In God they trust
In God they trust
Scientists who embrace their religious faith often face criticism from supporters of evolutionary theory and those who argue for creationism.

BY CORNELIA DEAN - New York Times, 8/23/2005 - original
At a recent scientific conference at City College of New York, a student in the audience rose to ask the panelists an unexpected question, "Can you be a good scientist and believe in God?"

Reaction from one panelist was quick and sharp. "No!" declared Herbert Hauptman, who shared the 1985 Nobel in chemistry for his work on crystals. Belief in the supernatural, especially belief in God, is not only incompatible with good science, he said, "This kind of belief is damaging to the well-being of the human race."

But disdain for religion is far from universal among scientists. And scientists who embrace religion are beginning to speak out about their faith.

"It should not be a taboo subject, but frankly it often is in scientific circles," said Francis Collins, who directs the National Human Genome Research Institute and who speaks freely about his Christian faith.

Although they embrace religious faith, these scientists also embrace science as it has been defined for centuries. That is, they look to the natural world for explanations of what happens in the natural world.

This belief in science sets them apart from those who endorse creationism or its cousin, intelligent design, both of which depend on the existence of a supernatural force.

Their belief in God challenges scientists who regard religious belief as little more than magical thinking, as some do. Their faith also challenges believers who denounce science as a godless enterprise and scientists as secular elitists contemptuous of God-fearing people.


Some scientists say simply that science and religion are two separate realms, "non-overlapping magisteria," as the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould put it in his book Rocks of Ages (Ballantine, 1999).

But Collins, who is working on a book about his religious faith, believes that people should not have to keep religious beliefs and scientific theories strictly separate. "I don't find it very satisfactory, and I don't find it very necessary," he said. But he acknowledged that, as head of government efforts to decipher the human genetic code, he has a leading role in work that many say definitively demonstrates the strength of evolutionary theory to explain the complexity of life.

As scientists compare human genes with those of other mammals, worms, even bacteria, "the data are absolutely compelling," Collins said. "If Darwin had tried to imagine a way to prove his theory, he could not have come up with something better, except maybe a time machine. Asking somebody to reject all of that in order to prove that they really do love God what a horrible choice."

In a much-discussed survey reported in the journal Nature in 1997, 40 percent of biologists, physicists and mathematicians said they believed in God and not just a nonspecific transcendental presence but, as the survey put it, a God to whom one may pray "in expectation of receiving an answer."

The survey, by Edward J. Larson of the University of Georgia, was intended to replicate one done in 1914. Results were virtually unchanged. In both cases, participants were drawn from a directory of American scientists.

Others play down those results. They note that when Larson put part of the same survey to "leading scientists" in this case, members of the National Academy of Sciences, perhaps the nation's most eminent scientific organization fewer than 10 percent professed belief in a personal God or human immortality.

This response is not surprising to researchers like Steven Weinberg, a physicist at the University of Texas, and a winner of the Nobel Prize in 1979 for his work in particle physics.

He said he could understand why religious people would believe that anything that eroded belief was destructive. He adds, "I think one of the great historical contributions of science is to weaken the hold of religion. That's a good thing."


He rejects the idea that scientists who reject religion are arrogant. ("We know how many mistakes we've made.") And he is angered by assertions that people without religious faith are without a moral compass.

"Most scientists I know don't think about it very much," he said. "They don't think about religion enough to qualify as practicing atheists."

Most scientists he knows who do believe in God, he added, believe in "a God who is behind the laws of nature but who is not intervening."

Since Hauptman's appearance at the City College panel, he has said he has been discussing the issue with colleagues in Buffalo, N.Y., where he heads the Hauptman-Woodward Research Institute.

"Almost without exception the people I have spoken to are scientists, and they do believe in a supreme being," he said. "If you ask me to explain it I cannot explain it at all."

Collins said he believes some scientists are unwilling to profess faith in public "because the assumption is if you are a scientist you don't have any need of action of the supernatural sort," or because of pride in the idea that science is the ultimate source of intellectual meaning.

But he said he believed some scientists were simply unwilling to confront the big questions religion tries to answer.

"You will never understand what it means to be a human being through naturalistic observation," he said. "You won't understand why you are here and what the meaning is. Science has no power to address these questions."