Constructive science and religion dialogues at the University

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“I want to thank God for providing such a wonderful and intriguing world for us to explore.” These were the words of William D. Phillips upon receiving the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics, which he shared with Stanford professor Steven Chu. Phillips, who is a devout Christian, is known for being outspoken about his belief in God. “To many people, this makes me a contradiction — ” he wrote in a personal account, “a serious scientist who seriously believes in God. But to many more people, I am just like them.”

The place for engagement with religious communities

Religion is part-and-parcel of our society. According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, over 70% of U.S adults identify with a religious group. Yet, when it comes to the scientific community, the number appears to be vastly different.

In her book, “Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think,” Rice University professor Elaine Howard Ecklund explained the stark contrast between elite scientists and the rest of the U.S. population in their belief in God. Her research involving 1,647 respondents from 21 elite universities revealed that 34% of the scientists surveyed do not believe in God. This result contrasted an earlier survey, which showed that only 2% of the general U.S. public responded the same way.  

While the tendency for religious individuals to self-select out of participating in scientific enterprise remains unexplained, it highlights the divide between science and religious communities. In the wake of heightened tensions regarding public trust in science during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the religious-political entanglements amid the nation’s recent election, it is important to consider ways to foster more constructive dialogues to better understand various social issues.

“Scientists who are not overtly religious should be interested in this dialogue with the goal of seeking mutual understanding,” said professor of neurobiology William Newsome, director of the Wu Tsai Neuroscience Institute at Stanford University. Newsome, who is a devout Christian, has spoken publicly on numerous occasions about the relationship between his own faith and science

“Science depends on our citizens for financial support and for respect in believing our findings and implementing suggested solutions to societal problems,” he said. “If most religious people come to perceive science as ‘the enemy,’ it will be terrible for science as well as for our society.” 

The conflict narrative between science and religion

According to Newsome, conflicts between science and religion usually arise under two scenarios. First, they occur when scientists elevate their practice to an ideology — arguing that science is the only way to truth. Second, they arise when a narrow interpretation of scripture causes religious communities to reject scientific findings.

“We live within these kinds of composite total cultures,” said Ariel Evan Mayse, Jewish rabbi and assistant professor of religious studies at Stanford. “[To] think that any one domain has a monopoly on truth or on the questions that can guide us is a fundamental act of hubris.” 

Mayse, who teaches Religion, Ecology and Environmental Ethics, explained how questions pertaining to existence, meaning and interrelationship between humans as ethical actors are relevant not only to religious individuals, but also to scientists. He said, “These are questions scientists will have to face, yet very difficult for science to answer alone.” 

Newsome added that “scientists, like every other human being on the planet, must rely on extra-scientific sources of knowledge and wisdom to make judgments about value, meaning and purpose.” For example, he said, “Science cannot answer the question: ‘Is it better to live or to die?’”

While the discussions about religious faith and science are not unique to a particular religion, Christianity has over the course of history received much scrutiny on this regard. Public discourse between science and Christianity is tangled in a complicated past, dating as far back as Galileo and the Catholic church. Questions like whether biblical accounts contradict with scientific explanations, whether science ultimately replaces the need for God or whether religion hinders scientific progress are often brought up to suggest that there is a conflict. Yet, many prominent Christian scientists suggest that their individual experiences are far from what this conflict narrative commonly portrays.

“I was somewhat surprised when I first learned about the science-faith cultural war as a new Christian,” said Praveen Sethupathy, the director of the Center for Genomics at Cornell University. He expressed that the conflict between Christianity and science was unlike his earlier experiences growing up as a Hindu. According to Sethupathy, there is a view in Hinduism that the modern scientific enterprise is just discovering, at a more detailed level, things that historical revelations have already introduced. 

“Interestingly,” said Sethupathy, “if you don’t view history through the lens of institutions, but through the lens of individuals, this is where you see incredible partnership between science and faith.” Sethupathy pointed to the works of Robert Boyle, Michael Faraday and Johannes Kepler, whose scientific work, he said, “was driven by a strong belief in a loving God of order and creativity.” 

The conflict narrative on science and religion is often eclipsed by loud criticisms from prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins. Dawkins would go as far as to say that God is a delusion and that religion hinders the pursuit of understanding by providing a simplistic “God did it” explanation. It is important to note, however, that not all atheists hold the same polarizing view as Dawkins and that disagreements don’t always have to end up in hostility.

Some scientists may be troubled by the possibility that other approaches can be taken to derive truth about the universe. Some would consider faith as being not evidence-based, and therefore contradicting the scientific method. Yet, to say that all atheist scientists see religion as a threat or an enemy would be erroneous. 

Lee Cronin, for example, is a prominent atheist chemist who openly reacted against Dawkins’ view. “There is a mystery in terms of how the universe is set up,” said Cronin in an interview. While he believes that everything in the universe can be described by science, he does not reject the point of view of religious scientists. He said, “where falsifiability ends, belief begins,” expressing his conviction that falsifiability in science is not in any way interrupted by religious belief. 

Fostering constructive dialogues at the University

One way to promote dialogues on science and religion at the University is by cultivating a safe space for members in the community to express their identity. “I sometimes get the sense that faith is considered unintellectual, especially in well-educated circles,” said Andrea Chaikovsky, a Christian sixth-year cancer biology Ph.D. student at Stanford. 

“It is really important for Stanford students to be able to see themselves as a whole human being,” said Amina Darwish, associate dean at the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (ORSL) at Stanford. She added, “a huge part of that for people is [being a part of a] religious community.” 

Prior to pursuing a career in community building, Darwish has earned her Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering. As a Muslim woman, she admitted that science can at times be an unwelcoming place. Yet, she believes that the University can change this perception. She said, “students shouldn’t have to choose between observing their religious tradition and doing their best academic work at Stanford.”

Seeing more prominent scientists speaking out about their religious faith can help alleviate the negative assumptions that come with holding both science-religion identities. Maike Morrison, a first year Ph.D. student in ecology and evolutionary biology recalled her encounter with a book, “The Language of God,” written by prominent Christian scientist, Francis Collins. Collins is known for leading the Human Genome Project and for his work as the director of the National Institutes of Health —– the world’s leading medical research center. 

“This book was my first time encountering someone who was a scientist and a Christian,” said Morrison. “[It] showed me [that] I wasn’t crazy or alone —– others had pursued both their Christian faith and science, and I could too,” she added. This assurance motivated her to pursue a career in academia. “I hope that my life and work will be a bridge between modern Christianity and science, especially the science of evolution,” she said. 

Mayse argued that the partnership between different disciplines at the University is needed to foster interdisciplinary thinking that will bridge divides and enrich social engagement. He urges those at the universities “to reach across the aisles of knowledge, and not just sit within our own way of thinking or discipline, or our own subproblems.” 

This interdisciplinarity mindset is important for fostering diversity of culture and thought with the purpose of looking at life’s challenges from every perspective, said Darwish. For Darwish, “Engaging with different perspectives and religions are part of the excitement of being in a thriving multicultural society.”

Today, conversations about faith and science are seemingly uncommon at the University and in other public settings. Yet in an increasingly polarizing society, a constructive dialogue is needed more than ever to promote mutual understanding. 

The University is one place where such thoughtful and constructive dialogue could take place. As former Stanford provost John Etchemendy once said, “The first step is to remind our students and colleagues that those who hold views contrary to one’s own are rarely evil or stupid, and may know or understand things that we do not. It is only when we start with this assumption that rational discourse can begin, and that the winds of freedom can blow.​” 

This message was echoed by Sethupathy, who aspired that the University will become a more welcoming and inclusive place for diverse perspectives. He remarked, “How much better would it be if academia is what we say it is — a marketplace of ideas.”

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Kristel Tjandra is a biomedical scientist who is passionate about science communication and journalism. Contact her at thegrind 'at' stanforddaily.com.