Friday, March 13, 2009

Science and Faith

Is it possible to simultaneously believe in God and Science?

This week, with the lifting of the ban on federally-funded stem-cell research, we have seen much in the news about the proper relationship between science and faith. It is an ongoing debate that comes to the fore often and is generally portrayed in the media as a black-and-white issue: either you believe in God or you believe in Science.

Meanwhile, many of us believe in both.

I have been writing in this blog about how scientific investigations of complex systems have helped me in my personal life, indeed in my spiritual life, particularly at times of great turmoil and transition. I believe that Science can provide a window to the divine.

Science, after all, is a set of tools for learning about and understanding the universe, all of creation. Science extends our eyes and ears and other senses so that we can observe this glorious universe at length scales and time scales that were not available to ancient peoples.

And it is glorious. I, for one, feel a sense of reverence for creation when I see photos beamed back to us from the Hubble telescope. Far from making me feel small and insignificant, these photos remind me how wondrous this universe is that I am privileged to be a part of.

This is why my blog sidebar displays one of these Hubble photographs, a famous one showing the birth of stars in a nebula. I have added my own title, "The Creation," because that is precisely what this photo shows.

Just think about that: we are privileged, in our time in history, to be witness to the creation of stars. I can think of nothing more awe-inspiring than that.

Some eagle-eyed blog readers noticed earlier this week that my blogger profile changed slightly to include the fact that, in addition to being a writer and scientist, I am the Abbess of the Urban Abbey. While this change in profile was more due to me finally figuring out how to combine two different blogger accounts (!) than it was due to a desire to hide this fact from anybody, I admit I didn't go out of my way to advertise it.

And the reason is simple: many people assume that a scientist who is also a Christian is a Creationist, believes in Intelligent Design, and is out to subvert the practice of science.

This is simply not true - for me, or for the many PhD-level scientists I am privileged to know through my church. I am a member of the Episcopal Church, which our Abbey is associated with. Our leader, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, is a scientist. She is also, of course, a priest and bishop.

Shortly after her selection and installation as Presiding Bishop, Rev. Jefferts Schori sat for an interview with Time magazine that, while short, is a forceful statement about the proper relationship between science and religion.

A blogger friend, Anne Minard, in a thoughtful post in early February, posted a link to a teaching document of the Episcopal Church on the proper understanding of creation and evolution. As this document makes clear, we do not believe the Bible is a "divinely-inspired scientific textbook." These are the words of physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne who has written widely about the relationship between science and faith.

I commend this document to you for its thoughtful handling of the subject of evolution. I need to be clear: it is totally possible to believe in God and accept our current scientific understanding of the creation and evolution of the universe and life on earth as long as we don't insist on a literal interpretation of scripture. Those who insist on a literal reading of scripture end up with tortured and convoluted explanations that conflict with known scientific facts.

This drives people from the Church. While it might not drive people away from God, it communicates the message that religious leaders are non-thinking, anti-science crusaders who are more interested in being right than in caring for the earth and its people.

I am personally more interesed in exploring questions that affect our personal lives, than continuing a tedious argument about evolution. A lot has been written on this topic and while I am grateful to my colleagues for their thorough treatment of the controversy, I don't believe that people seeking to know how God might be working in their lives are served by a continuous rehashing of the topic.

So, that is why you will not see much more from me on the evolution-creationism controversy. I am much more interested in people and how people sense the divine in their lives. And, on that topic, Science has much to offer you.


  1. Hey, great post. I love the middle of this debate -- so peaceful here (like the eye of a hurricane)!
    I think a lot of the science divide is fueled by a lack of understanding (and therefore a fear) of science. We science geek writer types have a job, I think, in showing people how cool science is and how it can inform/enhance our lives.
    Emergence, huh? Can't wait!

  2. Interesting post, the creation of the Earth and the Universe as a whole is very complex, and there is much to learn about it. You mentioned, lifting of the ban on federally-funded stem-cell research." I believe it's a bit misleading, first of all, the ban was about embryonic stem cells from humans. Stem cell research consists of more than embryonic stem cells, adult stem cell research was the science break through for 2008.

    About 70 or more treatments were developed which not all were successful but most were in treatments. While progress has been very impressive in adult stem cell research, it still has a ways to go, and Obama's other order was to lift the mandate on funding for this research (adult stem cells), which might hinder the progress. I suspect it was meant for the purpose of shifting focus on the adult stem cells to embryonic stem cells.

    James Thompson, the stem cell pioneer from the University of Wisconsin said, "Already these reprogrammed cells have eclipsed the value of those harvested from embryos."

    And one more thing, Christians who believe in creationism, do believe in science as well because it's representation of a structured discipline based on a systematic examination for the purpose of obtaining knowledge. This doesn't mean, it's an endorsement of evolution.

  3. Anne - thank you for your comments as well as for writing a very nice post earlier this year that stimulated my thinking and led to this post.

    Michael - thank you, also, for your comments. This post was not about stem-cell research and I don't have much to offer about that controversy. I disagree that my summary statement was misleading - the executive order lifted a ban that was about federal funding of stem cell research, which is all I said.

    I think we may have to agree to disagree on creationism, but thank you for taking the time to comment and voice your opinion.

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