Science is my job - faith is my rock

Globe and Mail

by Zosia Bielski

This week, when Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, declined to discuss his Christian beliefs in the face of accusations that they were influencing his work, the fallout cast new light on the challenges of religious individuals who work in science fields: How do they reconcile their professional passions with their belief in God?

After critics expressed concern that Mr. Goodyear's beliefs could have played a role in recent funding cuts, the minister admitted on Wednesday what he had refused to a day earlier - that he does believe in evolution. "But," he added, "it is an irrelevant question."

Afterward, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Stephen Harper stressed that religious beliefs have no bearing on federal science strategy.

Some scientists and educators say squaring one's religious beliefs with a career in science is a complex undertaking. But it's one, they argue, that can actually enhance their work.

"The culture by and large assumes that you're either religious or scientific. There's a deeply entrenched dichotomy," said Denis Lamoureux, a born-again Christian who holds Canada's first tenure-track position in science and religion and teaches a course on the same subject at the University of Alberta.

Dr. Lamoureux is a Christian evolutionist: He believes God is behind the evolutionary process. The professor holds two strikingly contrary PhDs: one in theology and the other in evolutionary biology (his specialty is the evolution of teeth and jaws).

Ever since an explosion of science-religion dialogue 15 years ago, both communities have comprehended that "guys like me can exist," Dr. Lamoureux said.

Rev. Ambury Stuart, a climate-change scientist who was ordained a United Church minister in 2004, said that while some of his science colleagues were onside with his new career choice, others thought it was irrational. As for his religious colleagues, several of the more conservative were "scratching their heads," wary that he might manipulate the faith.

"I struggled with this all my life. I grew up in the United Church, I always attended. You say, 'Well, can you believe in God if you believe in Newton's laws?' And the short answer is yes, you can, but it takes a while," Mr. Stuart said.

"You have to think through a lot of stuff. It's not simplistic. You try and divide your brain into two bits: One bit you'll use on Sunday and the rest of it you'll use the rest of the week, and it doesn't work. It doesn't have to."

Evolutionary evangelist Michael Dowd's book Thank God For Evolution helped Mr. Stuart smooth out his own message at Glebe Road United Church in Toronto. He weaves his scientific passions into his sermons.

"You can look at scripture and say this means a whole lot more than we ever thought it meant before, because it applies to everything," Mr. Stuart said. "The idea that we are related, that we are kin with the rest of life, is essential for Christianity to do anything constructive in the ecological crisis."

Others are helping budding scientists integrate their faith into their future fields. Thaddeus Trenn, a former physicist who once worked on global positioning technology, launched a science and religion course at the University of Toronto in the late 1990s.

"Especially Muslim students were very interested because they felt strongly about their beliefs and didn't want to have to hang that up at the door when they went into a neurophysiology course, for instance.

They really struggled with that, but found that they didn't have to give up their beliefs as they understood the Creator and could still do good science," said Dr. Trenn, who is president of the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation, a "fellowship of men and women [who] share a common fidelity to the word of God and a commitment to integrity in the practice of science."

Dr. Trenn argues that in Isaac Newton's time, people attempted to reconcile their faith with scientific discoveries. He says that process has been waylaid by scientism, a rigorous belief that science dictates all answers.

"People have to come to terms with what is real and true in science and what may be deeply true in other ways," Dr. Trenn said.

Many have developed casual systems for dealing with potential friction with their non-believing colleagues.

This week, Dr. Lamoureux is working at his university's paleontology department alongside Michael Caldwell, the chair of biology - and an atheist.

"When we go into the lab, we work with an assumption that nature operates through natural laws, and evolution in particular. There's no God tinkering along the way and adding an arm or a fin. Now, when Mike and I go out of the lab and go to Faculty Club and have a beer, we fight like cats and dogs on whether there's a God or not.

"But it's all very respectful. I'm happy to say he's my best friend."