Scientists wrangle with questions of faith

Ursula Goodenough knows she takes a risk as a respected biologist when she spends a week each summer on this island considering God.

Though she says her colleagues might be intrigued by the questions asked here, many wouldn't grace this annual conference of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS), she says. The reason: Suspicions of religion in academic circles make them "afraid they won't get a grant if people find out they've been here."

Yet on a sun-splashed day at the end of July, this professor at Washington University in St. Louis claimed her place in the shade on a stately wrap-around porch six miles off New Hampshire's coast. As gulls cried and lobster boats puttered by, she counted herself among dozens of scientists who considered the risk worth taking.

"I'm troubled by the antiscience world," Ms. Goodenough said, citing efforts to bar evolution from the classroom as an example. "I come here to see how our understanding of matter can become a resource for religious understanding ... and to experience the wonder of being together."

Goodenough was far from alone. Dozens of scientists were among the 245 participants who grappled with the question: "Is Nature Enough? The Thirst for Transcendence." Nor was she alone in her dual motive for attending.

Whether trained in physics, astronomy, or organizational systems, the scientists shared dreams of reshaping a religious landscape they see as fraught with peril. At the same time, some confided yearnings for a genuine religious experience of their own. And for one week, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, they took their best shot at both.

Discussions of religious faith have in recent years become increasingly friendly terrain for scientists. Academic institutions that once spurned any ties between the two fields now study the effects of prayer on physical healing and convene scholars to connect science with spirituality. Suggested reasons vary: Perhaps postmodern critiques of objectivity have made religion more acceptable to scientists, or maybe the growth of interdisciplinary studies has made fusion inevitable. Whatever the reason, IRAS conferences are reflecting the shift as scientists this year outnumbered theologians by more than 5-1.

Few who chose to attend were shy about it. Within minutes of a reporter's arrival, scientists were circling tightly to tell the world for the record why they were there. More often than not, they had come unabashedly with the cause of reinterpreting religious traditions to accept the insights of science.

"The inability of religions to accommodate each other is a problem for the whole global community," said Jeff Dahms, a biologist and surgeon from New York City. "If they kill each other, they're going to kill all of us .... There's a job to be done by people who have sympathy with the religious impulse," which he defines as craving for "connection to other people and to the environment."

"To some extent, we're all fighting off fundamentalism" and its exclusive claims to truth, said Matt Young, a physicist at the Colorado School of Mines in Boulder. "One way to fight off fundamentalism is to infiltrate liberal religion." In his case, he brings to Reform Judaism a view of God as "nothing more and nothing less than an allegory. God is the best in us, and the best in us is God."

"Religion is an important part of our lives," said Surinder Paracer, a biologist at Worcester State College in Worcester, Mass. "It has great bearing on how we raise our children. The question is what type of modern religion do we want to have in the 21st century." Hinduism practiced in America has so little regard for logic, he said, that he traded it for Unitarianism whose "basic organizing principle is rationality."

For seven days, scientists pushed to see if religious terms – such as "transcendence," "God" and "morality" – could be redefined without assuming any supernatural forces to be at work. Yet even as they took aim to overhaul traditional religious concepts, they were celebrating spiritual rituals of their own that said the ancients' insights were alive and well among them.

Each day began and ended with a chapel service in which a Unitarian minister led a nontheist reflection. Participants one evening proceeded silently, two by two, along a rock-strewn path to the church. All meals were served family-style at tables seating 12. Workshops on such topics as "The Book of Job From a Standpoint in Religious Naturalism" suggested a collective trust that truth is best sought through a scientific method of gathering evidence and testing hypotheses. And when time came to honor the dead, including a well-known bookstore worker who had recently died, all were expected to gather in the chapel to pay respects.

For all the skepticism expressed in workshops and rocking-chair conversations, some echoed one impression that the week gives even the most rational of participants "a sense of awe and wonder."

"It's a very emotional place," said Leslie Lowry, a software engineer who's been attending each year since 1968. "Chapel services are people sharing the deepest feelings and emotions. I don't think we really felt [the bookstore worker's loss] until we got here, to the chapel."

Back at the Oceanic Hotel & Conference Center, discussion swirled around what is known through science – and what implications such knowledge might have for the moral life of human beings. Whether the natural world can produce a moral code knowable through scientific research, or whether humans must instead look to tradition and faith for guiding principles, is a dilemma Goodenough expects to generate "decades of conversation" in the future.

As they looked ahead, these scientists also looked back on what they had seen emerge over their careers in research. All agreed they know only a portion of what there is to know, and some marveled at what might unfold.

"It's important to find a relationship between myself and the infinite, between the work I do and the work I ought to do. That's where I find my place in the universe," said Art Francis, a chemical engineer from New York City.

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