The First of Many Posts on Science and Religion

I was going to post on something completely different, and possibly Christmas related.  But I was wandering around the NPR website and came across a blog post in “13.7: Cosmos and Culture” called “What Connects Science and Religion.” The author suggests that there will be other posts from the group of contributors on similar subjects in the future.  I predict similarly for my blog, having double majored in a science (physics) and religion (pluralism).  Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at University of Rochester, and author of the above blog post, writes beautifully about his atheism:

For my part I am a-theistic. A willful intelligent deity whose powers and properties need to be articulated in a way that does not conflict with an order already articulated through scientific investigation does not make much sense to me as a physicist. A Being who decides on the Red Socks one year and the Yankees the next doesn’t match my lived sense of a universe that unfolds on its own – a universe whose mystery is its own. At the same time I can’t find much in common with the rabid schools of atheists that seem to believe they speak for science. Seeing only the horror and blindness religion have generated (no argument there) they willfully blind themselves to the full range of beauty, compassion, and insight that human spiritual endeavor have generated across time.

Responding briefly to Frank’s remarks seems as good as any a place to begin my own thoughts.  Indeed, I agree that a “Being that decides on the Red Sox one year and the Yankees the next” doesn’t seem a natural deity.  Why would a deity choose the Yankees anyway?  I especially appreciate his rejection of the atheists who “willfully blind themselves to the full range of beauty, compassion, and insight…” For truly how can people, even those who do not believe, not appreciate the great works of wonder and love both written and shared amongst people.  To not appreciate that beauty is to not appreciate humanity to its fullest.  Later in his post he talks about not holding science as the highest “box of answers”, needing to respect all options.

I’m not really responding to Frank’s post directly, though, because I have a lot to say about science and religion on my own first.  His post was the spark for this one, in part because of his elegant words of respect for religion.  In an effort to keep this post substantially shorter than the last, I’ll talk in many later posts about the various issues between science and theology and religion, because they are different conflicts.

Beyond the level of awe and mystery, which I certainly appreciate since that is what drew me into physics in the first place, there is the level of practicality and practice.  Never in my life have science and religion conflicted (unless you count class scheduling conflicts in college, and even then it was usually math that conflicted).

In part it’s because science and religion have different purposes.  I don’t consult my physics textbook on Christmas Eve.  And I don’t consult the Bible to solve a problem in fluid dynamics.  (No, the Flood doesn’t count.)  I could write equations about what happens to my voice and the sound waves when I sing a hymn, but that doesn’t tell me anything about the song, or the joy of singing.  It isn’t as simple science is the how and religion is the why, either.  Oversimplifying two great fields of inquiry and life into one word questions reduces them to bumper sticker answers.

It’s also in part because I’m not concerned with theology when I study religion.  And I’m not concerned with creation science (big bang, cosmology) or evolution  or other sciences rejected by conservative religions.  Thermodynamics is such a disregarded field in the first place that it doesn’t draw attention from religious media outlets.  But even sciences like evolution should be supported by religious groups, particularly established ones.  I know my church, among many others, has been celebrating the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species. Liberal churches have thrown support behind Darwin yet again upholding method of inquiry as a manner of faith.

And that brings me to my concluding point of this post: continuing inquiry as a link between religion and science.  I mentioned in an early entry that Episcopalians are raised to continually question–and therefore strengthen–their beliefs.  I don’t know much about Judaism, but Torah study seems to me a similar establishment.  Even forms of mysticism, particularly Sufism, endeavor to “let go” while asking about their faith.  The same holds with science.  Dogmatic science is as dangerous as dogmatic religion.  As a physicist I was taught to “Never stop asking questions” (paraphrasing Einstein), and I found that as soon as I stopped I no longer understood what I studied.  My senior project, “Investigations in ‘Intermediate’ Statistical Mechanics” focused on the examination of one equation (Grand Canonical Ensemble, interestingly enough called the “God Equation” sometimes for its ability to solve nearly all problems in stat mech): for a full year I looked at the pieces of the equation and what happened when you altered one aspect.  It’s what we at Bard used to call “Zog IV” problems, a la Professor Peter Skiff, a world in which the laws of physics are changed drastically forcing us to look at the mechanics of an equation and learn new intuitions.

Inquiry is the greatest tool and link between the two fields, either as academic enterprises or systems of belief.  And to inquire is to respect, which leads me back to the beginning of this post: respect creates a space for inquiry, which creates a space for true dialogue.

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