The faith of scientists

Religion / Science

I’ve fallen a little behind on my blogging this past Easter season, so I’m just now getting around to posting this piece based on a tip from Paul M. Back around Easter time the results of the third major study of American scientists and their religious beliefs was released. The results are not terribly surprising to me at least, though they might be to some outside the scientific and/or religious communities:

“It turns out that nearly 50 percent of scientists identify with a religious label, and nearly one in five is actively involved in a house of worship, attending services more than once a month. While many scientists are completely secular, my survey results show that top scientists are also sitting in the seats of our nation’s churches, temples and mosques.

Unfortunately, because of the controversy and conflicts surrounding the evolution-creation debate, stem cell research and other topics related to science and faith, most religious scientists do not feel comfortable talking about their scientific lives within their faith communities. They think discussing science within their house of worship might offend fellow parishioners who are not scientists. So they do not bring it up. Instead, they practice what I call ‘secret science.’ And everyone in the community loses out.

The most dangerous result of this reticence is a lack of role models for youth who might want to go into science but fear science might lead them away from faith. According to a recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. schoolchildren receive poorer science education than do students in most other industrialized nations. Other research shows that how students experience science in elementary and secondary school–as well as how well their science abilities evolve–helps predict not only whether they’ll enter a career in science, but also whether they’ll attend college and enter higher-status fields (like engineering). Better science skills and understanding often correlate with greater overall success and socioeconomic stability.”

Read the full report here.

This study strikes me as being very accurate in its depiction of the reticence of scientists to talk openly of their faith in secular settings. And I suppose some of that does have to do with the typical primitive way that the creation/evolution debate is framed by the loudest voices. (Voices which strike me as really using their positions in the debate for political or monetary gain in other areas.)

But some of it has to do with the fact that many scientists are not theologically literate enough to feel comfortable talking about their faith, the reasons for it, or what they gain by it. And many theologians are reticent taking about science because they don’t really feel like they understand it and they have experienced only the certainty of scientific claims of commonly accepted theories and not the much more common uncertainty of theories proposed at the cutting edges of research. The two effects taken together means that unless you have someone with formal training in both fields, like a John Polkinghorne or the Presiding Bishop, you don’t have much opportunity for real discourse.

It’s the lack of real discourse that I worry is contributing to the danger listed in the third quoted paragraph above. Young people really don’t see many role models in their everyday life. Honestly, it was out of my desire to fill that lack as much as anything else that I agreed to take a position as an adjunct at Lehigh University for five or six years teaching Physics and Astronomy. When I was talking about the job with the chair of the department back in 2000 *my* big question was whether or not they would allow me to teach in my clericals. I argued that I didn’t have time to change between the mornings in the parish and the afternoons in the lecture halls. But I was really sort of hoping that by appearing before a science classroom in a secular university dressed as a priest, I could give a sort of silent witness that faith and science don’t have to necessarily be seen as being at odds with each other.

I don’t know if I was as successful as I would have liked to have been, but over the years I did have a small number of students (10 or so?) show up in the parish either for a special teaching series or just to come to church on Sunday morning to see me in that context. I did end up baptizing two of my former students. And I think because I was sort of “exotic” in my dress, I was asked to be a faculty scholar for one of the nicer fraternity houses on campus – which afforded me the opportunity of extensive informal conversation with the brothers and their friends.

The one thing I can point to that did show me I was making a difference came at the end of one of the astronomy courses that I regularly taught. I had just collected the final evaluations from the students (and important tool in judging the quality of their educational experience) and was gathering up my things to leave the lecture hall. One of the students, someone who I can’t recall ever raising his hand before, suddenly shot up his hand and called out “Professor? You’re religious right?”

I allowed as how I was.

“You’ve been lying to us all semester then.”

I was sort of taken aback. The class left in the room all seemed to inhale at the same time. “What do you mean?”

“You keep telling us the Universe is almost 15 billion years old. You keep telling us the solar system is something like 5 billion years old and the Earth is like 4.5 billion years old. But you’re religious. So you don’t believe that. You’re lying to us.”

“Ah”, I thought. “He can’t imagine any other way of being religious than being a young earth creationist because I suppose that’s what he’s seen in the movies…”

I responded, “Well, you know, there’s more than one way to understand what the Scriptures teach about creation. I’m Episcopalian. We use the Bible differently than most of the people you seem to think of when you think of religious people.”

The class sort of chuckled. I guess my answer satisfied them as well as the student who had asked the question. (By this point the Episcopal Church had moved from being a word they didn’t know how to pronounce, to a denomination most of them were familiar with. I suppose that can be attributed to the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson and the dustup that resulted in American christianity.)

That was the end of the encounter. No matter what the young people in the class thought about the actions of the Episcopal Church, they now knew a few new things that were unrelated to anything else I had been talking about during the semester. One, that not all Christians interpret the Bible in the same way. Two, it was possible to talk about religion without having someone rise to the bait or react defensively. And three, it was possible to believe that science and religion can live with one another.

That seems enough to me. At least let the seed get planted. Hopefully they’ll work out the answers themselves. I find that the answers to important questions have more staying power in the long run that way anyhow. Both as a teacher and as a preacher.

I haven’t taught again since I’ve come to Phoenix. I just don’t have the time right now. But perhaps I be given the opportunity again. If I do, hopefully I can strike the same deal. I’ll teach for not much money, but I do want to be allowed to present myself to the class as I really am. A Christian who believes in Jesus and an Episcopal priest who tries again and again to make decisions based on that faith.

And if not me, I hope that other people will. It would give me hope that there will be answer to the concern listed in the article above.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Tracey says

    Thank you very much for your insights! I enjoy reading your blog very much.
    I am also a scientist, and I consider myself to be a spiritual person. Perhaps the fact that I went to a university run by Jesuits has something to do with the way I can reconcile the two facets without conflict. One of my professors told me that his faith in the existence of God was based on some of the most basic, yet elegant, mathematical principles. Only a supreme being could have used such simple rules to create such a complex universe.

  2. Martial Artist says

    Dean Knisely,
    I think what you have done, and hope to do again, are an important witness. They add to the witness of what the church has done historically. After all, were it not for the church, it is unclear if we would have universities and scientific scholarship, at least as we know and experience them.
    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  3. Paul Martin says

    If it is of any comfort, I suspect your presence at Lehigh sparked quite a few conversations on faith and science, even if they did not occur in your presence or in the classroom.
    You raise some good points. I suppose those of us with a technical background have a special responsibility here. Unfortunately, I am not sure my background equips me very well for these conversations. Most of the hot button issues in this area are in some other specialized field where I have only a layman’s knowledge. That is probably responsible for some of the reticence.

  4. Sometimes it may really conflict especially on the views regarding life. One must know how to balance the responsibility of being a scientist and being a believer.

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