What have I learned?

As anyone who knows me (the editor of the sciencemeetsreligion.org website) will attest, I have feet planted firmly in both the scientific and the religious realms.  On one hand, I am a well-known scientist, employed at a large research laboratory, with 3 books and over 125 published technical articles.  Yet I also have deep religious roots — five generations of Mormon ancestors, including, for instance, the second convert to be baptized to the LDS faith in Great Britain.

Thus it is with great concern and, I confess, a certain measure of sadness, that I have witnessed the increasing polarization of the scientific and religious communities in recent years.

On one hand, I see many (especially in America but also in Europe and British Commonwealth nations) viewing modern science as synonymous with atheism and evil, and responsible, in large measure, for the perceived moral decline of society.  In the second decade of the 21st century, creationism, namely the completely unscientific view that the earth and its living organisms are merely a few thousand years old, is on the rise.  “Intelligent design,” a stylishly named movement that belies its fundamentalist foundation, has convinced millions that key scientific theories are riddled with serious errors.

On the other hand, several leading scientists and scholars, including one (Dawkins) whom I greatly admire, have lashed out against religion in polemic books and essays.  Some of their criticisms may have merit, but their writings have significant errors and misconceptions, such as holding up a highly fundamentalistic corner of modern religion as representative of modern religious thought.  And whatever the merits of their arguments, their in-your-face style is a public relations nightmare for those who are trying to defend the teaching of no-nonsense science in public classrooms.

I myself have personally witnessed both sides of this “battle.”  On one hand, my scientific views have been challenged on numerous occasions, both in my personal life and in online forums, by those who reject much of modern science, including, for instance, the entire evolutionary worldview (or even the basics of old-earth geology).  On a few occasions, I have done some Google searches on various topics, and have been shocked to see that links to legitimate science sites are overwhelmed by a much larger number of links to sites promoting material that is utterly at odds with modern scientific knowledge.  With so many sources of misinformation, even open-minded people in many cases have been drawn into believing that there is a “conspiracy” among conventional scientists to withhold the “truth.”

On the other hand, I have seen numerous scientific colleagues regard any sort of religious belief or devotion as downright contemptible in the 21st century.   In most cases they will not express their contempt to my face (although some have done just that), but it is evident from their comments where their views lie.

In November 2009, I had an epiphany.  I suddenly realized that if I didn’t want to live in an increasingly polarized world, I need to speak out for harmony, not warfare, between science and religion.  I recognized that the many who have been attracted to the claims of creationism and intelligent design deserve some straight answers — some solid and concise explanations of why these claims do not hold water.  And I also recognized that those who have read the harsh criticisms of religion from the likes of Harris and Hitchens need to understand that the vast majority of scientists do not feel this way, and in fact that many prominent scientists affirm religious faith.

A few days later, while visiting with some colleagues at a major university, I decided to go ahead with this project.  I had in mind a fairly modest endeavor — place some questions and answers on a website.  Beginning the first of December 2009, in whatever spare time I could muster while managing a large proposal effort at work, I wrote up the material I had envisioned.  This turned out to be substantially more work that I had thought, especially unearthing authoritative quotes and detailed references for all this material.  On 23 December, I declared the project completed, with some 40 separate articles and nearly 300 pages of material (although I have polished and improved a few items since then, and will continue to do so).

So what I have learned in this process?  I am now convinced more than ever that science and religion have much to be gained by respectfully considering the best ideas of the other.  Indeed, I have to ask, “Why all the fighting?”  Don’t we all share a sense of awe and wonder at the magnificence of the universe?  Isn’t it remarkable how lawful everything is?  And isn’t it particularly remarkable that we humans, who evolved on the African savannas to hunt game and live in tribes, now, just a few thousand years later, can comprehend the very laws governing the universe?  As physicist John Barrow notes, nothing in our current understanding of physical laws, including quantum physics and the anthropic principle of cosmology, requires that kind of involvement. 

Why does the fact that we have been able to discover many of the laws governing the universe detract from our sense of wonder?  To the contrary, both scientists and nonscientists can stand in awe at the majesty of the universe, which is now known to be much vaster, more intricate and more magnificent than ever before realized in human history. Why isn’t that enough? It is for me.

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