Our Candid Dialogue, Research Addiction & Steps to Avoid Default Atheism
At the Study of the Origin of Life (ISSOL) conference, my colleague Fazale "Fuz" Rana and I enjoyed many thoughtful conversations with origin-of-life researchers. We discussed their papers and commented on those we'd referenced in our own writing. The conversations went smoothly—for a while. Eventually, we hit a bit of a speed bump when they asked about our own work and heard that we are Christians.
The responses were blunt and revealing. What were Fuz and I doing at the conference? We couldn't be serious scientists, could we? Were we even scientists at all? The origin-of-life researchers expressed their assumption that Christianity stands in opposition to a serious pursuit of science. One biochemist made this existential declaration: "I am a scientist. Therefore, I am an atheist."
Before we could address this dark cloud over our science credentials, yet another descended. We must not be serious Christians. After all, are not all "true Bible believers" disbelievers in all credible age measurements of the universe and Earth?
Confronted with so many misperceptions, Fuz and I hardly knew where to start, but we silently thanked God for the opportunity before us. Some of the researchers were willing to hear our responses. To begin, we explained that a careful and consistent integration of all the Bible's passages addressing the topic of origins supports an old-universe/old-Earth understanding and in no way contradicts what science has disclosed about the timing or order of origin events.
Next, we asked questions about our companions' published research, including specifics from their most recent papers as well as their comments on papers written by other origin-of-life researchers. This seemed to surprise them. Our questions persuaded these scientists of our familiarity with and understanding of the latest scientific details in origin-of-life research literature.
At this point they asked Fuz and me where we had earned our degrees, whether we had done postdoctoral research and/or published research papers, and, most pointedly, why we had come to this conference. They were surprised to learn that this was our third ISSOL conference, and that information gathered from past conferences had been put to use in our interdisciplinary book Origins of Life.1 A slight murmur arose when we invited them to read a review of the book by their revered colleague David Deamer in the journal Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres.2
Decision or Default?
With our credibility somewhat established and our fellow conferees' guard greatly lowered, Fuz and I saw an open door to more in-depth and spiritually significant conversation. We started by asking if they would share with us some of their specific reasons for identifying as atheists—other than the mere fact of their occupation. One after another chimed in to express, in so many words, their view that science holds the potential to answer most, if not all, of the questions humanity needs or wants answered.
When they offered no examples, we gently probed whether they had made progress in answering questions about the source of human consciousness or about humanity's ultimate purpose and destiny. We asked what they thought might happen to a person's consciousness at the time of death, and what they thought might exist, if anything, beyond the physical universe. Several humbly acknowledged having given little, if any, deep thought to such issues. They preferred to focus all their energies on advancing their specific topic of research.
Fuz and I suggested that perhaps they considered themselves atheists not by decision, but rather by default. Perhaps they had tacitly accepted a worldview without seriously considering its implications about the nature of our existence and about the physical world as the source of all we humans need or want to know. Perhaps scientific research, as important and valuable as it can be, can become so engrossing as to distract us from probing the most important issues of life. One honest individual commented, "At least it's better than video gaming."
What we observed and experienced at this and previous ISSOL conferences we have seen many times in our interactions with dedicated scientific researchers. I must admit that it's something I've observed in myself. Fuz has observed it in himself, too. Scientific research can be powerfully addicting.
A certain thrill and euphoria floods my soul when I uncover and come to understand some secret of the universe, some aspect of nature that no one else has yet seen, or at least publicly disclosed. My colleagues at Reasons to Believe have shared such experiences, too. All scientists whose research attempts to push forward the frontiers of scientific knowledge and understanding experience such moments.
The "high" of making a scientific breakthrough can easily take researchers captive. After one of my university forums with an atheistic scientist, my fellow presenter told me just how captivated he was by his research quest. "It's all I ever think about," he said. As we conversed, he, too, admitted that he was an atheist by default and that in our debate he had defended a naturalistic/nontheistic perspective he had never thought through in terms of its ultimate implications.
The pursuit of scientific discovery, I contend, can be as addicting as any of several dangerous substances. It can overtake a person's life to the point of destroying personal relationships and distorting the most important issues of life. During my years as a research fellow at the California Institute of Technology, I watched with grief the unraveling of many marriages and families. Nearly all my colleagues suffered broken relationships.
As far as I'm aware, no twelve-step recovery program exists for scientists who've become addicted to their research. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest some steps toward overcoming this addiction, as well as many other addictions that interfere with our personal and spiritual growth. My recommendations are written with myself in mind because I need them as much as anyone else does. They are based on the universally applicable wisdom found in the Bible.
• Step 1: Observe a day of rest
On a weekly basis, we'd all do well to step away from scientific research, or whatever activity monopolizes our time and energy to a detrimental degree, in order to make time for contemplation of life's ultimate meaning and value, purpose and destiny. Seek truth, and ponder its implications for your life.
• Step 2: Reflect on ways we've come to worship nature
Yes, God made the natural realm incredibly beautiful, intriguing, grand, and complex. But let's remember that we humans are also spiritual beings; thus, we are compelled to worship. Due to our innate self-focus, we are easily tempted into misplacing the object of our worship. As Romans 1:25 says, we can drift into worshiping and serving created things rather than the Creator.
• Step 3: Diversify relationships
I know many research scientists, for example, whose only close relationships are with their fellow research scientists or, in some cases, only with researchers within their own particular subdiscipline. Such a narrow frame of reference on the world around us can rob us of life's richness and wonder. We all need friends who have different educational backgrounds, different perspectives, and different life experiences from our own. They provide a wider lens through which to see and understand reality.
• Step 4: Deepen relationships
Given the intense focus that research (among other exacting pursuits) demands, we may be hesitant to invest the time and attention necessary to build close relationships. It's much easier to converse about our research than to talk about our souls. The intimate friendships we all crave come from commitment to each other's growth through shared values and experiences, honesty and accountability, trust and grace. In other words, they require effort.
• Step 5: Experience wild nature
Many or most of us who are absorbed in researching the natural realm spend most of our time in technologically modified environments, such as laboratories and observatories. Psalm 19:1 says, "The heavens declare the glory of God," and Psalm 97:6, "The heavens proclaim his righteousness." Job 12:7–10 urges us to learn life lessons from birds and mammals. But many of us live in densely populated cities where we're blind to the Milky Way and enjoy little to no close contact with creatures in the wild. During my years at Caltech, I discovered how much easier it was to engage my research colleagues in spiritually significant conversations while overlooking an alpine lake surrounded by mountains and waterfalls than while walking the halls of campus buildings. We all need to refresh the sense of awe and wonder that stirs the soul.
No doubt many more steps could be added to this brief list. These five come from my personal experience. My hope in setting them before you is to heighten your awareness of the deficits suffered by many people, especially science researchers, who offhandedly identify as atheists. The worst thing we who are Christians can do is to assume they are antagonists to our faith—or that they understand what our faith is about. The best thing would be to encourage them or, better yet, invite them to join us as we participate in resting, reflecting, meeting new people, visiting new places, and marveling at the magnificence of God's handiwork.
1. Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Origins of Life (RTB Press, 2014): shop.reasons.org/category/format/books/origins-of-life.
2. David Deamer, "'Origins of Life. Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off' by Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross," Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres 37 (April 2007): 201–203, doi:10.1007/s11084-006-9019-4.
is an astrophysicist and the founder and president of the science-faith think tank Reasons to Believe (RTB).This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #56, Spring 2021 Copyright © 2021 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo56/scientifically-challenged