“One social scientist interviewed, called “Joel,” said “in a discouraged tone that “the main battle you find in academia is simply getting people to take [religious questions like] the question of whether there might be a God or not, seriously.”
I am a devoted religious-scientist.
I’m not religious in the formal sense of the word – I don’t adhere to a particular denomination and I don’t value external religious experience over the internal construct of the heart/mind/soul/spirit/whatever (which, despite thought-provoking attempts to convince me otherwise, I still believe exists. If you want my reasons for that, let’s talk one-on-one).
But I am a devoted Christian – I believe in the centrality and necessity of Jesus Christ, I believe in original sin and the need for God’s grace. I believe in listening to what God says, taking it seriously, and working out my faith with “fear and trembling.” I trust that He is an active, present, working authority figure in my life. That He is the supreme form of truth, and the only means of salvation. In the eyes of the world, that makes me religious. Possibly even dogmatic.
On the other hand, I am a scientist. I love and appreciate the contribution of scientific findings, even inaccurate ones, to our understanding of human beings, human nature, and the human condition. I think that empirical study is the coolest thing since the invention of the wheel, and I believe that stats are creative and fun. I love investigations of the natural world from a rational, objective viewpoint (although no science, in truth, is ever objective) and I value peer-reviewed publications, rigorously tested theories, and comprehensive knowledge.
Seem like a contradiction? You wouldn’t be the first to think that.
Now, this post is not meant to add to the thunderously roaring debate of “Science vs. Religion.” It is not because I am scared of such a debate, but because I do not always believe that he who can shout the loudest on the internet is right. The post is simply meant to explain myself to those who would think me a mismatch of inconsistent values, and to encourage those who feel the same conflict to conform to one principle or the other. Thus, this post is, in a way, a “coming out” experience in an extreme culture that purports to value separation between “religious stuff” and “sciencey things” but no idea what to do with someone who sees the value of both.
This cultural tension is especially relevant to me as a social scientist, because the constructs I study are supposed to tell me something about how human beings work. In chemistry or biology (the “natural sciences” as it were), it is possible to largely ignore the presence of religious thought or dismiss it from the conversation entirely because religious belief only has indirect relevance. But the social sciences demand that the lines between these two ideas must often (and quite naturally) blur themselves – both psychological and religious values apply to and influence how people live their lives. It cannot be truly ignored. The question becomes, then, how do I (how can I) navigate both worlds?
First of all, I know I am not alone. One particular study by Elaine Eckland estimates that nearly 50% of scientists in top American research universities do hold a religious belief system of some sort, which is similar to numbers that I’ve heard echoed in other places. This knowledge that I’m not alone in my ideas is encouraging, if not downright helpful. It reminds me that it’s good to be where I am, and that I don’t have to work in a Bible camp to be a good Christian, nor do I have to embrace a mechanistic worldview in order to be a good scientist. People who believe in some sort of higher power consistently do excellent scientific work, and that alone provides some sort of prima facie justification for my dual roles.
Second, I believe that science and religion are not necessarily, or even remotely, contradictory. I won’t get into my empirical justification for that here (perhaps that will be another post), but I will say that I’ve interacted with many scientists who let suspicion and misunderstanding guide their interactions with “the opposing side.” What I mean by that is this: Scientists, willfully or no, misunderstand religious thought. They attribute a belief in God to a “magic” superstition that comes from a delusional need for control and order in the external world (in fact, this attitude persists even in the face of interactions with intellectually capable religious people, which I find rather disturbing). All they see are the rules and regulations within religion, and they cannot look past those to understand the religious philosophy.
In reality, many religious people (I can especially speak about Christians, since that is the belief group I’ve had the most interaction with), have thoroughly examined and thought about their beliefs, the existence of God, and their compatibility with current scientific thought. We have legitimate reasons for believing what we believe – that God created a natural world in which there are rules and can sometimes intervene to break those rules. If science as a discipline would allow dialogue between religious scientists and unbelievers, instead of being openly hostile to or hushing religious belief, it could benefit from a true understanding of the nature of religious thought.
If a dialogue were to happen, unbelieving scientists may be surprised to find that our views are not always incompatible with science. Take determinism, for example. While I myself am not a determinist, many current determinists are unaware that some readings of the Bible do allow room for a soft deterministic interpretation of freewill (especially if you subscribe to the influential Calvinist doctrine, a theory that God essentially determines the circumstances of human beings, who are nearly powerless to control life events or their responses to them). But instead of truly taking the time to examine whether a religious position allows for scientific knowledge, scientists presume an understanding of religious beliefs that leads them to dismiss religion offhand. Whether this is because they desire permission to live free of religious obligations or they are truly in the dark I cannot say. All I know is that this potentially misunderstanding is inherently a level of intolerance that parallels and even trumps the potential intolerance of religion. It is the direct result of a false assumption (usually in addition to the false assumption of the supremacy of scientific knowledge, which we will talk about at a later date), and violates the moral obligation of a scientist to be open-minded about the world. But what about those who came from a religious background? Even with direct, but bad or apathetic religious experience, there is no reason to infer that these experiences apply to all religious truth. This would be a type of inductive logic that leads fundamental double standard as it looks for presupposed contradictions that do not exist. Bad science is the result.
I am not saying that religious people are faultless. Indeed, many religious people willfully misunderstand scientific work and rush to misapply empirical results. They resort to pointless, legalistic and circular arguments to defend their faith (“You’re going against what God wants!” “I can’t believe you would even talk about this sinful piece of crap!” “You will burn in hell!”) because they are terribly uneducated about the culture of science. God may be good, but his people are not always so, and unfortunately the loudest voices are often the least informed ones. But for myself, my views as a religious scientist seek to understand both perspectives and integrate them. I have good friends who are determinists, and I try to understand their views even though I myself am not a determinist. I have friends who are Calvinists, and though I’m not a Calvinist, I would gladly discuss Calvinism with a scientist because it is a corollary of determinism. I see the road from one to the other, and my role as a religious-scientist is to sweep it clean so others can see it too.
Don’t think that the above statement was my way of saying that I somehow have the ability to objectively view the world. I acknowledge that what I have is a world view where science and religion are compatible, and that worldview influences the way I process aspects of both. Indeed, I believe that both “science only” and “religion only” adherents have their own religious world views, and these influence the way they interpret the information they see. They both make presumptions and interpret information from a specific perspective. But much like any other confounding variable, those presumptions need to be acknowledged. Once they are, it should be clear that it is possible to understand how both science and sacred can work in tandem to divulge knowledge about the world to a human of limited understanding. Anything less is the view of a dogmatist.
Well, there you have it. I’m out. But this post is already too long, and there are finals to be studied for, so these are but the beginning of my thoughts on this subject. I will leave you with an exhortation think through these things and discuss them with me or another religious scientist, because we have some understanding of what it means to live in both worlds. We can make a valuable contribution to both scientific and theological thought. After all:
“To work toward dialogue, nonbelieving scientists would need to understand that while over 50 percent of scientists do not have a religious tradition, nearly 50 percent do. There are believers in their midst. But the scientists who renounced or never embraced faith might also have a difficult time understanding the perspective of their religious colleagues. If there is a way to foster dialogue, scientists without faith might view scientists with faith as allies in better translating science to the general public.” – Eckland
Don’t count us out.