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Scientists speak out on their religious beliefs

Christian faith can reconcile with evolution, students and scholars say

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Correction appended.

Though tension between scientific discovery and religious belief can prove divisive, Brown students and professors say the two are not mutually exclusive – studying one can drive interest in the other. Many scientists maintain their faith because, they say, they believe texts such as the Bible and tools like microscopes hold different, but equally valid, truths.

Joses Ho ’08, a neuroscience concentrator and member of College Hill for Christ, said part of his reason for studying neuroscience is his faith.

“I believe that man is made in the image of God, so there’s definitely something special about the brain that makes us different from animals and from chimpanzees,” he said. “Science has definitely got me thinking about the soul because I believe that we all have souls. Is the soul found in the brain or is this something found outside? That is where science is pushing me.”

Luke Renick ’08, an engineering concentrator and another member of College Hill for Christ, said many elements of science lead people to religion. He cited the writing of Francis Collins, a Nobel Prize winner for his work on DNA.

“(Collins’) thing is when you delve deeper and deeper into a cell, and into the origin of human life, and the building blocks of our life, it’s so incredibly complex,” Renick said. “Scientists are just baffled by the complexity, and so it leads a lot of people to say, ‘well, maybe there is a God behind this, maybe there is a designer.'”

Professor of Biology Ken Miller ’70 P’02, who is a devout Catholic, said he sees no contradiction in his professional and private beliefs.

“I think both science and religion are reflections of our very human inclination to try to make sense of the world in one way or another,” Miller said.

Miller has written textbooks about the theory of evolution and has publicly defended the theory over creationism or intelligent design.

“Creationism, creation science, intelligent design, call it whatever you will, is scientifically unsupported – flat out wrong,” Miller said. “Evolutionary science is as good a theory as we have to explain the origin and species and the natural history of life on this planet, and it stands on overwhelming scientific evidence.”

Ho said he believes some principles of evolution, but natural selection remains a theory. Ho said he thinks intelligent design is as valid as evolution and should be taught alongside it.

“I think evolution as a scientific theory is a perfectly fine scientific theory, and as any scientific theory it should be willing to stand up to the scrutiny of evidence and the scrutiny of experimentation,” he said.

Renick said belief in evolution by natural selection still requires faith beyond reason.

“Let’s say evolution works to a certain extent. How did it start? What is the origin of life? How did life come about?” Renick said. “Whether you’re a Christian or an atheist it will take a leap of faith.”

Despite their different views of evolution, both Ho and Miller said people look to both religion and science to find different kinds of truth.

“The religious tradition in which I was raised, and in which I still find myself, encloses the idea that faith and reason are both gifts from God,” Miller said.

Ho compared the realms of science and religion to a Venn diagram – “two spheres that kind of intersect at one point.”

“There are still areas that science doesn’t share with religion and religion doesn’t share with science,” he said.

Rumee Ahmed, the associate university chaplain for the Muslim community, said interpretation accounts for a lot of disagreement. Two people could observe the same phenomenon and interpret it either as a divine miracle or the result of natural laws depending on their personal background, he said. Just as understanding of the world is subjective, so is religion, Ahmed added.

“When you see words on the page, as soon as you construe them in your mind, you have conducted interpretation. Recognizing human subjectivity is the first step to understanding a text,” Ahmed said.

The Rev. Henry Bodah, associate university chaplain for the Roman Catholic community, said science and religion cannot truthfully contradict each other. Bodah cited St. Thomas Aquinas as saying “if science and the scriptures seem to contradict, it’s usually because we’ve misunderstood the scriptures.”

“So if science can demonstrate, for example, that the earth is five-and-a-half, four-and-a-half billion years old, then it’s true,” Bodah said. “As far as I’m concerned, there is no conflict between science and religion.”

An article in Tuesday’s Herald (“Scientists speak out on their religious beliefs,” March 6) incorrectly stated that Luke Renick ’08 cited the writings of Francis Crick. Renick cited Francis Collins, a leading researcher for the Human Genome Project.

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