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Scientists Speak Up on Mix of God and Science

Whatever your opinion of the Gray Lady, the New York Times has consistently published interesting articles on science. Some of the best have been compiled into The New York Times Book of Science: More than 150 Years of Groundbreaking Scientific Coverage. It’s a great book of the “did you know?” variety and sure to stimulate discussion about how scientific knowledge has developed and changed over the years. One evergreen piece focuses on the relationship between science and religion; Cornelia Dean’s 2005 article “Scientists Speak Up on Mix of God and Science” is excerpted in slightly abridged form below:

At a recent scientific conference at City College of New York, a student in the audience rose to ask the panelists an unexpected question: “Can you be a good scientist and believe in God?”

Reaction from one of the panelists, all Nobel laureates, was quick and sharp.

“No!” declared Herbert A. Hauptman, who shared the chemistry prize in 1985 for his work on the structure of crystals.

Belief in the supernatural, especially belief in God, is not only incompatible with good science, Dr. Hauptman declared, “this kind of belief is damaging to the well-being of the human race.”

But disdain for religion is far from universal among scientists. And today, as religious groups challenge scientists in arenas as various as evolution in the classroom, AIDS prevention and stem cell research, scientists who embrace religion are beginning to speak out about their faith.

“It should not be a taboo subject, but frankly it often is in scientific circles,” said Francis S. Collins, who directs the National Human Genome Research Institute and who speaks freely about his Christian faith. Although they embrace religious faith, these scientists also embrace science as it has been defined for centuries. That is, they look to the natural world for explanations of what happens in the natural world and they recognize that scientific ideas must be provisional—capable of being overturned by evidence from experimentation and observation. This belief in science sets them apart from those who endorse creationism or its doctrinal cousin, intelligent design, both of which depend on the existence of a supernatural force.