Science versus Religion

Science vs. Religion 1: reading of this post.

Historically, and currently, there are many acrimonius arguments between advocates of science and advocates of, and for, religious faith. I could discuss rationally the issues around transmission of viruses such as coronavirus, lockdown/social distancing, vaccination; Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin; Intelligent Design, Evolution, The Big Bang – all the standard stuff. I could present an argument against those presented by the most evangelical of atheist scientists Richard Dawkins, but others, such as Alister McGrath and Kathleen Jones, have already done that a lot more eloquently than I ever could. I could quote Albert Einstein:

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

Albert Einstein

I might suggest the movie God’s Not Dead, where a young man presents the arguments to his philosophy class in a dramatic fashion:

Science vs. Religion 2: reading of this post.

But I write here to tell my story, to show how God is found in all things in the ordinary human life, all we have to do is look for Him each and every day in the moments of our lives. For me, there is no conflict between religious faith and faith in science: further than that, not only is there a lack of conflict, for me, there is synergy, each augments the other, as is implied by the quote from Einstein. So, here, I am describing my experiences, my reflections, my story.

Among my earliest memories as a small child – around the age of about five or six – I remember sitting making a mud pie on a reasonably dry summers day, using little pink flowers for the fruit (I was thinking raspberries) and water fetched from the outdoor tap to mix it together. I was distracted by a large lump of dirt that I had picked up and had started to break up to mix into my pie and I started to wonder about the different sizes I could break this piece into. If I broke it again, and again, and kept going, how small could it go? I held a single grain of soil in my hand and looked at it, pondering. Was this it? Or, was this small piece made out of smaller pieces, and if so, were those smaller pieces made out of even smaller pieces? And did it ever stop? Was there a point where it did stop? And if so, how? What were those smallest of all pieces made of? How could it just stop? Then, at the age of thirteen, in third year of high school, my first Chemistry lesson happened. We were learning about atoms and boom! right there, all the lights went on and there were ten questions for every single one the teacher either asked or answered. So began my love affair with Chemistry. To me, Chemistry is full of intrigue and mystery, and it is clever: as a system, it just works beautifully.

I will pull out a few examples to illustrate what I mean. Firstly, carbon, I would argue the single, most amazing element on the periodic table. I do not say that lightly: many of the elements are amazing. Secondly, water; the most incredible compound in the world. It is so ordinary, so ubiquitous that, for those of us fortunate enough to live where there is a ready abundance of clean, usable water, we can almost take it for granted. It is of note that scripture does not. And thirdly, there is hydrogen bonding. Ah me, we do not teach about hydrogen bonding until A level Chemistry (post sixteen) and yet without it, water would be a gas, and DNA would not be able to replicate and…but I said I would pull put only a few examples.

Windows on a building in Cambridge
Science vs. Religion 3: reading of this post.

Let me tie it together to give you the gist of it. Because of the way its atoms are structured, carbon can form four covalent bonds. This means it can form giant, 3D structures such as diamond; it can makes layers of hexagons, a bit like a honeycomb, such as in graphite where the layers are weakly held together, or take one of those layers and you have graphene and we are into the realms of nanotechnology, touch screens and all sorts of modern advances. Because of its four bonds, carbons can join together in rings and chains, and then we are into the whole area of organic chemistry: fuels, plastics, medicines; and biochemistry: proteins, chemical hormones, DNA. There is a phrase in the Start Trek Universe:

Carboniferous life forms.

Meaning living organisms whose tissues are based on the element carbon. It includes us, and life on our planet. All because carbon can form four covalent bonds and therefore has such diversity in the compounds and molecules it can make with other atoms. Sure, silicon can also make four bonds, but its atoms are a bit bigger, and the bonds a bit weaker, so, while silicon has its own special gifts, it is not able to do the same thing.

Water is a small little molecule, H2O, which contains a total of ten electrons. It is smaller than say, oxygen, O2, which has sixteen electrons, or more directly comparable to neon, which also has ten electrons. Consideration of the forces that can hold molecules together in a liquid that depend on the number of electrons (induced dipole dipole interactions) would lead us to expect water to be a gas, not a liquid, as we know it to be. The first liquid hydrocarbon which has only these forces is pentane, which has seventy two electrons, the previous one, butane, has fifty eight electrons and is a gas. If this were the whole story, water would be a gas: imagine the world with no liquid water. And, when water freezes, ice is less dense than liquid water. So what? I hear you ask, probably because my students look blankly at me when I say things like that. Well, solids are normally more dense than liquids because the particles pack more closely together. If this were true for water, ice would sink when it formed and lakes and ponds would freeze from the bottom up. Imagine frozen waterways, where the water got shallower as it froze. What would happen to the water life? And would it ever melt again? Would the heat of the sun be able to penetrate to the depths of the water to melt it? Instead, the lower density of ice means it floats on top of the water and freezes from the top down. It insulates the water beneath it so that the temperature deeper down does not drop below 4oC, and when the surface is warmed by the sun, the ice is able to melt.

Water droplets on a leaf: St. Beunos
Science vs. Religion 4: reading of this post.

Why? Why does water behave in such an unsual way? Hydrogen bonding, number three on my list. Hydrogen bonds are around ten times stronger that the weaker forces I mentioned earlier (induced dipole dipole interactions) and ten times weaker than the covalent bonds that hold atoms together in molecules. In other words, they are strong enough to hold molecules together in a structure, and weak enough to be broken easily. Water makes two hydrogen bonds per molecule which is why they stick together in the liquid. It also explains water’s high surface tension, which gives the shape of water droplets and allows water skaters to walk on water. I am sure it is not the reason Jesus could though!

Hydrogen bonding is what holds the two strands of DNA together in the double helix. What is cool about it is that these bonds are weak enough to be unzipped and the molecule replicated in order to make more DNA, which contains our genetic code, before zipping the double helix back up again. Hydrogen bonds are both strong enough to hold the strands together and weak enough to allow the process for them to be copied.

Part of me now wants to go on about the perfect conditions for the energy from the sun to be enough and not too much to sustain life on our planet, and how incredible the:

…set of fragile coincidences combine to make the pertubation effective but not overly so.

Energy and the Atmosphere A Physical-Chemical Approach; Ian M Campbell

To which perturbation does he refer? I quote:

Were thermodynamic criteria to hold sway without perturbation, then life should not exist itself nor should our atmosphere contain the oxygen to sustain life.

Energy and the Atmosphere A Physical-Chemical Approach; Ian M Campbell

In other words, without the set of fragile coincidences he lays out in great detail (the book quoted is a degree level Chemistry textbook), without these coincident exceptions, the scientific laws of thermodynamics would not allow for life on our planet.

Water Lily, Planatation Gardens, Norwich
Science vs. Religion 5: reading of this post.

I know I need to stop now because there is a real danger of me getting carried away here, and if I lost you with all the Chemistry, I apologise. I really have tried to hold it back enough to illustrate my point, without lecturing you in Chemistry. And here is my point. Chemistry is just too neat, too clever, too perfect to argue with. My experience with the mud pie I now recognise as a numinous experience, a contemplation of infinity, an experience of God. In fact, it was God to whom I was addressing the questions.

God, how small does this go?

How do you create a world? How do you create life and make it work? For me, to learn about Chemistry is to learn about God. There is no conflict, there is no science versus religion. And there are no words to express the reverence and awe I feel when I am contemplating Chemistry.