While Christians are being persecuted in many countries by radical adherents of non-Christian religions, a further danger is presented by militant secularism and the attacks on Christian belief by atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.
The theme of this presentation, "Out of Darkness into Light", echoes the first verses of Genesis: "And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep ... and God said 'Let there be light and there was light'. And God saw the light, that it was good ...".
So with a basic background in science I will investigate areas where science actually supports our Christian beliefs, and how the light shed by science on the mysteries of the universe - and there are many mysteries we still don't understand - does not contradict faith but is complementary to it.
"God of the gaps"
Atheists claim that with advances in science and our growing control over nature, we no longer need a "God of the gaps" to explain what we don't understand, and that a belief in God is for simpletons.
They argue that what we call Creation and attribute to a Divine Creator, all came from a few simple elements which interacted in some kind of primordial soup and, hey presto, after a few billion years we have a complex universe with its millions of galaxies on the one hand, and the intricately complex microscopic structures of living things on the other. There is nothing to marvel about and certainly not any intelligent design at work.
Yet it was belief in God and order in the universe - that everything has a cause (and causality is the basis of science) - which has resulted in the rapid expansion of science and the progress that comes with it.
Even those of us with just a little science education - and by "science" I mean the kind of truth embodied in replicable experiments - realise that no matter how simple the elements were, they cannot have come from nothing at all by themselves. So where did the original hydrogen and helium come from?
Secondly, the idea that a few primitive elements simply evolved randomly into such beautiful physical complexity as the stars and planets and the biological complexity of men and women who are selfaware, requires that either the elements were guided or that the elements had within them some tendency to develop in particular ways.
Probability theory reinforces this second thought. Given the current scientific agreement on the age of the universe at around 14 billion years, there nevertheless hasn't been enough time for the large number of precise changes required by a series of new complicated systems to repeatedly and randomly occur at exactly the right times to succeed.
But we also know from the study of physics that each time we reduce a complex system down to its component parts, when we split molecules down to atoms, and then split the atoms, we find more layers of complexity.
Johannes Kepler discovered three marvellous geometrical laws that describe planetary motion. He wrote: "The chief investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order which has been imposed on it by God and which He revealed to us in the language of mathematics."
Decades later, Newton succeeded in explaining Kepler's laws but he did not explain them by reducing what we observe and experience to something more trivial. On the contrary, he explained them by deriving them from an underlying order that is more general and impressive.
Newton's law of gravity was later explained, in turn, by Einstein, who showed that it followed from a more profound theory of gravity called general relativity. Einstein's theory is but the manifestation of a yet more fundamental theory, which many consider to be superstring theory, which is an attempt to explain all of the particles and fundamental forces of nature in one theory by modelling them as vibrations of tiny supersymmetric strings. This theory has a mathematical structure so sophisticated that it is still not fully understood.
Pope Benedict XVI
In Chapter Four of his most recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI writes: "Nature expresses a design of love and truth. It is prior to us, and it has been given to us by God as the setting for our life. Nature speaks to us of the Creator and His love for humanity ... Nature is at our disposal not as 'a heap of scattered rubbish', but as a gift of the Creator who has given it an inbuilt order, enabling man to draw from it the principles needed in order to till it and keep it.
"But it should be stressed that it is contrary to authentic development to view nature as something more important than the human person. This position leads to attitudes of neo-paganism or pantheism - human salvation cannot come from nature alone, understood in a purely materialistic sense. This having been said, it is also necessary to reject the opposite position which aims at total dominion over nature because the natural environment is no more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure. It is a wondrous work of the Creator containing a 'grammar' which sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation."
Prehistoric man who observed the motion of the stars was dimly aware of this "grammar", and we with our sophisticated electron microscopes are also aware of the "grammar" in the particles of atoms - all resonating with the evidence of a Great Designer. With our microscopes we can also study the biology of living cells, whose complexity rivals the complexity of the stars and galaxies.
Microbiologist Michael Denton says that the gap between the inanimate and the living represents the most dramatic and fundamental gap in nature. The difference between a living cell and the most complex non-biological system such as a crystal or snowflake is a chasm as vast as it is possible to imagine. The complexity of the simplest cell weighing less than a trillionth of a gram is like a miniaturised factory containing thousands of exquisitely designed pieces of intricate molecular machinery made up of 100 thousand million atoms far more complicated than any machine built by man and absolutely without parallel in the non-living inanimate world. What is more, this cell can reproduce itself within a few hours.
Perhaps the best known statement about design in nature comes from the 18th century naturalist and theologian, William Paley, who said that if you found a watch on the ground, you would know that the watch was made by someone, and did not result from the interaction of the wind and soil. But the systems in nature are far more complex than any watch. The human eye is far more complex than any camera - these complexities imply the existence of an intelligent designer.
Sir Alfred North Whitehead, a British philosopher and mathematician who lived from 1861-1947, answered the question about how scientific knowledge could have expanded so quickly: "Modern science has come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God." C.S. Lewis argued similarly: "Men became scientific because they expected law in nature, and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver."
Many physicists have found a Divine beauty in the mathematical principles animating the physical world, what poets have referred to as "the music of the spheres". A great physicist, Hermann Weyl, described mathematical physics as revealing a "flawless harmony that is in conformity with sublime Reason," and Johannes Kepler wrote, "The chief investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order which has been imposed on it by God and which He revealed to us in the language of mathematics. I thank, thee, Lord God our Creator, that thou hast allowed me to see the beauty in the work of creation."
We too can give thanks that the Almighty has brought us out of darkness into the light of our Christian faith.
We live on a privileged planet, tilted the right way, the right distance from the right kind of sun, at the right point in the right kind of galaxy. If gravity were stronger or weaker by one part in 10 to the 40th power - that's a one followed by 40 zeros - life-sustaining stars like our sun could not exist.
If the "Big Bang" had differed in strength by as little as one part in 10 to the 60th power, it would have quickly collapsed back on itself or else expanded too rapidly for stars to form. In either case, life would be impossible.
At the beginning, the ratio of matter to antimatter had to be accurate to one part in 10 billion for the universe to arise.
If the strong nuclear force that binds protons and neutrons together in the atom were stronger or weaker by as little as 5 percent, life would be impossible.
If neutrons were not roughly 1.001 times the mass of protons, all protons would have decayed into neutrons or all neutrons would have decayed into protons. Life would not be possible.
When hydrogen is converted to helium, precisely 0.007 percent of its mass must be transformed into energy. If that value were lowered to 0.006, no transformation could occur and the universe would consist only of hydrogen. If the figure were 0.008, hydrogen would long since have been depleted and, among many other things, there would be no water.
This is the edited text of a talk with the theme, "Out of Darkness into Light", given by Babette Francis on 29 October 2010 to members of Australian Church Women Inc. (ACW), an umbrella organisation of Christian church women's groups throughout Australia that aims to provide opportunities for women from different denominations to worship, study and serve the community together.
ACW promotes ecumenism, peace and service across national boundaries with its "Fellowship of the Least Coin" supporting worthwhile projects and alleviating needs.
Babette Francis is the National and Overseas Coordinator of Endeavour Forum Inc. and has a university background in science.