Weinberg and Polkinghorne famously sparred in a celebrated debate on the existence of God at the Natural History Museum The showdown was a clash of two titans of science—similarly trained theoretical physicists who, one might think, would hold identical views of the world. How could a world described by mathematical equations be otherwise? But despite their similar education, titles and prestige, they live in two worlds. Weinberg believed that the intellectual pursuit of science supported his atheism, revealing, as he wrote so eloquently at the end of The First Three Minutes, “the more the world seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”1 Polkinghorne believed that science supported belief in a loving, creative God that people could know personally. How could these two similar geniuses look out on the same world and yet see such different realities?
Polkinghorne knew he could hold his own in a debate against Weinberg. What he wanted to communicate was that religion doesn’t tell science what to think, but religion makes science intelligible. Religion gives insight. The physical world of science is where the laws of nature hold, but the physical world is only part of ultimate reality. In the spiritual world is a deeper reality.
“I knew that I knew about these things,” he said, reflecting on the event. “I wasn’t trying to score debating points. I just wanted to be honest. I wanted to be a Christian witness that we don’t have all the answers.” Polkinghorne also knew he need not fear his opponent for, despite Weinberg’s atheism and Polkinghorne’s Christian faith, the two are actually friends.
Polkinghorne had even confided in Weinberg in his Cambridge kitchen when he was about to leave the university for seminary. Weinberg expressed respect for Polkinghorne’s decision, although he would later write that, when Polkinghorne broke the news to him, “I almost fell off my chair.”2
Weinberg, for all his bombast about science demolishing religion, is surprisingly spiritual in private and even in his popular writings. “Every time I am with Steve privately, he wants to talk about God,” Polkinghorne says. “But he also has a public persona and that night he was very dismissive of me. I heard that he even read a newspaper during my remarks.”
Weinberg is known for his scorn for people of faith. “With or without religion,” he wrote, “good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.”3
For years Weinberg has publicly criticized scientists like Polkinghorne who have a Christian faith. Faith, Weinberg believes, has no place in the world of science, or any other world for that matter, and most scientists he knew didn’t think enough about religion to even bother calling themselves atheists.
Aware that the debate about to begin could erupt into rhetorical flames, Polkinghorne found a quiet place backstage to pray. Like the traditional Anglican he has been for his entire life, he recited the prayer he often prays before events like these, taken from the Book of Common Prayer:
“O God, because without you we are not able to please you,
mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts,
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen”
After stating their opposing beliefs and putting up with the surprisingly rowdy audience, the debate ended amicably, with the scientists seated next to one another at a table, fielding questions. Weinberg said that proof of the existence of God could occur right then and there.
“Suddenly in this auditorium a flaming sword may come and strike me for my impiety,” said Weinberg, tongue firmly lodged in cheek, “and then we will know the answer.” Polkinghorne leaned toward him and disagreed, “Actually, we won’t, but that’s by the way.”4
A few minutes later Weinberg returned to the flaming sword image.
“The religious mystery is, well, a mystery of whether any of it is true… because unless the flaming sword descends, unless miracles start happening again in a reproducible way that they haven’t, there will never be any way of being certain about religion.”
Polkinghorne responded “May I just say that, God forbid, if a flaming sword were to come and decapitate Steve before our very eyes, that would pose a very big theological problem.”
Weinberg’s rejoinder could have been prepared by Woody Allen: “Well, it would pose not only a theological problem, but a janitorial problem.”
The audience laughed, as did the combatants.5
The prayer Polkinghorne prayed before the debate was the one he had prayed 20 years earlier, as he prepared for a much smaller audience in his office at Cambridge, the first time he spoke openly about his conflicting vocational commitments to physics and the priesthood. The academic year was ending, and it was time to select two post-doctoral students from outside the university to continue their research.
Polkinghorne’s office was on the first floor of a 100-year-old building that used to house the university’s printing press. The building was tired, its stone façade crumbling. There was nothing quaint or delightfully British about the three-story structure; it was packed into its surroundings like so many of the university’s facilities. The interior was equally bland, with the exception of the contents of one cupboard in a lecture hall. The cupboard held a blackboard with equations preserved for eternity by a clear coat of varnish. The equation had been written years before by a visiting lecturer named Albert Einstein.
The building had spacious rooms, including a tea room large enough to accommodate faculty and graduate students from the research areas housed in the building: Particle Physics, General Relativity and Cosmology, Astrophysics, Fluid Mechanics and Solid Mechanics. Reflecting their natural territoriality, though, scientists from each of these areas sat at different tables in the tea room.
Polkinghorne’s office was large enough for the five colleagues to gather and choose the post-doctoral students to continue at Cambridge. The faculty gathered in his office knew each other well. Two were former students of Polkinghorne’s. They discussed eight candidates, evaluating their strengths and weaknesses, and reached an easy consensus within twenty minutes. After a few moments of silence, the professors gathered their papers and began shuffling their feet, indicating they were ready to be dismissed.
“Before you go,” Polkinghorne said, “I have something to tell you.”
The tiny audience settled back into their chairs.
“I am leaving the university to enter the priesthood. I will be enrolling in seminary next year.”
There was stunned silence in the room for several seconds. Peter Landshoff, a long-time colleague broke the silence: “I did not foresee this, but had I been told that you were going to leave physics, I would have guessed what you would do next.” Another colleague said, “I don’t know what to say, but I am moved by what you’ve told us.” The lone Scotsman in the audience, an atheist, was both wistful and wary: “You don’t know what you’re doing.”