do know a thing or two about language, though, so halfway through I whispered to Dr B., ‘It sounds as if language is inadequate for religion as well as science.’

Dr B. later remarked that religion and science don’t clash. ‘I’ll explain,’ she said down the pub: ‘nuclear science explains, for example, the process of splitting nuclei, whereas religion deals with not dropping a nuclear bomb.’ I looked a bit puzzled. ‘Science is about how and religion about why,’ she clarified; ‘they are two sides of the same coin.’

Consequently, this week I was thinking about comments I had read, such as this one: ‘How can we progress if people think that all the questions about the universe were answered by a few illiterate fishermen two thousand years ago?’ ‘Because science can progress, but human nature stays the same,’ would be my answer.

I also considered the popular atheist point of view that all wars are caused by religion. ‘The Nazis and the communists didn’t believe in God,’ I muttered to myself.

There was once an atheist who told me: ‘It’s strange that someone like you, who is so well read, still believes in something.’ He looked at me as if I had a contagious disease.

There are religious scientists who have discovered important things, but there are also atheist scientists who have uncovered important facts. This is nothing to get upset about. You wouldn’t think of asking the man running the sandwich shop if he is a Roman Catholic or an atheist.

So why would you believe in God? This reminds me of a question I was asked recently: ‘Why should I read your novel?’ ‘Because it’s interesting,’ I suggested. That wasn’t reason enough for the person asking the question. Later I thought of a better answer: ‘Because it may change your life.’

What’s the status of my own belief in God? I compare it to being at sea in a boat with a malfunctioning navigation system, when it’s good to know that there is a patron saint of seafarers. I’m off to light a candle for a dearly loved person. I’m not sure how it works, but I do hope that it works.

© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press

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