“How can you believe in God and science at the same time?” Â
Even though I am rarely asked this question so plainly, it is often implied in conversation. Â Many atheistic advocates think that there is a conflict between the two. They may suspect that a belief in the supernatural is used primarily to explain the physical world with non-physical means and to “fill in the gaps” for conundrums for which there is no better or more reasonable determination. They may believe that beliefs are driven by a search for meaning and cohesion, and that this persistent pursuit of Reasons may mistakenly (and somewhat ironically) lead people to become more irrational. They may believe that science, as the ultimate paradigm in methodically inductive, deductive, and reductive Reasoning, is consequently the most obvious arbiter of truth. They may then believe that the willful denial and rejection of conclusions arrived at by science is therefore illogical, irrational, and subsequently idiotic. It is therefore reasonable to see why people would automatically consider those who believe in the supernatural to be willfully ignorant, regarding them with suspicion, condescension, and/or frustration.
I grew up saturated in both religion and science. My father is an electrical engineer, well accomplished and respected in his field. As a child, I was surrounded by gizmos and textbooks, not understanding what “GaAs Semiconductors” were but curious to find out. His approach to the world has always had the paradigm of a scientist: always thinking, observing, and making his own private conclusions. He had a very strong moral sense, but it was strongly grounded in a Confucian sense of discipline, orderliness, and character virtue. He was not a Christian at the time and he generally took an agnostic and aloof stance towards religion, seeing it as a generally positive force in shaping his family’s sensibilities but still regarding it cautiously. It was almost as if he was wary towards the existence and significance of a God who seemed to be a relatively benign but otherwise untested hypothesis.
My mother is a firm Christian and a nurse, nearly opposite to my father in temperament and belief. Â Where he is cool and detached, she has been deeply suffused with emotion. Where he sought out natural principles and laws of order in the physical world, society, and human relationships, she has been attuned to spiritual precepts and looks to them as ReaÂsons why things are what they are. She is diligent and meticulous in this way, always keeping an eye out for them, an ear cocked for the whisÂper of a conÂseÂquence or a lesÂson. Most were simÂple illusÂtraÂtions and object lessons of basic charÂacÂter: an irriÂtatÂing perÂson was placed in my life to teach me patience; a flat tire the day after a stingy finanÂcial deciÂsion was a reminder to be more genÂerÂous; an unexÂpected piece of good news was an examÂple of Godâ€™s conÂsisÂtent goodÂness. Some links were easy to see and underÂstand. OthÂers were not.
I grew up lisÂtenÂing to both these narÂraÂtives, never really seeing a conflict between the two paradigms. They are both internally consistent in their logic. They are both meticulous in assessment and constantly rework the available evidence into a deterministic and causal understanding of the world. I had been taught that, though science could inform much of the “how” of life, only religion could provide the “why” with any degree of functional certainty. I supÂposed it was the way in which everyÂone learned to make sense of an othÂerÂwise hapÂhazÂard world, how we mainÂtained the hope to cope through difÂfiÂcult sitÂuÂaÂtions. But as I grew older, reaÂson began to chalÂlenge the Reasons.
It started with the big quesÂtions. Were peoÂple really poor because they were lazy? WasÂ HIVÂ really Godâ€™s punÂishÂment to homoÂsexÂuÂals? Was evoÂluÂtion really at odds with ChrisÂtianÂity? And of course, the biggest of them all: is there a ReaÂson for suffering?
For nearly each of these quesÂtions, I had trouble accepting the answers from my mother. Â We would go through endÂless cycles of arguÂments, some of which were very heated and charged with bitÂter words. SomeÂtimes I held on to prove a point, but I often found myself fightÂing out of sheer stubÂbornÂness and pride. I was chalÂlengÂing the ReaÂsons because I began to doubt that there were any. Â I was not certain that any amount of goodness truly governed the natural world, and strongly suspected that humanity was alone in its struggle to survive sentiently. Â This breakdown in faith in the divine, which began in college, blossomed in medical school.
MadÂness and chaos. That was what disÂease seemed to me, the strugÂgle between life and death in the hosÂpiÂtal wards. Kind and genÂerÂous patients sufÂfered from horÂrific fates while those who were malinÂgerÂing and maliÂcious fed off of the systemâ€™s genÂerosÂity withÂout punÂishÂment. The hosÂpiÂtal was a new and disÂoriÂentÂing place in which the old rules, the old ReaÂsons (either physical or spiritual) no longer seemed to apply. Who lived and who died was less a funcÂtion of moralÂity as it was of bioÂlogÂiÂcal processes, state variÂables, and lots of luck. In a world where so much was at stake, only the new reaÂsons, the EviÂdence of hard data and tight corÂreÂlaÂtions matÂtered. And yet even there, the most basic assumpÂtions about stanÂdards of care were chalÂlenged and occaÂsionÂally overÂthrown by the latÂest and greatÂest studÂies, and many reaÂsonÂable, long-standing assoÂciÂaÂtions between health and disÂease once thought to be clinically objective disÂinÂteÂgrated under closer scrutiny.
My own shift in perÂspecÂtive was subÂtle at first, and I wasnâ€™t able to articÂuÂlate my disÂcomÂfort with it until one of my friends began using â€œeviÂdence based arguÂmentsâ€ for everyÂthing. He would launch into a politÂiÂcal disÂcusÂsion with othÂers and pepÂper them with the quesÂtion, â€œWhereâ€™s your refÂerÂence? Show me the study.â€ It was an irriÂtatÂing thing for him to do in the conÂtext of othÂerÂwise casual conÂverÂsaÂtion, but the inflamÂmaÂtory nature came from the realÂizaÂtion that most of what we say on a daily basis is comÂpletely speculative. We make conÂcluÂsions based on very litÂtle eviÂdence because that is how we must deal with the comÂplexÂiÂties of daily life, but if we truly realÂized how uneÂdÂuÂcated and spoÂradic those deciÂsions were, we would lose the conÂfiÂdence to make it from one moment to the next.
SomeÂthing in me hardÂened. My faith in God, the UltiÂmate ReaÂson, which had once been so strong began to setÂtle for lesser things. God may count the hairs on your head, but I can tell you now that it will be exactly zero once your chemotherÂapy is started. You can pray for a mirÂaÂcle, but if we donâ€™t ampuÂtate that leg tomorÂrow you might lose your life. PrayÂing is good, but prayÂing 20 hours outÂside in the snow is not; please restart your bipoÂlar medÂicaÂtions or we wonâ€™t let you out.
And so prayer, someÂthing I once loved to do, became more an act of desÂperÂaÂtion and a superÂstiÂtion than one of faith. I didnâ€™t know what to pray for, mainly because I was tired of being disÂapÂpointed. I began knockÂing on wood and crossÂing my finÂgers because they seemed to be just as effecÂtive: barely, if at all. I was tired of BS and really just wanted to admit: I donâ€™t know I donâ€™t know I donâ€™t know.
Finally, at the end of a long year in clinical rotations, a collapsed lung (pneumothorax) knocked me out long enough to mull it over in my mind. True to form, my mother insisted that there was a ReaÂson behind my lung colÂlapse, that the timÂing, the method, the stresses I was going through were all too coinÂciÂdenÂtal to be due to anyÂthing else. And we talked, perÂhaps for the first time, about what it meant to use reaÂsons and to look for ReaÂsons. It reminded me of the Tower of Siloam:
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had minÂgled with their sacÂriÂfices. And he answered them, â€œDo you think that these Galileans were worse sinÂners than all the other Galileans, because they sufÂfered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likeÂwise perÂish. Or those eighÂteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offendÂers than all the othÂers who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likeÂwise perÂish.â€ â€” Luke 13
WhenÂever I talk at length about the nature of sufÂferÂing, I menÂtion an examÂple a menÂtor once used. SufÂferÂing is just the push that tips a cup over; it has no bearÂing on what comes out. This is what I have come to believe about sufÂferÂing, illÂness, death, and all Events with conÂseÂquences for which we seek a ReaÂson: they reveal what is inside me, deep down inside that refuses to come out othÂerÂwise. I may have no conÂtrol over my enviÂronÂment or the insanÂity of this small earth we inhabit, but there is always someÂthing in me that I can ask to have transformed:
Do not be conÂformed to this world, but be transÂformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testÂing you may disÂcern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptÂable and perÂfect. â€” Romans 12
It made me reconsider epistemology, or the study of how we know anything to be true at all. It made me wonder why I should remain decidedly Christian.
[To be continued…]
About the author:
David graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and received his medical degree from Rutgers - Robert Wood Johnson Medical School with a Masters in Public Health concentrated in health systems and policy. He completed a dual residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at Christiana Care Health System in Delaware. He continues to work in Delaware as a dual Med-Peds hospitalist. Faith-wise, he is decidÂedly Christian, and regarding everything else he will gladly talk your ear off about health policy, the inner city, gadgets, and why Disneyâ€™s Frozen is actually a terrible movie.