Got news? New “climate” for God & science

mathematicians_bridge_cambridge_largeIn this year of anniversaries and celebrations, dead scientists like Darwin and Galileo are getting their due. Live ones, like the atheist former Oxford don Richard Dawkins, attract media attention pretty much every time he opens his mouth or slings a godforsaken poster on a bus.

But what of the scientists with strong Christian faith currently building bridges, quietly or outspokenly, between the religious and scientific community? We don’t hear much about them, do we?

These men (interesting that reporters don’t seem to dig for faithful women scientists) are the subject of a lengthy and well-written article in a recent Harvard Divinity Bulletin.

There are few hiccups here, but they seem minor when one thinks that the topic is so undercovered.

The reporter starts off in England, exploring the paradox of lively and overt faith in an unlikely place-among scientists.

Riding the train down to London last summer, after a two-week fellowship session on science and religion at the University of Cambridge, I noticed an article in the Independent newspaper about a new book which reinforced that notion of an increasingly irreligious Europe. It is true that outward signs of faith–apart from biblical passages emblazoned on London’s famed red double-decker buses by–are difficult to come by.

But I found deeply felt Christianity alive and well in an unlikely setting: the academy’s scientific community.

The writer goes on to talk about some of the Christian heavy hitters in the fields of cosmology, biology and physics who describe themselves as “evangelicals.” But they are, asserts the author “evangelicals of a particular sort.”

This is typically dangerous territory. Evangelicals in England are often a different sort from American evangelicals. And the writer doesn’t describe what “sort” they are. He compares them (favorably, one assumes) with the “apocalyptic American evangelical tribes of arrogant dominionists or fanciful premillienal dispensationalists of the ‘Left Behind’ stripe.”

Ok, so now we know what they aren’t–and what they reject, like creationism and intelligent design.

But focus of the article is on a hot topic among faithful scientists-climate change. The writer does a lovely job of weaving wonderful quotes from scientists about how their faith does or does not affect their work with examining the impact that their research is having on the debate itself.

There is definitely more than one side to this controversy among conservative Christians. The writer comments that there scientists who believe that there is no such animal as global warming, or that it doesn’t matter because the world might end soon, anyhow. But this view is being debated both in England and in the United States, says the author.

Yet increasingly, the fundamentalist view of climate change is losing force and is being challenged by other scientists who are equally devout in their evangelical beliefs. At Cambridge the renowned reproductive biologist and ethicist Sir Brian Heap, a self-described “open-minded evangelical,” is a leading advocate of addressing climate change. He said he had no difficulty reconciling his personal faith and scientific discovery and advocacy. “When doing my own bench research, it was clear that personal faith influenced decisions about the wisdom of carrying out certain experimentation.” He continued, “The religious foundation comes from the Christian motivation to seek the best for others…for the world we too easily damage.”

I’m not crazy about the use of the word fundamentalist, which becomes an easy tar to brush people who don’t agree with you.

I also wish the author had covered possible interfaces between Christian scientists and activist “green” evangelicals here and in the U.K. He alludes to a relationship between Sir John Houghton and megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, but documenting more such cooperation would make the story even stronger. There’s a political dimension here (the struggle among evangelicals) that definitely needs more coverage. (While we’re on that subject, the topic of what exactly happened to Richard Cizik, formerly of the National Association of Evangelicals is a third rail that he probably would have been advised to stay way from–it weren’t just a fundamentalist revolt.)

I love the quote at the end–it reminds me of the 17th century laments of poets and theologians like John Donne, who saw the two disciplines beginning to separate themselves from each other.

Many believe that ideally science and religion should be inseparable. As Houghton put it, “We are integrated people. Theology was once called the ‘Queen of the sciences.’”

With its flaws, this is still a good beginning. It is news not only that well-known British scientists see no impediment to being believers and researchers both, but that so many are willing to speak out about what has traditionally been considered a deeply private subject. They are British, you know. They’ve got to be feeling pretty passionate about the subject.

Maybe the climate really is changing.

Hat tip: Rod Dreher.

Picture of the Mathematicians Bridge at Cambridge University is from Wikimedia Commons

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  • Dave

    For more than twenty summers I spend an annual week with the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, a gathering of scientists and theologians/ministers exploring the edges of where religion and science come together. I am no longer able to attend but this post makes me strongly nostalgic; I would love to hear what IRAS is saying about climate change!

    This effort has indeed not had enough press. I suppose a good fight gets more ink every time.

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  • Jerry

    Thanks for this story. It’s an area too little covered in the media. In this arena, I’ve enjoyed fun buttons that express this idea for quite a while:

    God is who. Evolution is how.

    God wrote the program, evolution is the output, meteor strikes are the reset button

    And God said: Maxwell’s equations…and then there was light!

    You have to study physics to appreciate the Maxwell’s equations button, but the point is the same in call cases – science studies the universe that God created and what science finds is what God created.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Just yesterday I watched a History Channel production on the origins of the universe and the Big Bang Theory. This theory is now considered the core of our scientific understanding of the origins of the universe.
    Yet how often–in the thousands of articles and stories printed in the media about The Big Bang has it been mentioned that the man who is the originator of this now scientifically validated theory was a Catholic priest, Father Georges LeMaitre.
    And not once have I seen what, to its credit, the History Channel reported, that Pope Pius XII embraced Father LeMaitre’s research and pointed out how it fits in so well with the Genisis account of creation. But Father Lemaitre asked him to back off because of prejudice against believers and their research in the scientific community. A prejudice that would make it harder for his theory to be fairly evaluated. Later Father LeMaitre was made a member of the pontifical Academy of Sciences and elevated to the title of monsignor by Pope John XXIII.
    By the way the phrase BIG BANG was originally used by some in the scientific community to disparage Father LeMaitre’s research and conclusions.
    I don’t usually go to Google because I want to comment on what the average media sees without further research. But a number of the media and/or scientific sites detailing the origins of the universe and the Big Bang Theory mentioned Georges LeMaitre, but no indication was given–including giving him his proper title: Rev. or Father–and that he was a priest, not only in good standing, but receiving the support of popes. Such amnesia (or purposeful censorship) in the media — certainly not the fault of religious people–only helps feed the supposed conflict between science and religion. A conflict that religious people usually get blamed for in the media.

  • Dave

    John, I was a physics major in college in the ’60s and at that time I heard that LeMaitre was a priest — but I’m not sure if it was in a physics or philosopy class!

    Jerry, I’ve seen your button #3 on a T-shirt with Maxwell’s Equations written out.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Dave–as you said in another comment on another topic–a good anecdote (but no cigar). The question is–how much credit has the popular press given to a Catholic priest (supported strongly by popes) for The Big Bang Theory that is frequently, regularly, and constantly mentioned in the media?? Do they give as much credit as slams and bashes for the Galileo (who, with his family, remained devout Catholics) affair. I bet 99% of the general media consuming public who have heard of the 5 centuries old Galileo affair have never heard of Father George LeMaitres and his strong papal support. It seems like it is not Christians who are glued to the Middle Ages or Renaissance when it comes to science history.

  • Dave

    John, I don’t recall any discussion of Darwin’s religious background in the MSM. I don’t think it’s only Catholics being targeted for the memory hole.

    The trial of Galileo has been in the news lately, as far as I recall, because the Church commendably had the courage to bring it up for review and admit the mistake.

  • E.E. Evans

    OK, guys, you aren’t allowed do this again on one of my posts. (grin). I have heard of Fr. LeMaitres (only I think it’s LeMaitre) and I’m NOT a physicist. Let’s just agree that the press often doesn’t give enough credit where credit is due (often for very understandable reasons) and leave it at that?

  • Stoo

    I guess the first thing I’d want to see is some kind of analysis of what proportion of scientists are believers.

  • Dave

    Stoo, I’ve seen such analyses — a long time ago, so I can’t cite them in detail — but the proportion of non-believers is much higher than in the general population. But it’s far from 100%; there is a full spectrum of belief among scientists, it’s just that the distribution has a different mode from the population at large.

    And science is neutral. No scientific theory says “If you believe/disbelieve in a God behind this, you’re doing it wrong.”

  • H. E. Baber

    “These men (interesting that reporters don’t seem to dig for faithful women scientists)…”

    I’m not so sure that reporters aren’t digging. In my profession there are proportionately far fewer women who are Christians than men, and I would suspect that that holds for most other academic disciplines and probably for the professions generally.

    The reason, I suggest, is that most churches are uncongenial to women in the professions, that is, “non-traditional” women, women with careers rather than jobs. In any congregation you will see more, sometimes far more, women than men. But if you look at those women, proportionately fewer will be working outside the home than women in the general population and far fewer will be working full-time at careers rather than jobs.

    Most churches, including liberal ones, are geared up socially for traditional women who don’t have careers. They provide activities for women that are comparable to what traditional women do in the home–cooking, entertaining, child care and the like–and for educated would-be career women opportunities to assume unpaid management positions in volunteer organizations.

    Women who have careers comparable to their male counterparts don’t need, or want, that. Moreover, from my experience in a number of congregations, the extent of sex segregation and the pervasiveness of sex roles is much greater than it is in the world of work and in the social worlds we occupy.

    “Feminist theology,” goddess worship, and such don’t help. Women who are lawyers, financial planners, engineers or academics etc. just aren’t attracted to this kind of nonsense. We do work and live lives similar to those of our male counterparts, have similar interests and goals, and aren’t for the most part attracted by the ewig weiblish or by “difference feminism.”

    Clergy don’t get this or realize the effect it has on church membership. The see churches full of women and think, “Women are no problem. They’ll always come to church. It’s men (and Young People and other traditionally underrepresented groups) we have to work on.” But it is a problem: traditionally it’s been women who brought men, and children, to church. So, when a significant number of women opt out, their families opt out with them.

    Clergy, and journalists who follow religion, don’t notice this because superficially it just looks like an overall decline in church membership. There are still proportionately more women. But if my thesis is correct, the growing proportion of “non-traditional” women in the population that is a significant part of what’s driving the decline in religious participation.

    There’s data in support of this. New one is that lower birthrates precede and, some suggest, may be part of the cause of lower religious participation. Old one is that during the 1950s, when women dropped out of the labor force in the US in great numbers, you got a big boom in religious participation whereas in European countries you didn’t get such a significant drop out rate or such a significant boom.

    It would be tempting to add more but this isn’t the place. I would just urge writers, clergy and committed laypeople who care about the decline in religious participation to take a serious look at this thesis, collect some data, test the thesis and, if it turns out to have merit consider ways in which churches can respond.

  • Stoo

    Well some surveys, and analyses of why the distribution is that way, would be more interesting to me than “hey look SOME scientists believe!”.

  • Stoo

    Oops was responding to Dave there, but some interesting insights from Ms Baber anyway.

  • S. M. Low

    In response to H. E. Barber, the biggest challenge in attracting professional women in my experience is that they try to be traditional women as well. Squeezing in time to be part of the church is a challenge for them. The roles you describe can be shared by men and women in the church as they are in the home. Our best painter of the exterior of the church is the woman who will climb the highest.

    I contend that the real challenge for the church in our time is how to attract and use the gifts of those who are vigorous and retired.

  • H. E. Baber

    S. M. Lowe: Active retirees, male and female, are ideal because they have both experience and the time to devote church work. And I take your point that traditionally male jobs around the church are open to women.

    But if you want younger women, and men, who are working outside the home as well I think you have to look a little deeper. Of course in most congregations I’d suspect there are no official regulations restricting women to certain jobs and men to others–and various roles can be shared by men and women. But de facto this isn’t usually the way it works because even in the absence of official rules there are 1000 incentives and disincentives, traditions, arrangements that perpetuate sex roles. No one is discriminating, no one is at fault–social arrangements like this just tend to perpetuate themselves and mean that women will be induced to occupy some roles and feel uncomfortable in others–and likewise for men.

    I’m not sure that professional women by and large “try” to be traditional women as well. Think of what it looks like from the perspective of a woman who joins a church–and I speak as one who’s moved around and been to lots of churches. If the congregation is a friendly one you’ll be invited to lots of traditional women’s organizations and activities.

    Now in all likelihood you didn’t join this church to make some kind of feminist statement: you want to be involved, be part of the community, and this is the way in. So you join these groups and participate in these activities–not because you’re “trying to be a traditional woman” but because these are the opportunities for involvement that present themselves. Moreover, in many parishes, if you aspire to a leadership role as a woman you have to pay your dues by participating in women’s organizations and occupying leadership roles in them. Again, and I want to stress this, no one is to blame. It isn’t a male conspiracy, isn’t intentional sexism, etc. It is just the social dynamic.

    Finally, the most obvious point: the professional women in the church who are “trying to be traditional women as well” are self-selected. They’re the ones in church. If they were seriously averse to these roles or very uncomfortable with this social dynamic, they probably wouldn’t be in church in the first place.

  • David (in Edinburgh)

    Interesting to see a wee dividing line being laid down between British and American ‘versions’ of evangelicalism. Not seen it done a whole bundle and it’s utterly true, and therefore thoroughly frustrating because the British press haven’t got a clue that this is the case and tar the whole caboodle with the same unhelpful brush.

    On this side of the Atlantic we seem to be dealing with a whole different set of questions a lot of the time, and it’s nice to see these scientists being able (and feeling free) to express that.

  • E.E. Evans

    David, what an interesting point about the British press. I know a bit about British evangelicals because I supervised a British evangelical (female) seminarian. As far as I can make out from chatting with her and her husband (also a minister), British evangelicals tend to be theologically conservative but more liberal on issues like climate change and some social justice issues than some American evangelicals. So it makes sense to me that British scientists could term themselves evangelicals and would be a bit more to the left, also. But what’s intriguing is the possibility of new trans-Atlantic alliances.

    What kind of issues are you dealing with “over there?” And would you keep us up to date?

  • David (from Edinburgh)

    Thanks for the enquiry Elizabeth – not sure how to email you, so I’ll reply via this thread…

    I’m not too sure I can pigeonhole a set of different ‘issues’ at stake, but since I am marrying an American (from South Carolina) in the Autumn, we are regularly running up against these alternative emphases. Plus, the Press here have a tendency to point at some of the wackier end of the American Church and imply that the same is the case here, which emphasises the differences, because it blatantly is not.

    One obviously different ‘issue’ I can give is British Christians’ attitude to the political sphere. In a country where believers constitute only around 10% of the population, the emphasis is much more ‘yeast-like’ – there are Christians of all ilks in all political parties, and there is no assumption whatsoever that one political creed is any more or less ‘Christian’ (and that includes proper capital S socialists, who would be anathema to most American Christians). Knowing lots of Americans, I received loads of emails/messages during the presidential election, urging me to vote this way or that, under the assumption that electing the ‘right’ president will somehow usher in the Kingdom. I think we here are much less messianic in our politics – and maybe much more cynical generally, in a post-colonial way – and certainly there would be no particular difference between an Evangelical position on government and, say, a Liberal one.

    So there’s an example, but as with all these things, I would generalise by saying that there are multi-nuanced differences, and that Britain is a VERY different country in most ways.