December 18, 2018

Why Science Can't Afford to Ignore Religion

 

 

My entire career has been a juxtaposition of two entities that should be mutually exclusive - or so I've been told.

I have my Bachelor's degree in Biomedical Science, obtained my PhD in Integrative Molecular and Biomedical Science in only 3 years and 9 months, worked in the leading microbiome research lab in the world, and in 2016 was named as one of Forbe's 30 Under 30.

But, I've been told, none of this should have happened. Why? Because I believe in God. And that means I must be stupid and incapable of high intellectual achievements - especially scientific ones.

Yes, there are plenty of other scientists "like me" out there that prove the point wrong, such as NIH Director Francis Collins, who doesn't hide his faith in the God of the Bible and believes that "The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshiped in the cathedral or in the laboratory."

But the general sentiment among the life sciences (I won't presume to speak for scientific fields in which I have no experience) is that creationists are stupid, religious people hate the truth, and faith impedes scientific progress.

Science Has No Room for God

Take, for instance, the intensive microbiology course I attended at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, CA, in the summer of 2015. One of the instructors was describing seminal research done by Professor Susan Rosenberg at Baylor College of Medicine. I was already familiar with her work because as a graduate student, I spent an 8 week laboratory rotation in her lab.

The Stanford course instructor was pretty upset about the work that Susan Rosenberg had been doing. He was even more upset that every time he or someone in his lab tried to replicate her work, they replicated it. Wait, what?

In a world where replication not only is critical, but is often hard to impossible to achieve, a scientist was upset that he replicated another scientist's work?

Call me a religious freak, but in my opinion, that is the type of attitude that actually impedes scientific progress.

So, why was he so upset? Because her work, which he replicated, challenged a key tenant that we've held about bacterial evolution for many, many years. It changed it in a way that suggested intelligent design. And, as that instructor said, using some expletives I won't repeat here, "science has no room for God."

Now, I won't go into the discussion that intelligent design doesn't on it's own equate to God as most people view Him, i.e. the Christian God who morbidly sent His Son Jesus to die on a cross. That's an entirely different argument that would take up an entire blog series on it's own.

Yet, that moment was pivotal for me. I had never experienced such visceral hate for God - something that the individual apparently didn't even believe in - as I did in that moment. I had thought - I had been trained - that scientists should trust the scientific data, no matter what it suggests, as long as it is reproducible. Apparently that's true, so long as it doesn't suggest an intelligent designer/creator being.

Science Must Make Room for God

I argue that science would do itself a service by dropping the attitude that "religion does nothing to advance science," and is instead an "impediment" to progress as I was recently told by a fellow scientist. Why? Let's face the facts.

In 2017, there were 6.88 billion people living on Earth

Only 16% of those people were not affiliated with some type of religion, such as Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, or Judaism, to name a few. Hate to break it to you, folks, but we live in a religious world, whether we like it or not.

If scientists really believe that the scientific truth is that there is no god, then they must also accept the fact that most of the people they need to convince of that don't share their beliefs - and adjust their attitudes accordingly.

What if, instead of at every turn scientists tried to disprove god, hide evidence that suggests he might exist, and resorted to offensive name-calling, scientists began to embrace the amazing religious diversity that makes up this planet and learned to talk with religious people about scientific truths that might make them uncomfortable? What if by taking that approach, scientists were able to help religious people start embracing those scientific truths? And what if, at the same time, scientists were able to consider scientific data that made them uncomfortable? Perhaps then we would celebrate repeatable science, rather than resort to adolescent screaming at a classroom of young scientists about how God is an asshole that belongs outside of the laboratory.

After all, science changes every day. I was told in grad school that science is only true the moment it is published, and even then, there is probably a lab somewhere in the world that has already disproved it. Who knows whether the data that support intelligent design will be refuted next year? Who knows whether the data that refute intelligent design will hold up in the next decade?

We don't know. And that's the beauty of it - that's the whole reason science still exists. If we knew it all, there would be no reason to keep exploring. And we all have faith that in the end, the truth will win - whether it points to an intelligent being larger than ourselves or not.

Perhaps scientists and religious people aren't so different after all. The sooner we accept that, the sooner scientific advancements will change the world - including advancements that may be set in motion by a juxtaposition like myself or Dr. Francis Collins: the religious scientist.