Where faith and science find common ground

Date Posted: 8/25/2022

By Ronnie Crocker
Marlan Scully is a distinguished professor of physics at Texas A&M. His curriculum vitae also includes a Ph.D. from Yale and past faculty appointments at Princeton, M.I.T. and the Max Planck Institute. He holds patents in laser physics and is known for his work in the field of “theoretical quantum optics.” In other words, he’s a man of science.

Scully is also a man of faith, a United Methodist who has spent a lifetime pursuing both scientific and spiritual insight. He’s happy to talk about the compatibility of the two, and even has developed a lecture on the topic that he shares with his church A&M UMC, and a Christian academic group on campus. “We have to be a bit humble about what little we know,” he said.
“Personally, I’ve not had particularly negative reactions,” he said of his career.  he acknowledged that, overall, “academia is not a friendly environment for matters of God and faith.” Physicists such as himself, he added, tend to be more comfortable asking questions without preconceptions and being “not constrained by what we do not know... physicists will typically talk about the God issue and are not embarrassed to do so,” he said.
One recurring area of public conflict is the matter of evolution. On May 25, 2011, on the 100th anniversary of the indictment of science teacher John Scopes on a charge of teaching Charles Darwin’s theory to his students, a United Methodist News article described the efforts then underway in seven U.S. states, including Texas, once again “attacking evolution education.”
Such arguments have not completely faded in the decade since, but Scully doesn’t see the reason for controversy. His attitude reflects official Methodist doctrine, The Book of Discipline ¶160 F of the Social Principles, which states in part: "We find science's descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology." Scully said, “I believe that the biblical wisdoms are correct.”  
That evolution occurred and that self-awareness came into existence over millennia does not diminish the creator’s role in human existence. “God made us,” Scully said. “He certainly gave us a fantastic machine. We’re fearfully and wonderfully created.” The DNA genome as scientists have helped us understand it “is to my mind nothing short of a miracle,” Scully said. “A miracle that we’re all well advised to take very seriously and very thoughtfully.”
Elaine Howard Ecklund, a Rice University professor and director of its Boniuk Institute, approaches the compatibility topic with the perspective of a social scientist. She’s co-author, most recently, of “Varieties of Atheism in Science” from Oxford University Press. Ecklund is also co-director of the Network for the Sociological Study of Science and Religion, which emphasizes the importance of understanding and collaboration between the two groups.
“The ways that people view the relationship between science and religion impacts who they vote for, what they think about social justice and racial issues, where they send their kids to college, and how they answer the biggest questions of human existence,” according to the website introduction. “Understanding contemporary attitudes toward science and religion is critical for academics and policymakers concerned about the future of science and for our ability to have reasonable debates about our most pressing social problems and moral challenges.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, with its searing controversies over public health strategies, further highlights the need for understanding these dynamics, Ecklund said. “I think the pandemic has taught us that faith and science are deeply intertwined.”
“We need both scientific and faith communities working together at full capacity to heal the collateral damage of the pandemic. Science in terms of continuing to provide access to new vaccines and technologies, and faith to help us with healing social fissures and providing meaning and community support. Both faith leaders and scientists can provide leadership to convince others that scientific and faith communities can work together for the common good.”
Marlan Scully, now more than 50 years into a distinguished career in physics, has a deep confidence in the ability of faith and science to co-exist. He cites two prominent scientists from history, James Clerk Maxwell and Michael Faraday. Each made critical contributions to the study of physics, particularly in electromagnetism and electromagnetic radiation.
Both were bristling with scientific insights, and they undoubtedly shared Scully’s fearlessness in confronting all that “we do not know.”  They share something else as well. “Both were extremely rigorous Christian people,” Scully said.

Shannon W. Martin contributed to this story