THE BLOG

What I've Learned From Scientists (So Far)

07/30/2013 08:52 pm ET | Updated Sep 29, 2013
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Can a scientist also be a person of faith?

For nearly two years I have been working closely with some of the scientists in the United Church of Christ congregation that I serve. Ours was one of over 30 churches from many denominations that participated in the Scientists in Congregations project, funded by the Templeton Foundation. The purpose of this project was to engage clergy and scientists in the ongoing conversation about science and faith. This dialogue has been going on for some time in academic settings and in places such as The Huffington Post. The popular media have long noted what it often portrays as a "war" between science and religion. We set the conversation in a new context -- the ongoing life of a vital Christian congregation -- and gathered scientific researchers, physicians, engineers, high-school teachers, university professors, and others to talk about faith and science.

Here's what I've learned so far:

A strong humility governs the professional lives of scientists. They have the academic degrees, the university positions, the experimental successes, the professional accolades, and the grants that are reasons for pride, but they also have a deep and abiding sense of how little they know, of how much remains to be discovered, and of the mystery that surrounds us and in which we live. They have a sense of wonder that is basic to both science and faith. They look at this world that they investigate with amazement and awe.

Because of this, they are able embrace both a scientific outlook and a faith perspective in their lives. At our first gathering I asked these scientists to talk about their experiences of conflict in their lives as scientists and Christians. I was met with blank faces. Affirming God as creator and accepting that we live in a universe that is billions of years old and came into existence after the Big Bang? Believing in God as the giver of life and in the slow evolution of life on Earth? Accepting the current research on the human brain and having a strong sense of the human soul? Not a problem. Yes, some of their colleagues do see a conflict between religion and science. But it quickly became apparent that the "war" between science and religion was being waged someplace else.

And yet they readily admit that doubt and skepticism are important to their work. We were all taught in grade school that science begins with a hypothesis -- a hunch, a guess. That's not a lot to go on, and scientists are skeptical not only of the hypotheses of others but of their own, so these guesses are followed by investigation and experimentation. Good science then involves others in similar investigations to see if the results can be verified. Throughout this process, scientists work against the very human inclination to think that we already know what the answer is. Scientists doubt. They are uncertain about what the results of their work might be. And this uncertainty leads to the unexpected as often as it leads to the expected.

Doubt means that scientific work often moves slowly. The time required to simply set up an experiment is much longer than a non-scientist might think. Scientists understand the slow ways in which knowledge grows. This actually came as a surprise to me. Scientific discoveries are often portrayed in the media as developing almost overnight. It can take a great deal of time simply to set up an experiment properly, and actual experiments can take months or years to complete. Research into what seem to be promising areas often fails. And when the work of scientists does bring success, it is often only a small step forward. The gains achieved are incremental. As a result, scientists are often reluctant to speak with great certainty about their work.

The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty. Scientists do their work with a kind of faith as well: faith in the scientific method, faith in the orderliness of the universe, faith even in their colleagues. Science, as every enterprise, requires a measure of trust, a "conviction of things not seen," as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews described faith. Faith in the scientific enterprise is different from religious belief, but for many it is also a practice that does not exclude participation in a religious tradition. While the scientists I've worked with are Christian, scientists are also Jewish, Muslim, Baha'i and adherents of other religions.

The scientists I have worked with are evolutionary biologists and deacons. They are researchers and Sunday-school teachers. They want to explore theological ideas in a manner similar to examining a cell or a supernova. They will take their time. They will ask questions. They will listen to and debate the conclusions of other people. And they are ready to set aside an idea or a way of understanding God if it shows no connection to reality. I have been in conversations in which scientists in my congregation have shown as much skepticism about Christian doctrine and "proofs" of God as any of the new atheists. But -- and here is the other surprise -- they keep their faith.

They are able to embrace something beyond scientific materialism, sensing a Power that sustains the universe, a Power that is the ground of life and love. They are not strangers to all the difficulty, tragedy, and what we call, for want of a better word, sin of life. They are not ready to jump to conclusions either in their lives as scientists or in their lives of faith. Even their religious life is open to questions, to new discoveries, to new thinking that replaces outworn dogma. They recognize that it is important to question what we know (and what we think we know), because both scientific knowledge and the life of faith grow out of doubt and uncertainty.