“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”  This is one of Einstein’s most famous quotes, and I want to share how this quote reflects my personal journey as a person of faith working as a scientist[1].

The start of my journey

I grew up in America in a Christian family and started going to church every Sunday for as far back as I can remember.  I loved reading the Bible and understanding the life messages it had to offer through the stories it told.  I also grew up very interested in the natural world around me.  I loved exploring forests, watching animals, stargazing, and staring at sunsets on the beach.

For the first 18 years of my life, the main narrative I heard surrounding science and religion was that they are fundamentally incompatible.  You cannot believe the discoveries of science while at the same time believe the teachings of faith, I was told.  Due to this message, I was always trying to reconcile the two spheres of thought.

Reconciling science and my faith

As part of my effort to get to the bottom of the issue, I decided to study physics at Calvin College for my undergraduate degree.  Calvin is a small college in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan that is associated with the Christian Reformed Church.  In my physics and astronomy classes, I learned that the “what” and the “how” of the universe are determined by science, but the “who” and the “why” is covered by religious thought.  I remember the day I was sitting in astronomy class and the significance of this truth finally hit me.  When this happened, my young mind was laid to rest.  Science and religion were in fact not in conflict because the two have different aims, and therefore to evaluate one with the other is a gross misrepresentation of both.  My new goal was to excel in physics so that I could be a credible voice to share this message with the world.

Entering the “real world”

After I graduated from Calvin, I made the big decision to move to Australia to earn a PhD in astrophysics.  Everything changed for me very quickly.  I was on my own for the first time, having to pay rent and electricity bills and navigate my way through the “real world”, and all this in a foreign country.  I realised that there was a lot more to doing life than settling the differences between two apparently irreconcilable modes of thinking.  I had to worry about how much energy I was using at home and keep track of how expensive food at the supermarket was so that I could continue my physical existence without too much suffering.  I also had to figure out what it meant to have a career.

A new conflict within me

Having to make my own way for myself opened my eyes to the state of the world.  Furthermore, I felt (and still feel) daily irritation that the science I was doing had no direct connection to improving the human situation on planet earth.  For example, on a particular road trip I took in Western Australia, I remember seeing parabola-shaped solar cookers and longing to find some way to use the sun, combined with a global light collecting network (similar to the Internet), to make solar energy much more abundant for all people.  I longed for my own freedom and for the freedom of others to live their lives as they willed, rather than as the global financial system willed.  Despite having these feelings, I continued the PhD.  As I write this, I am adding the final touches to my thesis, and I expect to finish within a few weeks!

Evaluation of my PhD experience

Looking back on the PhD experience, however, still leaves me dissatisfied with what I have done.  Don’t get me wrong – I am proud of earning a PhD.  It’s just this one nagging question keeps propping back up in my mind: “OK, I did a PhD, now what?”  This inevitably leads to more questions:  What will my work lead to?  Who is going to benefit from my work?  What meaningful changes has it made in my life and the lives of others?  What impact will it have on the quality of life of my fellow human beings?  These are questions to which I have not been able to provide answers that I am pleased with, but that is another story.

Science and religion need each other

This is why I find inspiration in Einstein’s quote.  To do science without thinking about the purpose for doing it is indeed lame.  To spend enormous resources on research into nuclear power, petroleum fuel efficiency, and radio wave emission from galaxies, for example, without thinking about where it will lead or the long-term consequences is highly unwise and will slow down human evolution.  At the same time, merely having faith that there is something better than what we currently have on this planet would be equivalent to being blind.  To hope for peace, prosperity, and free access to resources without clearly defining what these words mean and what method to use in order to accomplish them is a futile and wasteful endeavour.  But science working with a spiritual purpose in mind – think about what that could lead to!

We need to start recognising science for what it is – a tool for the betterment of humanity, not an end in itself, and certainly not to be pursued at the expense of human life and well-being.  We also need to recognise faith for what it is – a belief in something better that is yet to come, despite not having evidence for its existence.  Einstein also said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”  Let’s make every effort to synergise our scientific and spiritual imaginations to make life better for ourselves and for the whole human family.  I have faith that this is possible.  Do you?

[1] This quote is often mentioned out of context, but for the sake of this article, I will ignore this fact. See https://newrepublic.com/article/115821/einsteins-famous-quote-science-religion-didnt-mean-taught

By Andrew Butler

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