Science and religion have become opposing pawns in the divisive and ugly political game that mars the United States today. It is only a small oversimplification to suggest that science is increasingly claimed by liberals as their rightful domain, the rational basis for policy making and the foundation of progress, whereas for conservatives, religion provides the moral precepts of a good society and a bulwark against the promiscuous change that can be thrust upon families and communities by scientific and technological advance.
But in a culture—Western culture, today—where science and religion are so often cast as irreconcilable combatants, is it simply too obvious an irony to point out that many of the founding thinkers of the Enlightenment (including Newton and Kepler) were highly devout men? And although it is certainly the case that a much higher proportion of nonscientists (something over 80%) in the United States believe in God than do scientists (something over 30%), don’t the many thousands of scientists who nonetheless are believers falsify the idea that there is a state of inherent conflict between science and religion?
Several years ago, Lee Gutkind, the editor and founder of Creative Nonfiction magazine and my colleague at Arizona State University, and I decided that a culture often divided by putative fault lines between science and religion might benefit from some new and different stories about their interrelations. People come to know the world in part through stories, and many people know the story of Galileo being tossed into prison by the pope, or John Scopes going on trial in Tennessee for teaching evolution—not to mention Adam and Eve being kicked out of Eden simply for the sin of seeking knowledge. But if stories are especially good at making sense of the ambiguities and contradictions of the human condition, where and what are the stories that can communicate a more complex and even fruitful relationship between science and religion?
Several of them are in this edition of Issues. They are part of a bigger project, Think-Write-Publish: Science and Religion (funded through the generous and unfettered support of the John Templeton Foundation), aimed at building a community of storytellers writing true narratives about the generative and harmonious potential emerging at the intersections of science and religion. The first part of the project involved a competitive fellowship where people with great story ideas based in real-world experience would be trained in the craft of creative nonfiction-writing. We selected 14 fellows from a pool of more than 625 applicants. Among them are poets, scientists, priests, a doctor, a philosopher, a nurse, and a procurement manager. After three intensive workshops and nearly a year of writing and revising under the tutelage of experienced narrative-writing mentors, the fellows are now working to get their stories published. You can find out more about them at https://scienceandreligion.thinkwritepublish.org/fellows/.
The second part of the project was a writing competition. We asked for creative nonfiction stories about the ways in which science and religion “productively challenge each other as well as the ways in which they can work together and strengthen one another.” We received more than 200 submissions, and our top two selections, plus one of the two honorable mentions, appear in these pages.
Our first-prize winner is Rachel Wilkinson’s “Search History,” a personal exploration of how Google seems to have become the way many of us seek answers to our deepest questions in today’s world—and what we may therefore have lost in the process. She confesses: “I hate myself for seeking childish things—truth, meaning, the possibility of a loving god. For asking for these things from a mystical series of algorithms. But I want them still.” Wilkinson is a Pittsburgh-based independent writer and editor.
Second prize is for “‘Shuddering Before the Beautiful’: Trains of Thought Across the Mormon Cosmos,” by Jamie Zvirzdin, who teaches in the science writing program at Johns Hopkins University. Her story recounts the dual forces of Mormonism and astronomy in her life, leading up to her decision to leave the church. The story’s final, prayer-like words capture the essence of our project: “In our search for the sublime, may the tracks of science and religion join to seek out the mysteries of the universe and to revolutionize a country in great need of humility and inspiration.”
“The Best Panaceas for Heartaches” is our honorable mention, by Kristin Johnson, a professor in the Science, Technology and Society program at the University of Puget Sound. Johnson explores how eighteenth and nineteenth century science and religion reinforced one another to help natural scientists in England cope with what was then the inescapable tragedy of childhood mortality. In this telling, religion is not the source of complacency in the face of suffering, but the motive and the rationale for pursuing the scientific knowledge that could alleviate suffering. Medicines, as Johnson explains, were “God’s gifts, but gifts that would be revealed only through human effort.”
The prize-winning stories are bookended by two wonderful contributions to the project. First, to introduce the science and religion theme, Lee Gutkind and I interviewed the brilliant and humane writer Marilynne Robinson. A bit more introduction to Robinson and the interview can be found at the beginning of the special section. And to wrap things up we have a generous-spirited, funny, and at times surprising piece of narrative reporting from the writer Dinty Moore, who directs the creative writing program at Ohio University and is the editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. For his story, “Beyond the Primordial Ooze,” Moore journeyed into the postindustrial heartland of America to discover the many truths of science and religion in the real world. His conclusion? “Science and religion are both fine, as long as we have more bacon.”
And that’s only half of what this edition of Issues has to offer. Two professors of religion, Forrest Clingerman and Kevin O’Brien, working with a professor of atmospheric sciences, Thomas Ackerman, must have been channeling us when they submitted an essay on the topic of religion and geoengineering. Their Perspective provides a perfect proof-of-concept for our science-and-religion project in making the case for how religious traditions provide the necessary foundation for thinking about the qualities of character—responsibility, humility, and justice—that society should seek in deciding whether to engage in the godlike task of engineering the climate in the face of anthropogenic climate changes.
Closer to Issues’ traditional wheelhouse are two important and original contributions to how we should be thinking about science, innovation, and a better future. Jeffrey Funk offers a novel, helpful lens for looking at where most innovations are coming from these days. In his assessment the United States is doing well at Silicon Valley-style innovation that builds on existing technological platforms to generate new ideas, products, and capabilities, but the nation’s ability to link scientific advance to innovation has atrophied and needs a boost—not necessarily in funding, but in seeking a better balance between decentralization of idea generation and strategic, mission-driven research.
Meanwhile, Kenneth Weiss wonders if all that science has learned about genomics over the past couple of decades is raising a question that no one wants to hear: What if the idea of precision medicine, which motivates so much hope and hype around the future of biomedical science, is not possible, even in theory? He worries that the professional, funding, and incentive structure of academic biomedical research makes it all too difficult for science to self-correct in the face of a dominant paradigm on which so many careers and so much political patronage depends.
Finally, if Congress wants to reform the nation’s tax system and rebuild its infrastructure, John Helveston points to the benefits of moving from a fuel tax—which is fast becoming unsustainable in the face of automotive innovations such as electric vehicles—to a “vehicle miles traveled” tax that, unlike the fuel tax, can be tweaked to adjust for technological changes in the vehicle fleet, as well as considerations of equity.