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When Science and Religion Collide or Why Einstein Wasn't an Atheist

Scientists talk about why they believe in God.

How has religion held up under the scrutiny of modern science? Not well, according to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who believes the only reason religion is still with us at all is not because it has inherent worth but because it's as catching and incurable as any virus (see "Religion Is a Virus"). Others beg to differ.

In his day, Albert Einstein said, "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." More recently, a Nature survey of American scientists found about 40 percent of them to be religious. How do these scientists reconcile their understanding of the physical world -- of evolution, for example -- with their religious beliefs? To explore these and other questions, the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences sponsored interviews with more than 30 top scientists from a variety of fields. Here are a few of their responses:

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Francisco J. Ayala, a professor of genetics and evolutionary biology at the University of California at Irvine, was ordained a Catholic priest at just about the time he began studying genetics. Since then, his career has been primarily occupied by science.

Ayala says he is a materialist insofar as he holds that "nothing in the natural world is left out" of science's powers of description. But, he adds, in the same way that a complete physical description of Picasso's Guernica would not begin to convey what the painting says about man's inhumanity, a scientific description of the world does not begin to explain life's meaning.

"In terms of fulfilling the human spirit, there is a lot to be said about the world, whether it is the physical world or the living world, that is completely outside the realm of science," Ayala says. "Science and religion are dealing with different dimensions of reality, different levels of experience. Anybody who thinks that everything in the world can be explained in a reductionistic, materialistic way is just naive."

Applying the criteria of scientific truth to religious claims is to make what philosophers call a categorical mistake, says Ayala. "In a sonnet Shakespeare may refer to his beloved as a rose. A scientist could say, 'This guy is an idiot. A woman is not a rose.' Of course the idiot would be the one who made that comment. Shakespeare knows she is not a rose! But that doesn't mean that describing his beloved as a rose is not telling the world a lot about what he thinks about her, and what she is like, and what love is like."

Kenneth S. Kendler, a professor of psychiatry and human genetics at the Medical College of Virginia, also struggles not to mix up his religion (Judaism) and his science. Like knowledge and wisdom, he says, they have different foundations. "The two don't use similar methods, don't have similar goals, and in some substantial ways don't conform to one another," he says. "Maybe the best way to put it is to say that they complement one another. They really don't conflict, but they don't entirely exist on the same plane. Knowledge is something that is ultimately testable -- wisdom comes in many varieties."

Arno Penzias, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1978 for his part in the discovery of the background radiation that constituted the first material evidence for the big-bang theory, does not look for direct evidence of God's existence in the world. To the contrary: "If God created the universe," says Penzias, who is Jewish, "he would have done it elegantly. The absence of any imprint of intervention upon creation is what we would expect from a truly all-powerful Creator. You don't need somebody diddling around like Frank Morgan in The Wizard of Oz to keep the universe going. Instead, what you have is half a page of mathematics that describes everything. In some sense, the power of the creation lies in its underlying simplicity."

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