Ruth Hogg: Reconciling Science and Faith

© Bill Davenport
© Bill Davenport

What happens when two aspects of a person’s life seem miles apart? In this series of extracts from God in the Lab, Dr Ruth Hogg tells how she learned to reconcile her beliefs about God and her scientific work.

Ruth has always been interested in exploring the connection between science and faith. In Cambridge she was a founding member of the local Veritas Forum, running events to help students and faculty members to discuss – as the Veritas Forum website says – “life’s hardest questions and the modern relevance of Jesus Christ”.

While scientific evidence is important for some, many scientists actually find God outside of the lab: at home, at university, or later in life. Ruth is one of those who discovered God early on, though it was only as an adult that she realised Continue reading

Echoes of a Voice

cathedral Cologne 1216095_23168992 Rudy Tiben copy
Cologne Cathedral. © Rudy Tiben, freeimages.com

What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: Hello?

The Christian writer J.W. Sire quoted this line from Annie Dillard[1] in Echoes of a Voice, a new book that explores the phenomenon of spiritual or ‘transcendent’ experiences. What are they, why do they happen, and do they mean anything?

I have written about the more numinous side of science many times on this blog (see Transcendence and Transcendent Science). Scientists often speak of a reality beyond the objects they are studying, and for some this is encountered in powerful – if rare – experiences of wonder and awe. Perhaps my experience in the Smithsonian Museum that I described last week also comes into that category?

I found Sire’s analysis of these experiences helpful. He describes moments that are Continue reading

Song of a Scientist

© Ruth Bancewicz

The well-known geneticist Francis Collins is in the habit of breaking into song on special occasions. The only other person I have known to sing during a science-faith presentation is environmental scientist Calvin (Cal) DeWitt. At the 2007 conference of Christians in Science and the ASA in Edinburgh, DeWitt concluded his talk by leading us all in song. You can hear it here (fast forward to the last 2 minutes, unless you want to hear the whole talk which is very good). It was a moving moment, and a significant one. Here was a scientist wearing his heart on his sleeve and expressing himself through art as well as scientific jargon.

I wasn’t at all surprised – though I was pleased – when DeWitt published a new book this year entitled ‘Song of a Scientist’. This ‘song’ is a weaving together of different stories: autobiographical, ecological, and ethical. The autobiographical story is of DeWitt’s life in science: some initial work in zoology, a switch to environmental science, and his part in making the Town of Dunn a sustainable development. Woven through this account are stories of animals, plants and whole ecosystems that sing their own song. The ethical part is what DeWitt does best; his knowledge of the natural world and its destruction is encyclopaedic, but he has also been involved in putting into action practical methods to care for the earth that are both sustainable and acceptable to its human inhabitants. This isn’t a hair-shirt way of living: it’s a living of life to the full in the most joyful way possible. Continue reading

The Beliefs of Scientists

© Joanie Cahill, freeimages.com

Last week sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund spoke at the Faraday Institute about her work on scientist’s beliefs.  Between 2005 and 2007 she and her team conducted nearly 1700 surveys and 275 in-depth interviews with senior scientists at 21 elite US universities. The goal was to get a more accurate and up to date picture of how scientists approach religion and spirituality. The statistics from Ecklund’s study are illuminating. When asked if science and faith were in conflict, fifteen percent of the scientists interviewed said no, seventy percent thought that sometimes they were and sometimes they weren’t, and only fifteen percent thought they were always in conflict. Ecklund has written a more detailed account of this part of the survey, discussing how scientists perceive where there might be boundaries between science and faith and whether they can be crossed. The seventy percent of scientists who recognised that science and faith need not be in conflict used three main strategies. The first was to redefine religion to include a broader notion of spirituality. Seventy percent of all scientists interviewed considered themselves spiritual. Many of these people saw spirituality as a source of insight and clarity in their scientific endeavours. (No doubt the seventy percent who don’t think conflict is inevitable and the seventy percent who value spirituality overlap somewhat.) The second common theme was the recognition of certain ‘boundary pioneers’ who are committed to both faith and science, and are confident in speaking about both at the same time. Francis Collins was mentioned most often as a prominent scientist and a Christian who has clearly integrated his science with his Christian faith in a satisfying way.

There are some people with very deep religious beliefs who simply don’t let those things conflict. One of the lovely examples that I heard about just recently is this guy, Francis Collins . . . He is the Director of the gene-mapping outfit at NIH, and he’s a very serious born-again Christian and obviously a firm believer . . . and obviously manages to live very well with that.

Culturally Jewish scientist, Ecklund et al, 2011

But by far the most common reaction among the seventy percent ‘partial complementarians’ was to encourage dialogue. They were aware that every year young people came into their classrooms bringing new ideas, and that to be good teachers they needed to encourage their students to think things through for themselves. For me this was the most interesting data from Ecklund’s study – that the majority of scientists in the US seem to be opening the door to discussions on science and faith in appropriate contexts.

One biologist, an atheist not part of any religious tradition, told us that she was “rather surprised at how many of our students are very religious. I am always just so surprised, and I’m the other way [not religious].” She also explained that she made a sincere effort to present science such that “religious students do not need to compromise their own selves.”

Ecklund et al, 2011

It’s refreshing to have some data in hand that reflects what I have always experienced in my interactions with scientific colleagues. Scientists are ordinary human beings who are interested in what’s going on around them. They recognise that in order to function as whole persons we need to think about how our academic studies relate to our wider beliefs. I will wait with some interest for the results of Ecklund’s latest study on scientist’s beliefs around the world.