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Scientists are finding a friend in religion 


When Rick Husband, commander of the shuttle Columbia, looked out the window of his spacecraft, he saw what he called God's awe-inspiring creation. Crew member Michael Anderson, a physicist, believed that heaven, not space, was his final frontier.

Their faith may come as a surprise to those who think science and religion are on irreconcilable paths. The spiritual lives of these astronauts and thousands of scientists reveal a journey in which religion enhances and supports scientific discovery.

The space program has a long history of astronauts who have boldly taken their faith into orbit. And even as Americans grapple with the thorniest of issues dividing religion and science, including the question of creation and evolution, several national organizations have emerged for those seeking to combine careers in science with their faith in God.

"I find my appreciation of science is greatly enriched by religion," said Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian who heads the National Human Genome Research Institute, in an interview with Beliefnet, a Web site devoted to spiritual topics.

"When I discover something about the human genome, I experience a sense of awe at the mystery of life, and say to myself, 'Wow, only God knew before.' It is a profoundly beautiful and moving sensation, which helps me appreciate God and makes science even more rewarding for me."

Faith on board

In 1958, NASA's first seven astronauts were introduced at a news conference at which John Glenn said, "I got on this project because it'll probably be the nearest thing to heaven I'd ever get and I wanted to make the most of it."

In 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. In 1998, at age 77, Glenn returned to space, on the shuttle Discovery, and said, "To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible."

The Apollo 8 crew celebrated the first flight around the moon by reading from Genesis, the first book of the Bible, which gives the creation account. The first meal on the moon was Holy Communion, taken by Buzz Aldrin.

Religion was a presence on board Columbia in its final mission.

Although he didn't observe Jewish dietary laws on Earth, Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli on a shuttle mission, ate kosher foods in space and carried a palm-size Torah scroll.

On Jan. 28, at 10:39 a.m., the Columbia crew bowed their heads in reverent silence to honor the exact moment the space shuttle Challenger had exploded in the skies 17 years earlier.

'A beautiful creation'

Husband, an engineer who took his first shuttle flight in 1999, had told the Fresno (Calif.) Bee in November: "I am a strong believer and a Christian. I look out that window at what a beautiful creation God has made."

Anderson, who became interested in space exploration while watching the TV series "Star Trek," put faith at the center of who he was, said his father, Bobbie Anderson. "Even now, with what happened, I can feel assured that by his being a Christian man, he's in a better place," Bobbie Anderson told reporters outside his home in Spokane, Wash.

Only a few scientists become astronauts. But many describe their work with the same awe-struck terms the astronauts use.

"The actual study of science and nature is likely to lead a practitioner to a sense of wonder and human smallness in the presence of a very great mind indeed. Many would say, for instance, that there is hardly any more glorious example of God's genius in creation than the way evolution works," said science writer Kitty Ferguson, author of a new book on Johannes Kepler, the 17th century German Lutheran who discovered the laws of planetary motion that now bear his name.

Evolution a great divider

Evolution, a tenet of 20th century science, can be a great divide.

Some scientists embrace an "intelligent design" theory or other scientific explanations allowing for a creator. Others reconcile faith and science by maintaining, in Collins' words, that "a creator God set the process" of evolution in motion.

And while scientists are sometimes suspicious of men and women of faith in their midst -- "The standard assumption is that anyone with faith has gone soft in the head," Collins told Beliefnet -- people of faith are sometimes hostile to scientists.

Don Monroe, executive director of the 2,400-member American Scientific Affiliation, recalled how, as a graduate student studying cellular physiology in the mid-1960s, his pastor told him he couldn't understand how a Christian could become a biologist.

"It made me gasp," said Monroe, who lives in Ipswich, Mass., where his organization is located. "My wife was right there behind me and she gasped, too. I went home and thought about that, and I've continued to think about that for more than 30 years."

The ASA, a support group for evangelicals in science, is evidence that Monroe has company in his journeys down the paths of faith and science.

The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, in Berkeley, Calif., also grapples with ontological questions. And since 1995, the Washington-based American Association for the Advancement of Science has had a "Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion" that reaches out to religious communities. The group is the world's largest general scientific society and the publisher of Science magazine.

Common ground

Some see the gulf between religion and science closing.

William Phillips, who won the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics for his work in cooling and trapping atoms with lasers, said the perception that religion and science are in intractable conflict is fading.

Increasing is the view that both religion and science have "important things to tell us about life and the universe" and that "sometimes you need to consult both in order to get the best answers," said Phillips, a University of Maryland professor who sometimes teaches Sunday school at his United Methodist church.

The public is showing increased interest in "the faith of scientists," while scientists are "exploring and speaking of their own faith," said Aileen O'Donoghue, a physics professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., who recently returned from a sabbatical at the Vatican Observatory in Italy.

"We are moving," O'Donoghue said, "to an era where religion and science are less polarized."


Mark O'Keefe "Scientists are finding a friend in religion." The Picayune Times February 8, 2003.

Reprinted with permission of Newhouse News Service. Newhouse News Service covers issues of cyberspace and technology; race and immigration; generations; money and work; health and science; values and philanthropy; national security; the American identity; and national politics.


Mark O'Keefe covers values and philanthropy for Newhouse News Service.

Copyright 2003 Newhouse News Service



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved