Home » Library » Science and the Sacred » Science and a Sense of the Sacred

Science and a Sense of the Sacred

Though science and religion may have had a thorny history, nevertheless science has retained a sense of the sacred, seen in the work of many modern scientists such as Einstein, David Bohm, Wolfgang Pauli and Erwin Schrödinger. The life of each individual scientist generally begins with some key event in childhood—gazing at the night sky, observing the myriad teeming life in a field, asking how a radio works, or looking at an illustration in a book of popular science. Many of us may have heard of Einstein’s fascination with the fact that a compass needle always points north, and of his childhood game of imagining what would happen if he could catch up with a ray of light.

Science has its origins in wonder and awe, even reverence, in the face of the natural world. It begins with a question that leads to a sense of mystery and to the determination to seek truth no matter where it leads. When described in this way it would be difficult to distinguish the heart of a true scientist from that of a religious person. Indeed Einstein makes this explicit in his statement, ‘To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself to us as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the centre of all true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the ranks of devoutly religious men.’ (Albert Einstein, ‘Strange is Our Situation Here on Earth,’ in Modern Religious Thought, edited by Jaros Pelikan, Boston, 1990.)

Nevertheless, in the West at least, there have been historic tensions between religion and science. These are often highlighted by such examples such as the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo and continue today in areas that include genetic manipulation, termination of life, designer babies, weapons of mass destruction, interpretations of the religious significance of the Big Bang or of evolution, the extension of life, and the augmentation of human beings by artificial devices.

What is ‘Science’?

But maybe we should begin this discussion with that word ‘science’ itself, which is generally taken as being synonymous with a methodological approach that began in Europe during the sixteenth century and now extends across the globe where it is practised in universities, institutions, and technical corporations. Yet, if by science we mean the rational and disciplined organisation of knowledge, other traditions can also lay claim to possessing a ‘science.’ A science consists of a series of explanations for phenomena, with emphasis on careful observation, the use of instruments, and the classification of reproducible results.

While the West may employ such instruments as the radio telescope and electron microscope, in the East it may be the mind and the discipline of meditation. Likewise many Native American groups would claim to have a science—of medicine and the understanding of the natural world—that is based on a coherent worldview supported by careful observation. For their part some Muslim scholars claim that there is a particular ethical and methodical approach to the natural world that could be characterised as ‘Islamic science.’ (Ziauddin Sardar, Explorations in Islamic Science, Mansell, London 1989.) Indeed, the seeds of much of what we call science today had their roots in that fertile period where Arab scholars worked side by side with Jews and Christians in Andalusian Spain and brought with them knowledge of algebra, astronomy, medicine, and botany.

If the term ‘science’ is to be restricted to one historical strand alone then it is to deny the validity of the knowledge systems of other cultures and civilisations, cultures in which there may or may not have been a sharp distinction between what is called science and what is called religion.

Even within the European tradition the conventional methodology of the natural sciences has been criticised as being over-restrictive. While Francis Bacon suggested that nature, as woman, should not be trusted but must be placed on the rack in order to extract her secrets, Wolfgang Goethe countered that scientific experiments always seek to place nature in artificial situations. Rather we should consider the activity of science as involving our dialogue with the natural world and should attempt, in that dialogue, to discover ‘the example worth a thousand.’

Indeed, the term ‘science’ has a particularly Anglo-Saxon bias in its usage. Here in Italy where I now live, for example, the ‘scientific committee’ that oversees a journal or conference need not be exclusively composed of physicists, chemists and biologists but would include philosophers, theologians, and others from the liberal arts. In this Italian context, as in France, a ‘scientific’ approach implies the use of rationality, disciplined thought and well organised knowledge, rather than exclusively referring to the physical sciences. 

Instances of Conflict

While we should keep those reservations in mind let us acknowledge, for the purposes of this exploration, the generally accepted but more restricted use of the term ‘science’ to refer to those disciplines taught and practised in universities today. Clearly, while both ‘science’ and ‘religion’ may be happily accommodated within the lives of many individual scientists, at the institutional level tensions exist between the two. Historically the origins of such tensions arose when experimental science was perceived, rightly or wrongly, as challenging the authority of revealed religion. Galileo’s observations of sunspots implied that this heavenly body was not perfect and were rejected by the church as distortions produced by the lenses of his telescope. More serious was Galileo’s espousal of the Copernican theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system.  The condemnation of Galileo for heresy marks the low point in the relationship of the institutions of science and the Catholic religion.

Galileo was followed by Newton who showed that the various phenomena of the natural world could all be explained by three deterministic laws, and by Laplace who claimed that, if he had been present at the moment of creation and observed the initial conditions of each particle, he could then predict every event in the universe to come. But if everything is determined, what room is there for a God? Soon we were to discover that not only was the earth not the centre of the solar system but the solar system itself was no more that an insignificant speck located towards the edge of a galaxy amongst countless other galaxies. Living matter was found to be no different than non-living matter and the workings of our brains were explained in terms of electrochemical processes.

Philosophers such as Nietzsche proclaimed ‘the death of God’ and one school of contemporary neurosciences even holds that consciousness is not more that an epiphenomenon of the brain—a secretion of no greater significance than that of bile from the liver. (See, for example, a discussion of various theories of consciousness in Explaining Consciousness: ‘The Hard Problem,’ edited by Jonathan Shear, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, 2000.) And if consciousness is simply a secretion that is incapable of acting back on the brain to generate our behaviour, then what of free will? And what then does it mean to be human?

God’s Mathematics

Those are the dark points, the areas in which science and religion cease to dialogue together. But, for the moment, let us return to that origin of Western science with Galileo, for it was he who also claimed that the ‘Book of Nature’ (which is God’s book) is written in mathematical symbols. Likewise, for Kepler the underlying archetypes of the cosmos were manifestations of patterns hidden within the Divine Mind. And in the 20th century, astronomer Sir James Jeans claimed that ‘God is a Pure Mathematician.’ Even as far back as the 15th century, Cardinal Cusano (Nicholas of Cusa) in his De docta ignorantia (On Scientific Ignorance, 1440) argued ‘that one could only approach the divine through symbols and mathematical signs.’

Such claims have led to what could perhaps be called a persistent belief system amongst physicists, that the essence of the world is to be found in mathematics and that, in the words of, Eugene Wigner, that this same mathematics is ‘unreasonably effective.’ By this he meant that most mathematics is created for purely abstract and aesthetic reasons yet turns out to fit the world perfectly.

A mathematician such as Roger Penrose claims that when you don’t know which step to take next in solving a mathematical problem, you must do the most beautiful or elegant thing possible, and this will guide you to the truth. Thus, abstract beauty is both a means to an end and an end in itself. Yet why should a branch of mathematics, originally created out of pure abstract beauty and joy like the music of Bach, decades later be found to fit perfectly as the language for some new theory? This remains a mystery that has a numinous or almost religious aroma to it.


As we begin to leave the political institutions of science and those of organised religions behind, and look at the lives of individual scientists, so too we discover the resolutions of the dichotomies between religion and science. Take, for example, Michael Faraday who belonged to a dissenting sect of Christians called Sandamanians. It was his belief that God acts directly and in an unmediated way, and that the unity of God must be reflected in the unity of nature. This firm belief led Faraday to experiments that demonstrated that electricity and magnetism are manifestations of an underlying unity—electromagnetism. In addition, since he could not hold to an indirect ‘action at a distance,’ as did Newton with gravity, he thus proposed the existence of what, in the hands of Maxwell, became the electromagnetic field.

To come closer to our own time, the physicist David Bohm saw in modern physics an expression of the essential wholeness of nature. In particular that wholeness was present in the act of quantum observation when observer and observed are united into an unanalysable whole. Bohm felt that a similar wholeness must be present both in the life of the individual and in society in general. Indeed he saw this wholeness as an integration of the Cosmic (or religious), Social and Individual dimensions of each human being.

Inevitably Bohm was drawn to the Indian teacher, Jiddu Krishnamurti. It is said that at the time of their first meeting, Bohm explained that in quantum theory ‘the observer is the observed’ which echoed Krishnamurti’s ‘the thinker is the thought,’ and so the teacher enthusiastically embraced the physicist. Over many years, Bohm and Krishnamurti continued their dialogue together. For Krishnamurti, something else operated when thought was silent, something that could transform the physical brain. Bohm himself developed a theory of active information, an activity that could transform both raw energy and matter itself. Indeed for Bohm, there was no division between matter and mind, since ‘proto-mind’ had been present from the very beginning of the cosmos. (See D. Bohm Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Ark, Routledge, London, 1983, and D. Bohm and F.D. Peat Science, Order and Creativity, Routledge, London and New York, 2000.) For a time, as is shown in the video tapes and the transcriptions of their discussions, both men explored together with great honesty. Tragically, however, a break occurred between them that was never reconciled.

There is a certain irony in this fracture between Krishnamurti and Bohm, for the latter often pointed to what he termed ‘the breakdown in communication between Bohr and Einstein.’ As younger men, while taking opposing positions on the interpretation of quantum theory, the two men felt deep affection, even love for each other, and engaged in a very active debate about their differences. Yet Bohm remembered a reception given for the ageing Bohr at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies at which Bohr and his students stood at one end of the room and Einstein and his students at the other. The two men had nothing to say to each other. Bohm believed that the failure to communicate lay deep within the way each man used language—and that enfolded within language lay our worldview and even our fixed non-negotiable positions. Was something similar at work, some profound and hitherto hidden division, between Bohm and Krishnamurti or even at the heart of the dialogue between science and religion?

Personally, I do not understand how to interpret the deeper meaning of this break—does it say something about the difficulties in the fundamental level of marriage between matter and spirit and science and religion, or does it remain at the mundane level of personality? All I can say is that until the end of his life, Bohm was deeply troubled and pained by this break. It remained an unresolved and possibly irresolvable question for him.

Yet another 20th century physicist who attempted to transcend the materialistic side of science was Wolfgang Pauli, one of the most exceptional scientists of his generation. Not only did Pauli publish his first scientific paper before leaving school, but at the age of 20 wrote a 200-page encyclopaedia article on the theory of relativity which astounded Einstein for the depth of its understanding and profound physical insight. At the age of 30, following a breakdown brought about by the suicide of his mother, Pauli became deeply interested in the work of Carl Jung and sought a way to reconcile psyche and matter by working simultaneously in the fields of physics and depth psychology.

For Pauli the golden age had been the 17th century when the magical-symbolic and modern quantitative existed side by side. He felt that at the end of this period, ‘spirit’ had departed from matter and, for him, the tragedy of our times was ‘the lack of soul in the modern scientific conception of the world.’ He saw modern physics as being increasingly obsessed with ‘the will to power,’ that is a desire to dominate and control nature. Indeed, he stressed that the true physicists should be like the alchemists of old, and ‘do physics for their own redemption’ and ‘seek the wholeness in nature in order to discover the wholeness in oneself.’

Pauli wholeheartedly pursued his quest for many years and felt that we were at the verge of a new age, that of ‘the resurrection of spirit within matter.’ Yet, as with Bohm, his quest for unification appears to have ended in failure for, after writing with great enthusiasm to Heisenberg, he shortly after sent another letter indicating that he was giving up physics and, to a colleague said that he had given up his dream of unification of psyche, matter and spirit. He was to die soon after.

Sacred Cows

There are a number of other cases in which science and religion can play a significant role in the lives of individual scientists, yet at the same time George Coyne S.J., former director of the Vatican Observatory, warns us against the inherent danger of what he terms ‘Sacred Cows’ (G. Coyne, ‘God’s chance creation,’ The Tablet, August 6, 2005.) Coyne felt it was an error for the Vatican to endorse the Big Bang theory as offering support for the Biblical theory of Creation. Likewise, he condemned the statements of scientists who pronounce that since the creation of the cosmos was no more than the result of a random fluctuation in the quantum vacuum, there is no more need to invoke a Creator. For while it is true that the received truths of religion are subject to critical hermeneutic appraisal, it is equally true that the theories of science are themselves always in flux and cannot and should not be used as ‘proofs’ of the existence of God. To do so is to confuse categories of thought, belief and explanation. In this context, of the creation of the universe, we may be excused for paraphrasing the dictum of Thomas Aquinas, that science is about change (of that which already exists, be it matter or the quantum vacuum state) while religion deals with creation (ex nihilo).

In the same vein, Faraday held that while science cannot provide us with faith, religion could be the guiding force of a scientific life. Louis Pasteur said, ‘The more one attempts to approach God through science the further one distances oneself from Him…there is an insuperable gap between science and metaphysics. Experimental science is essentially positivistic and has nothing to do with the essence of things. Yet the same Pasteur, when asked if he ever prayed, continued to look down his microscope saying, ‘I am praying now.’ Again the essence is on preserving the purity and distinction between what science can say about the world, and the role that religion can play in the life of a person of faith.

In this context it may be useful to remind ourselves of the distinctions that should be made between mythos and logos. Mythos refers to the truths inherent in the world’s myths, stories of origins and religious texts. Mythos gives a society its deepest source of meaning. It connects an individual to the group, a spiritual centre and, in many cases, to the natural world. It produces harmony and unity within a society.

Mythos is often telling us something profound about our human connection to the earth, or about the birth of human consciousness, but its truths are different from those of logos. Logos is concerned with the world of observable and objective fact. Logos resides in the world of science and physical law and is to be interpreted literally. Yet while logostells us about the ‘how’ of things, it does not enter into the ‘why.’ Logos informs us about the physical nature of our bodies, from cell to atom to elementary particle but, to paraphrase Pasteur, it can never tell us about our essential essence. Logos may describe the dynamics of a rainforest, or the structuring of a society, but it can never inform us of our deeper response to the natural world and to our sense of being ‘in the world.’

In the last analysis the tension between science and religion can be a healthy one, for it encourages a debate in which both sides are invited to question their positions. Yet we should never forget that both have their resting place in the sacred, that womb in which both the child- scientist and the mystic are gestated. In 2001, the British Humanist Association organised a conference in London on the theme, ‘Is Nothing Sacred?’ Its speakers were atheists and agnostics who explored a common ground in that, while they were quite happy to reject or even condemn religions, they could not avoid the deep feelings they experienced in the face of nature, life or art—feelings of that which is sacred and inviolate. To read their papers is to see honest people grappling with a deep paradox, that while there is so much they were inclined to reject or ignore in the field of religion, within their own lives they could not escape the fact of the sacred. When human beings are truly honest with themselves, then they must pursue the truth no matter where it takes them. If religion and science are to be genuine, then they too must follow that same path.

The science writer Ken Wilber states: ‘My book Quantum Questions centered on the remarkable fact that virtually every one of the great pioneers of modern physics—men like Einstein, Schrödinger and Heisenberg—were spiritual mystics of one sort or another, an altogether extraordinary situation. The hardest of the sciences, physics, had run smack into the tenderest of religions, mysticism. Why? And what exactly was mysticism, anyway?
So I collected the writings of Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Louis de Broglie, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, Sir Arthur Eddington, and Sir James Jeans. The scientific genius of these men is beyond dispute (all but two were Nobel laureates); what is so amazing, as I said, is that they all shared a profoundly spiritual or mystical worldview, which is perhaps the last thing one would expect from pioneering scientists. Ken Wilber, Quantum Questions, 1984

When I was a boy, a certain prayer we said every day in Hebrew contained the words to love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind…this notion of wholeness—not necessarily directed toward God but as a way of living—had a tremendous impact on me. I also felt a sense of nature being whole very early. I felt internally related to trees, mountains, and stars in a way I wasn’t to all the chaos of the cities. David Bohm interviewed by F. David Peat and John Briggs, originally published in Omni, January 1987

Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe—a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with modest powers must feel humble.  Albert Einstein (Letter to Phyllis Wright, 1936 published in Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children Prometheus Books, 2002)

I shall quite briefly mention here the notorious atheism of science. The theists reproach it for this again and again. Unjustly. A personal God can not be encountered in a world picture that becomes accessible only at the price that everything personal is excluded from it. We know that whenever God is experienced, it is an experience exactly as real as a direct sense impression, as real as one’s own personality. As such He must be missing from the space-time picture. ‘I do not meet with God in space and time,’ so says the honest scientific thinker, and for that reason he is reproached by those in whose catechism it is nevertheless stated: ‘God is Spirit.’ Erwin Schrödinger’s Mind and Matter, Cambridge University Press, 1958

Galileo argued that nature, God’s second book, is written in mathematical letters… Kepler is even more explicit in his work on world harmony; he says: God created the world in accordance with his ideas of creation. These ideas are the pure archetypal forms which Plato termed Ideas, and they can be understood by Man as mathematical constructs. They can be understood by Man, because Man was created in the spiritual image of God. Physics is reflection on the divine Ideas of Creation, therefore physics is divine service. Werner Heisenberg, Tradition in Science, 1981

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859

Lapsing back again into the crudely anthropomorphic language we have already used, we may say that we have already considered with disfavour the possibility of the universe having been planned by a biologist or an engineer; from the intrinsic evidence of his creation, the Great Architect of the Universe now begins to appear as a pure mathematician. Sir James Jeans, The Mysterious Universe, 1930

We all know that there are regions of the human spirit untrammelled by the world of physics. In the mystic sense of the creation around us, in the expression of art, in a yearning towards God, the soul grows upward and finds the fulfilment of something implanted in its nature. The sanction for this development within us, a striving born with our consciousness or an Inner Light proceeding from a greater power than ours. A.S. Eddington, The Nature of Physical World, 1928.

Author bio

F. DAVID PEAT was a quantum physicist, writer, and teacher who founded the Pari Center in 2000. He wrote more than 20 books which have been translated into 24 languages, as well as numerous essays and articles. In 1971-72, he spent a sabbatical year with Roger Penrose and David Bohm, and thereafter his research focused on the foundations of quantum theory and on a non-unitary approach to the quantum measurement problem. Peat continued an active collaboration with Bohm and in 1987 they co-authored the book Science, Order and Creativity. While living in Canada, Peat organized discussion circles between Western scientists and Native American Elders, and while living in London organized a conference between artists and scientists. He has written extensively on the subjects of science, the arts and spirituality. He wrote two books on synchronicity: Synchronicity: The Bridge Between Matter and Mind (1987) and Synchronicity: The Marriage of Matter and Psyche (2014). He was adjunct professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies, a Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science, and a Distinguished Fellow at the University of South Africa. David Peat died in Pari in 2017 and is buried in the village cemetery.