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Scientists' Dilemma: Factoring in Faith

Researchers long have held religion at arm's length. But new discoveries--and attitudes--may be blurring some of the boundaries.

September 15, 1996|K.C. COLE | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

Albert Einstein once remarked that there were more clergymen than fellow physicists interested in his theory of relativity. Like many of his colleagues, he knew well that the theories scientists cook up in their labs can seep into the broader society, influencing the way people think about everything from the origins of the universe to the nature of God.

Recently, the slim barriers still keeping many scientists at arm's length from religion have been going the way of the Berlin Wall. Cosmologists think they're on the brink of pinning down the physics of creation to the first instant of time. Particle physicists create matter out of nothing--ex nihilo, just as the Bible says. The recent discovery of evidence suggesting ancient life on Mars questions the central place of Earth in God's thoughts. One physicist even says he has proved mathematically that God must exist.

"Modern cosmology is closing in on the real story of what happened at the beginning of the universe," said UC Santa Cruz physicist Joel Primack. "The traditional distance has broken down."

But although Primack and other spiritually inclined scientists see their attempts to reconcile with faith as a great opportunity to put the soul into science--and perhaps even to chart a new path to salvation--other scientists are extremely wary.

Science and religion are mutually exclusive, according to Case Western Reserve University astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss. "And when they aren't, it's to the detriment of both."

Confirmed atheists and true believers agree that the territory between science and faith is a place where most scientists fear to tread. "For scientists to talk about religion is really dangerous," said Rochester University astrophysicist Adam Frank.

Scientists base their work on claims to knowledge that they can prove, he said, but faith "isn't amenable to proof. . . . Science and religion are two different world systems bashing heads together."

To deal with the conflict, many scientists with a spiritual bent have historically tended to keep their faith in the closet, pursuing a policy of "Don't ask, don't tell." But others say a marriage of the two is not only inevitable but imperative--and the way to do it comes straight from physics. As it turns out, they say, the subatomic world has provided just the recipe to deal with mutually exclusive forces like science and religion.

'God Is a Mathematician'

It's not that scientists never speak of God. Einstein, who considered himself spiritual but not religious, was famous for referring to God in his conversations about science. "I want to know how God created this world," he said. He spoke often about learning the secrets of "the old one." His colleague, Sir James Jeans, was so impressed by the mathematical precision of the universe that he concluded: "God is a mathematician."

Today, physicists routinely invoke the name of God to describe discoveries. Recently, UC Berkeley astronomer George Smoot compared the first glimpse of the earliest structure in the universe--a "lumpiness" in the cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang--to seeing "the face of God."

But when these scientists talk about God, Krauss said, "they don't mean it; they're being metaphorical." Scientists often use "God" as a shorthand description for awesome revelations or moving experiences.

College of William and Mary physicist Hans Christian van Baeyer spoke for many of his colleagues when he said: "I subscribe to Einstein's religion. It's an oceanic feeling; there's that great big thing out there that's pretty marvelous."

When it comes to plying their trade, however, scientists stick to tools that have worked for them in the past--and that does not, in general, include anything from the spiritual realm. "If I thought the Bhagavad-Gita would give me insights, I would read it, in the original Sanskrit," said former altar boy Rocky Kolb, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, referring to a philosophic dialogue from a sacred Hindu text. But religion, he said, has never been a useful guide to scientific inquiry.

"The purpose of Scripture is to teach how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes," he said, quoting a cleric who defended the Italian astronomer Galileo against the Catholic Church for insisting that the sun was the center of the solar system.

Science Like a Calling

Ironically, science has the flavor of a religious calling, complete with moral codes, perseverance in the face of adversity, and passion for total commitment. It attracts people--like Kolb--who had once thought of becoming priests. It stems from the same root: an attempt to make sense of the world around us. And it asks similar questions.

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