Faith in the crucible of the new physics.

A few weeks ago an acquaintance of ours, a theologian, remarked in the course of a stimulating dinner conversation that he considered quantum mechanics the greatest contemporary threat to Christianity. In fact, he said, if some of the results of this theory were really true, his own personal faith would be shattered.

Anyone in the habit of wandering through bookstores may see a spate of books on the “new physics.” Some of them are best sellers and have won prestigious book awards. To name a few: The Tao of Physics, Taking the Quantum Leap, God and the New Physics, and Looking Glass Universe. And there is one by a fine Christian writer, Virginia Stem Owens, called And the Trees Clap Their Hands. A glance at these titles shows that three of them explicitly deal with religious themes. In fact, the whole spectrum is represented from atheism (or close to it) to Zen Buddhism to Christianity. Whatever new physics is, it has theological implications.

It should be understood, however, that there is precious little that is new about the new physics. Most of the ideas are more than a half-century old and are routinely taught to physics students at the college level. Even though the authors of the above books are bursting with excitement and urgency, the new physics has taken a long time to reach the attention of the layperson. That seems surprising, but as molecular biophysicist Harold Morowitz points out, “Really deep concepts seem to take about 50 years to sink into the collective consciousness of the thinking community. So it is that only now are most of us beginning to sense the full impact of certain ideas that have been brewing in physics since the first quarter of this century.”

Besides ...

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