Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dark Matter and Dinosaurs

By Eric Von Salzen

I was fascinated by the article about CERN and the God particle (the Higgs Boson) that Greg posted recently. Serious scientists are actually talking about particles that travel through time to affect human activities. As a commenter said, “And people think we're weird for believing in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.” As if that weird science weren’t weird enough, other serious scientists are debating whether the movements of galaxies and galactic clusters – which don’t make sense according to the laws of gravity – should be explained by assuming that 90% of the matter in the universe is stuff we can’t see and know absolutely nothing about (“dark matter”), or by changing the laws of gravity to fit the observations.

This all brings to mind an impression I have that belief in God is more prevalent in some scientific disciplines than in others; specifically that cosmologists and quantum physicists are more likely to believe in God than are biologists.

I’ve done no research on this, and maybe I’ve just been overly influenced by books I’ve happened to read – like God and the Astronomers by Robert Jastrow, on the one hand, and practically every book that Stephen Jay Gould wrote, on the other. If anyone has any actual data on this, I’d love to hear about it.

But for the time being, assuming that this impression is correct, it makes sense to me that this should be so.

Cosmologists and quantum physicists deal with matters that are right on the edge of human comprehension, as the discussion of the Higgs Boson illustrates. I don’t mean merely that I don’t understand these subjects; there are myriad things I don’t understand, from the popularity of rap music to why anyone would eat Manhattan clam chowder if they can get New England. What I mean is that the most powerful human minds are stretched to the limit to puzzle over what happened in the first micro-instants of the Big Bang, or why galaxies are the shape they are, or what it is that makes a quark charming.

A scientist who has to face the possibility that what he’s trying to discover may lie, unknowable, beyond the blue event horizon, might find it possible to believe that there’s something beyond the edge of human comprehension, and that something might be “God”. I don’t claim that every cosmologist or quantum physicist believes in God – that’s probably a minority position at best, and even those who believe in God may more likely be Deists than Christians – but I think that belief can be found in such company.

Now for the biologists. If I’m right that they are the least religious of scientists, there’s good historical reason for their being so. A central tenet of biology -- evolution through natural selection – has been the battlefield on which believers and secularists have waged their campaigns against one another for a century and a half. In this country in recent years the fight has been over “teaching evolution in the schools”. If you were a biologist, your opinion of religion could not help but be affected by the fact that it was religious people who were trying to get the school board to ban evolution from the high school science curriculum, or add a unit on “creation science”. You could be excused for seeing faith as an enemy of science.

And it’s not just biologists for whom Biblical literalism is a stumbling block in the way of religious faith. Many educated people in this modern world are going to hesitate to embrace a belief system that demands that they reject what they have learned to be the established consensus of scientific thought.

Frankly, Christianity makes claims that are pretty tough for people brought up in this modern secular world to accept – that God became embodied as a Jewish carpenter who performed miraculous healings and other feats, was executed in a gruesome manner, and then rose bodily from the dead. We Christians make it much harder for such people to accept the Gospel if we insist that they also have to swallow the claim that all the animals, birds, and fishes were created just as we see them today in seven days six thousand years ago.

I’ve often felt that the Episcopal Church, tiny as it is in membership, may be called to bring the Gospel to intelligent, educated, modern people, who are turned off by the excesses of the Protestant fundamentalists on the one hand, and the rule-bound Romans on the other.

That’s not a bad ministry to have in the United States today. Unfortunately, though, some church leaders – even a bishop or two – seem to think that the way to make the church acceptable to modern people is to dilute its religious content. That hasn’t worked, and it shouldn’t be expected to work. What would draw a modern secularist to a church that said the same things he/she heard all the time from the modern, secular world? Oh, maybe some people will come for the music, or the incense, or the pretty gowns the clergy wear, but that’s not a rock on which to build a church. The only reason for significant numbers of modern, secular people to become part of the church is the kerygma, the Gospel, the Good News. Without that the church is just another venue of the secular world. It doesn't help to tell them that we don’t question the Theory of Evolution, but we have our doubts about the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ. If they want evolution without Resurrection, why go to church? They can get plenty of that in the world around them, and sleep late on Sunday.


  1. Thanks for this essay Eric. It's sparked some thoughts of my own over on my blog.

    For what it's worth, as best I remember the research I've seen, your impression about the relative numbers of scientists of faith in various fields is true. Biologists are less likely to be religious than the average person. Physicists are just as likely.

    Most I think for the reasons you suggest. But I think there may be a bit of defensive reaction on the part of biologists too. They have to put up with an awful lot of pseudo science from overly excited young earthers. I suppose that would be a turnoff for them.

  2. Eric, great post yet again (as always). For me, I tend to think that those on the zealous religious right who speak out against evolution in schools (as well as demand that the 10 commandment be posted in every public nook and cranny, but that's a different topic for a different day) are actually in the "believing" minority. Unfortunately, they are the most visible/vocal because, after all, we all love a good fight.

    The struggle (though not really a struggle, per se) I have is to constantly check my beliefs and actions as against a "cheap" grace. I want to make sure that my conduct, beliefs and what I stand for do not engender a dismissal of the Christ event. In other words, if I'm not changed, and changed drastically from an earthly system (or "earthly economy" as Yoder would put it) to a "kingdom" system, then Christ died for nothing (to borrow from St Paul, if I may).

    I'm not sure if you intended this point or not, but I certainly see a parallel between your post and this view, i.e. TEC should always remain in constant tension between meeting the "earthly" economic subscribers with a beautiful alternative; one that embodies the very image of God and offers that fresh cup of cold water to a dying and thirsty world.

  3. Another superb post by the Godfather, who has often commented and posted on similar topics. Remember the story about the philosphers and scientists who postulated there was no God but were surprised to find a bunch of theologians sitting on the top of the mountain they were all scaling? I think this fits right in.

  4. I see your point, Eric. I was raised surrounded by PhD's in physics, engineering, etc, and almost all were both good scientists and faithful in worshipping communities.

    I think, though, that the issue of "horizon" is very important. I work in health care, surrounded by folks working, if you will, in "applied biology" - medicine, nursing, and ancillary professions - and many, if not most, are believers (although admittedly observance varies). These folks also have a horizon they face - death - and so look beyond their limitations.