When you ponder the vastness of the universe, the wonder of the natural world, or the mysteries of consciousness, what are you left with?
Are you someone who sees nothing but a material world, the workings of which are just waiting to be discovered by the logical reasoning of science?
Or are you someone who believes there must be a creator, or at least some sort of divine power that gives meaning and purpose to it all?
Some argue that being religious is incompatible with being a scientist — but do they realise the father of the Big Bang theory was actually a Catholic priest, the pioneer of modern genetics was an Augustinian monk, or the decoder of the human genome converted from atheism to Christianity in his 20s?
Scientists these days may be less religious than the average person, but just over half of scientists surveyed in 2009 said they believed in some sort of deity or higher power.
Is the conflict between religion and science as deep as some think? We talk to three scientists about how they reconcile their faith with their work.
Dr Jennifer Wiseman: A Christian astrophysicist
As a child, Jennifer enjoyed late-night stargazing walks with her parents on their Arkansas farm in the US.
“The stars were incredible,” she told Kumi Taguchi on ABC TV’s Compass.
“We had dark, dark skies there. And I think I was always curious at that point as to what was out there and how could I explore it.”
About that time NASA was sending the Voyager spacecraft to the outer planets of the solar system for the first time, and beaming back exotic pictures.
“I thought, you know, I’m going to be a part of that,” Jennifer says.
She now spends her time using telescopes to study how stars and planets are made — and is credited with discovering the comet Wiseman-Skiff in 1987.
But the sense of wonder and curiosity Jennifer felt as a child, as she looked into the vast and magnificent night sky, has never left her.
“There are at least 200 billion stars in our own galaxy, and there are maybe 400 billion galaxies in our observable universe, each one of them with billions of stars,” Jennifer says.
While science is a “wonderful tool for understanding the physical universe”, Jennifer says her religious beliefs give her the answers to the bigger philosophical questions in life — like how mere humans can be significant at all in the context of the universe.
“In Christian faith, our significance is basically given as a gift of love from God, who’s responsible for the universe,” she says.
“I think it’s significant that we as human beings can actually investigate the universe, have a sense of our cosmic history, have a sense of our actual connection to the cosmos, and understand it. To me that’s a gift.
“The fact that we’re having this conversation is incredible, given that you and I both have atoms in our bodies that were forged in stars.
“So, we are physically connected to the universe and I think we have a deeper connection as well.”
Meanwhile, Jennifer sees her scientific work as deepening her faith.
“God’s responsible for everything. So, by studying more of nature you’re … enriching your understanding of God,” she says.
Jennifer suggests the public’s fascination with images of the universe stems from a human desire for meaning.
“They’re awestruck by it just as I am,” she says.
“I think it’s because there’s something in us that wants to know the bigger picture … that there’s something more to our existence than just our survival here on this planet.”
The apparent conflict between science and religion is a relatively recent phenomenon, that’s been “invigorated” by the media’s need for drama, says Jennifer, who directs the program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“Interestingly, I don’t hear much about this conflict idea in my daily work with scientists,” she says.
“When I talk to people I find that most people really realise that there are deeper questions of life that science can’t fully address, and they don’t really see why there should be any conflict.”
While some point to statements in the Bible as evidence Christianity is incompatible with science, Jennifer says the book has to be seen in its historical context.
“You have to look at biblical literature from the perspective of when it was written, the original audiences, the original languages, the original purposes … the message that was meant to be conveyed by it,” she says.
“The Bible’s not a science text.”
The article also profiles a Buddhist and a Muslim. I would pedantically quibble that Buddhism is not a religion is that it does not involve the worship of a God or gods, but that’s minor quibble. It is interesting to see how the sciences fit in with these other worldviews.
Michael Flynn has, as I have mentioned in this space before, done a bang up job of showing that “science” as we think of it today is the natural child of late medieval Latin Christianity. It’s where three vital ingredients came together in a historically unique way that birthed the sciences: 1) belief in a universe that was the creation of Logos who gave that universe a rational order; 2) belief that creatures acted on each other in ways that obeyed that order; and, 3) belief that our minds, made in his image and likeness, could comprehend that order.
All three of these things are faith assumptions and all three are necessary to have in place before the sciences could get going. If you don’t believe the universe makes sense, you are not going to try to understand it. If you think God rules the universe directly and not through his creatures, you will not try to understand the relationship between creatures. And if you think your mind cannot possibly understand the universe, you also won’t try to do science since “trying to understand the universe” is what science is.
I know. I know. But Euclid! Aristotle! Hypatia! Read Flynn.