Are religion and science always at odds?
Here are three scientists that don't think so
May 24, 2018
Dylan O'Donnell standing on rock in front of sky full of stars.
What do you see when you gaze at the night sky? (Supplied: Dylan O'Donnell)
When you ponder the vastness of the universe, the wonder of the natural world, or the mysteries of consciousness, what are you left with?
Are you someone who sees nothing but a material world, the workings of which are just waiting to be discovered by the logical reasoning of science?
Or are you someone who believes there must be a creator, or at least some sort of divine power that gives meaning and purpose to it all?
Some argue that being religious is incompatible with being a scientist - but do they realise the father of the Big Bang theory was actually a Catholic priest, the pioneer of modern genetics was an Augustinian monk, or the decoder of the human genome converted from atheism to Christianity in his 20s?
Scientists these days may be less religious than the average person, but just over half of scientists surveyed in 2009 said they believed in some sort of deity or higher power.
Is the conflict between religion and science as deep as some think? We talk to three scientists about how they reconcile their faith with their work.
Image of an angel holding a placard with the word 'science' on it
How recent is the conflict between science and religion? (Getty Images: Pascal Deloche)
Dr Jennifer Wiseman: A Christian astrophysicist
As a child, Jennifer enjoyed late-night stargazing walks with her parents on their Arkansas farm in the US.
"The stars were incredible," she told Kumi Taguchi on ABC TV's Compass.
"We had dark, dark skies there. And I think I was always curious at that point as to what was out there and how could I explore it."
About that time NASA was sending the Voyager spacecraft to the outer planets of the solar system for the first time, and beaming back exotic pictures.
"I thought, you know, I'm going to be a part of that," Jennifer says.
She now spends her time using telescopes to study how stars and planets are made - and is credited with discovering the comet Wiseman-Skiff in 1987.
But the sense of wonder and curiosity Jennifer felt as a child, as she looked into the vast and magnificent night sky, has never left her.
"There are at least 200 billion stars in our own galaxy, and there are maybe 400 billion galaxies in our observable universe, each one of them with billions of stars," Jennifer says.
"Those of us who study astronomy can tell you the numbers and all of that, but comprehending it is something totally different."
While science is a "wonderful tool for understanding the physical universe", Jennifer says her religious beliefs give her the answers to the bigger philosophical questions in life - like how mere humans can be significant at all in the context of the universe.
"In Christian faith, our significance is basically given as a gift of love from God, who's responsible for the universe," she says.
Jennifer Wiseman studies how stars and planets are made. (Supplied: World Science Festival)
"I think it's significant that we as human beings can actually investigate the universe, have a sense of our cosmic history, have a sense of our actual connection to the cosmos, and understand it. To me that's a gift.
"The fact that we're having this conversation is incredible, given that you and I both have atoms in our bodies that were forged in stars.
"So, we are physically connected to the universe and I think we have a deeper connection as well."
Meanwhile, Jennifer sees her scientific work as deepening her faith.
"God's responsible for everything. So, by studying more of nature you're … enriching your understanding of God," she says.
Jennifer suggests the public's fascination with images of the universe stems from a human desire for meaning.
"They're awestruck by it just as I am," she says.
"I think it's because there's something in us that wants to know the bigger picture … that there's something more to our existence than just our survival here on this planet."
The apparent conflict between science and religion is a relatively recent phenomenon, that's been "invigorated" by the media's need for drama, says Jennifer, who directs the program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"Interestingly, I don't hear much about this conflict idea in my daily work with scientists," she says.
"When I talk to people I find that most people really realise that there are deeper questions of life that science can't fully address, and they don't really see why there should be any conflict."
While some point to statements in the Bible as evidence Christianity is incompatible with science, Jennifer says the book has to be seen in its historical context.
"You have to look at biblical literature from the perspective of when it was written, the original audiences, the original languages, the original purposes … the message that was meant to be conveyed by it," she says.
"The Bible's not a science text."
Christian religious fundamentalist handing out leaflets in the main street at the ballyclare may fair
Fundamentalism is on the rise. (Getty Images: Joe Fox)
Dr Andrew Harman: A Buddhist immunologist
After finishing his undergraduate science degree in the UK, Andrew went travelling in South-East Asia and that's when he first discovered Buddhism.
"Oddly enough, it was in a Lonely Planet guide book," says Andrew, who was brought up a Christian.
"I was sitting on a very long bus journey in Laos and I was so bored I read the section at the beginning on Buddhism."
The impact on him was immediate: "It was just like a thunderbolt out of nowhere."
Andrew Harman studies the transmission of HIV. (Supplied: Andrew Harman)
And, as it turns out, this was no passing fad.
After rejecting Christianity at an early age, Andrew says he went through some "very nihilistic" teenage years.
"I believed when you die, that's the end, the lights go out and what's the point in it all?" he says.
"I think that led to a bit of a sense of meaninglessness in me."
Buddhism appealed because it was a religion that didn't require a "creator god".
"I didn't even realise that was an option."
In 2009 Andrew became an ordained Buddhist in the UK-founded Triratna Order.
Today he runs two labs at Westmead Institute for Medical Research in Sydney, where he studies the mechanism of sexual transmission of HIV and the immunology of Crohn's disease.
His official email signature not only includes his scientific credentials, but his spiritual name as well - Dh Shantideva. And he teaches meditation and mindfulness in his workplace.
Over 50 per cent of US scientists surveyed in 2009 said they believed in a deity or higher power. (Getty Images: Godong)
Andrew is fascinated by cosmology - his favourite book is A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking - but he sees Buddhism as answering different kinds of questions to science.
"Science is about learning, Buddhism is about living."
Buddhism, Andrew says, is interested in "creating the conditions for enlightenment to arrive" - a state in which people feel "unconditional love, deep spiritual peace, completely free of inner conflict".
The trick, he says, is to understand and accept "the true nature of reality" and that attachment to things - like our youth, loved ones, jobs or money - is the source of suffering.
"We're psychologically dependent on things that, at any moment, could be taken away from us," he says.
"But they are all impermanent, so you will suffer if you depend on them."
For Andrew, religions that require "blind faith" in God are at odds with science.
"I don't see how you can be a scientist and believe in God, although several of my colleagues do.
"Science is about seeking truth and testing a hypothesis. I don't believe you can prove the existence of God."
By contrast, he sees Buddhism as "very compatible" with science.
"I think Buddhism and science are absolutely in tune with each other fundamentally," he says.
"They're both driven by the idea that you can't just believe something without any evidence.
"The Buddha was very clear that you follow a system of practice and only when you've experienced those things for yourself is your faith then justified - because it's a faith that is based on experience."
Buddhists do not believe in a creator god. (Getty Images: Rodolfo Parulan Jr)
Andrew finds the Buddhist ideal of detachment as particularly useful in helping him to ride the ups and downs of scientific work.
Not being too attached to your own theories, he says, means you can be more open and sceptical, and less likely to succumb to dogma.
But, says Andrew, there are some clashes between Buddhism and the idea that we can be reduced to a bunch of particles, and that studying matter will ultimately explain the whole of our reality.
"There's still a very strong current in science that thinks everything can be broken down into bits and put back together," he says.
But science is changing, says Andrew.
"I think Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum theory show you can't reduce everything to the sum of its parts," he says.
Fahad Ali: A Muslim geneticist
Fahad first encountered religious resistance to scientific ideas in a junior high biology class in Bahrain, where Darwin's theory of evolution was deemed "fundamentally flawed".
"It was quite sad," says Fahad, who went out and bought a copy of Darwin's On the Origin of Species the next day.
Fahad Ali is involved in research using CRISPR to genetically modify plants (Supplied: Fahad Ali)
Fahad was brought up a Muslim. As a teenager, he read the Koran, but began to question the religious practices he saw around him, including the treatment of women.
At the same time, he was realising he was gay - something that put him at odds with most Muslims around him.
So, Fahad gave up his faith.
But after his mother was diagnosed with cancer he was left feeling a void, and was drawn back to Islam.
"Bad things happen all the time and I'd like to believe there's a bigger picture," says Fahad, now 24.
"We need a God because we need a sense of place and purpose and a sense of something beyond."
He says some of the tension between science and religion arises because people take the Koran and Bible literally.
A lot of people say "a lot of stupid things" in the name of religion but the opposite should be true, Fahad says.
Fahad's own approach to Islam includes a critical reading of the Koran.
"You need to be sceptical in order to be correct," he says.
"That rings true in both my research and in my faith."
He says in his reading, the Koran encourages "compassion, common decency, generosity and intelligence".
Islamic scientists and philosophers played an important role in the development of science. (Getty Images: Chris Hondros)
Fahad is yet to complete his honours year but meanwhile has been assisting in research using CRISPR to streamline genetic modification in plants at The University of Sydney Institute of Agriculture.
While there are "big moral questions" about how to apply genetic modification, he believes it should be used to cure disease and increase food production.
"Science should be in the service of humanity," Fahad says.
And Fahad argues that unforgiving and extreme perspectives, whether they're based on faith or science, can be problematic.
"Reason and rationality in the Islamic world has been in crisis for decades," he says.
"There's not really any nice way to say this: people have lost their brains."
EXTERNAL LINK: Did you know that the physicist who laid the groundwork for the Big Bang theory was a Catholic priest?
He says fundamentalism is on the rise because "people need to grasp something because they can't make sense of their place in the world".
On the other hand, "militant atheists" like Richard Dawkins have "contributed to the idea that in order to be smart, you need to let go of religion".
"But that's patently false and I think a lot of people in the scientific community know that as well," he says.
"The entire state of what science is as a field today would not be the same without the contribution of Islamic scientists and thinkers and philosophers," says Fahad, pointing out that "algebra" is an Arabic word.
Fahad argues conflict also comes from people using God to explain things that science can't.
"God should not be made to stand in for scientific uncertainty.
"Science closes the gap, and then there's one less place for God to be found.
"Eventually God will vanish entirely - removed from the picture by science - and then people get aggressive and say science is wrong, which doesn't help anyone."
While some see evolutionary theory as threatening faith, Fahad disagrees.
"I think it's a testament to God more than anything - that we can bring about all life on earth from a single origin."