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:

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."

But for Carl Feit, an Orthodox Jew and professor of biology at Yeshiva University, science is itself a spiritual practice. Invoking Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish philosopher, physician, scientist, and rabbi, Feit says that "the best way to develop a love and appreciation for God is by studying the works of his hand. There are certain blessings that a religious Jew makes every day. Some of them have to do with the fact that the sun rises and sets regularly, that all of the stars travel in their right orbits, and that all of our physiological functions work appropriately. With my knowledge of human physiology, I have a very different, and I think enhanced, appreciation when I make that blessing in the morning."

Brian Cantwell Smith, a renegade computer scientist and philosopher who recently left Stanford for Indiana University, agrees that religion and science are not entirely separable. Smith (who says he "probably" doesn't believe in God) quotes his father, theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who told him that to be religious is "to find the world significant."

The younger Smith explains: "It is not an etymological accident that 'significance,' in English, means 'importance.' From what I can tell from having studied intentional systems, 'truth' and other values cannot, in fact, be wholly pulled apart." The problem, he says, is that while science has always taken truth seriously, it has traditionally left values of beauty and goodness pretty much untouched. However, Smith sees the current work being done in mathematics, computer science, philosophy, and cognitive science as increasingly shedding light on the relationships between beauty, goodness, and truth in a way that may lead to a reintegration of these three values, thanks to a rigorous "study of significance."

Smith says: "One of my most basic metaphysical commitments is that truth, beauty, and goodness are not completely separable. Just as the physicists claim that gravity, charge, mass, etc., weren't separate in the first moments of the universe, I don't think God made the world with truth, beauty, and goodness fully separated out, either. In fact, I think the idea that they are independent is our idea -- and not necessarily the greatest idea, at that. You can see this in modern software design. Whether programs work well, whether they're beautiful, and whether they're right in practice -- these things aren't all that separable."

According to Lindon J. Eaves, a professor of human genetics and psychiatry at the Medical College of Virginia and an Anglican priest, "There's a large degree of identity between the love of God and the love of truth. And the same kind of rules and passions that we bring to the issue of loving God, the scientist embodies in his passion for truth.

"What keeps the scientist working long hours into the night?" asks Eaves. "Well, maybe there's a truth out there that will be beautiful when we find it."

Carl Feit concurs. "I think that fundamentally the impetus for the two quests is the same," says Feit. "Religion and science are two ways of looking at the world, and each helps guide our search for understanding. Profoundly religious people are asking the same questions as profound scientists: Who are we? And what are we? What's the purpose? What's the end? Where did we come from? And where are we going? We have this need, this desire, this drive, to understand ourselves and the world that we live in."

Gordy Slack is the associate editor of California Wild, a natural history magazine.