Beliefs Can Coexist: I’m A Science Writer And A Christian

Knowledge is power, but for me, it doesn’t replace faith—it furthers it.

One of my first courses in graduate school was a “readings in literary science writing” elective. While introducing herself on the first night of class, the instructor—an older woman who had published a book on medical ethics—announced flatly that if any of us believed in God, we had no business being in her class, and definitely should not be pursuing a career in science writing.

I should have had the courage to jump right up and proudly proclaim “I believe in God!” and follow up with a witty, well-worded retort. But I didn’t. I hate confrontation and I’m terrible at thinking on my feet.

I also wasn’t confident that I could find the right words to defend my concurrent beliefs in God and science. Besides, entering into a battle with someone who had clearly made up their mind was likely futile.

Science is for the enlightened brainiacs, religion for the idiot lemurs, right?

I’d heard the debate raging my whole life, yet it still stung to hear someone say it to my face. I could accept her science, yet she couldn’t even allow me to have my God. I worried that I had made a mistake by going back to school. I heeded her advice and dropped the class, but continued seeking my degree in science writing.

The notion of science and religion being mutually exclusive has been around for a while—but not as long people think. The book Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion, edited by historian Ronald Numbers, features 25 scholars debunking 25 commonly held misconceptions about the historical relationship between the two disciplines.

In his introduction, Numbers writes: “The greatest myth in the history of science and religion holds that they have been in a state of constant conflict.” He says that from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, Western culture was guided by the idea that books of scripture and the book of nature were both the work of God and therefore offered complementary, not conflicting, ideas.

Now, Western intellectuals reduce Christianity to a fairy tale, rendering its believers simple-minded rejecters of logic. At the same time, we afford the practitioners of Eastern religions a measure of reverence and esteem because their concepts are exotic to us—comparatively mystical and satisfyingly mysterious. Why can’t we extend the same courtesy to religions we are more familiar with? Why am I an uneducated hillbilly for believing in God, but windswept and interesting for practicing Zen Buddhism?

It would greatly help us Christians garner respect if the most prominent American evangelicals would stop twisting Christianity into a reason to legalize and encourage hatred, discrimination, and inequality. Redacting science textbooks, in the same way that they advocate teaching abstinence-only, serves to reinforce the cries of ignorance from the other side. Knowledge is power, but for me, it doesn’t replace faith—it furthers it.

In most of my recent journalistic efforts, the overarching theme has been that things are generally far more complicated than we think, or than we have been led to believe. Illuminating complexity makes for a writing challenge, so I understand the impulse of journalists to err on the side of over-simplification. Unfortunately, this type of reporting incites an inflammatory, argumentative “versus” culture, rather than cultivating a learn-from-our-differences “dialogue” culture.

At last year’s science writers’ association conference, a cosmologist gave a presentation about his research on the cosmic microwave background and the period of rapid expansion that occurred just after the universe came into being. During his remarks, he said “the big bang theory says nothing about what set the stretching of the universe in motion.” I’m sure most people in the audience thought nothing of this comment, but to me it was this perfect little nugget—a one-line caveat that I could cling to. It’s always puzzled me why the big bang and a Creator are presented as a choice. Why can’t God have created the big bang? It was this scholar’s choice of words “set in motion” that brought to my mind the image of someone putting a needle down on a record. If you hear cosmic music, why couldn’t it be from an all-powerful DJ?

Curious about how other people reconciled their belief in a higher power and in scientific truths, I found solace in the book Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit. In it, journalist Krista Tippett writes: “The science-religion ‘debate’ is unwinnable, and it has led us astray. To insist that science and religion speak the same language, or draw the same conclusions, is to miss the point of both of these pursuits of cohesive knowledge and underlying truth. To create a competition between them, in terms of relevance or rightness, is self-defeating.” She believes that the discourse between the two has already “developed organically, below the journalistic and political radar,” and proven “mutually illuminating and lush with promise.”

Another resource I discovered to help me find the words to articulate my “belief in both” was Reasons to Believe. Founded by an astronomer, a biochemist, an astrophysicist, and a theologian, the website’s mission is “to spread the Christian Gospel by demonstrating that sound reason and scientific research—including the very latest discoveries—consistently support, rather than erode, confidence in the truth of the Bible.”

As a science journalist, I’m taking a big risk declaring my Christianity because many people share my professor’s sentiment that believing in any religion disqualifies me from explaining science. Since I write about health and medical issues, not evolutionary biology or cosmology, I’d like to think it doesn’t matter as much. It’s not like I believe in snake handling or that medical intervention should be withheld in favor of faith healing or that birth control and fertility treatment are an affront to God.

I’d like to think that my faith shapes my reporting by encouraging me to report on marginalized groups and overlooked injustices with compassion and empathy. I believe that my faith calls me to be a steward of the earth and to advocate justice and equality for all. I believe the study of the intricacies and mysteries of our natural world can draw us closer to its Creator. I may not directly address faith in my articles, but my religion calls me to publicly declare my belief that Christ died for my sins. If all I risk by doing that is losing a few readers and maybe not being taken as seriously in my field, then I consider myself lucky. In other parts of the world, to swear your allegiance to a religion is to risk death.

The many labels I could use to describe myself—hippie, introvert, Christian, feminist, wife, science-believer, journalist, mother, environmentalist—may seem hopelessly incompatible because of the way they are popularly characterized or misrepresented by users, but I am living proof that all of these ideals can coexist in one person.

Olivia Campbell is a freelance journalist whose articles and essays on science, culture, and parenting have appeared in Pacific Standard Magazine,The Daily Beast, Brain, Child Magazine, and Mothering Magazine.

Related Links: