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See Inside October 2006

Let There Be Light

SCIENCE AND FAITH



HANS WOLF age Fotostock
It is practically a rite of passage that scientists who reach a certain level of eminence feel compelled to pub-licly announce and explain their religious beliefs. The new books by Owen Gingerich and Francis Collins, reviewed this month on page 94, follow in the footsteps of Arthur Eddington and Max Planck. Yes, these authors say, they believe in God, and no, they see no contradiction between their faith and their research--indeed, they see each as confirming the other.

Why this enduring fascination? Doubtless it is partly a reaction to the tensions that always seem to arise between science and religion: the recurring war over the teaching of evolution and creationism, the statements by physicists that they are plumbing the instant of "creation" or searching for a "God particle," the reassurances of some evangelicals that a Second Coming will make global warming irrelevant. In writing books about their own faith, religious scientists may be hoping to point the way to reconciliations for the rest of society.

Yet the tension may be greatly exaggerated. Americans are famously religious, but according to studies by the National Science Foundation, they say that they hold science in higher regard than do the people of any other industrial country. Surveys indicate that scientists are only half as likely as the general public to describe themselves as religious, but 40 percent still do. As Albert Einstein wrote, it takes fortitude to be a scientist--to persevere despite the frustrations and the long lonely hours--and religious inspiration can sometimes provide that strength.

Unquestionably, the findings of science conflict with certain religious tenets. Cosmology, geology and evolutionary biology flatly contradict the literal truths of creation myths from around the world. Yet the overthrow of religion is not a part of the scientific agenda. Scientific research deals in what is measurable and definable; it cannot begin to study what might lie beyond the physical realm or to offer a comprehensive moral philosophy.

Some scientists (and some nonscientists) are led to atheism in part by contemplation of the success of science in accounting for observable phenomena. Some find support for their spiritual beliefs in the majesty of the reality revealed by science. Others are unmoved from agnosticism. Which philosophy an individual embraces is a personal choice, not a dictate of science. Science is fundamentally agnostic, yet it does not force agnosticism even on its practitioners.

No matter how earnest their testimonies, when researchers write about their faith in God, they are not expressing a strictly scientific perspective. Rather they are struggling, as people always have, to reconcile their knowledge of a dispassionate universe with a heartfelt conviction in a more meaningful design.

As for healing a social rift, most of the debates that are commonly depicted as religion versus science are really not questions of science at all; they are disagreements among various systems of beliefs and morals. The policy fight over embryonic stem cells, for example, centers on when and how one segment of a pluralistic society should curtail the behaviors of those who hold different values. Our attention should focus not on the illusory fault line between science and religion but on a political system that too often fails to engage with the real issues.

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