Science & Religion—Exploring the Harmonies
October 13, 2017
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St., Northwest
Washington, DC 20001
Science & Religion—Exploring the Harmonies: A Media Perspective with Writers and Editors from The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Weekly Standard
Science and religion co-exist in our world in many complex, interesting, and productive ways beyond the caricature of conflict and contradiction. Join us for readings, conversations, and the launch of “Science and Religion: Exploring the Harmonies”—the special fall issues of Creative Nonfiction and Issues in Science and Technology magazines.
Ross Andersen, science editor, The Atlantic
Adam Keiper, books and arts editor, The Weekly Standard
Dinty W. Moore, author and founder of Brevity
Sigal Samuel, religion editor, The Atlantic
William Wan, national correspondent, The Washington Post
Rachel Wilkinson and Jamie Zvirzdin, winners of the Think Write Publish Science and Religion writing contest.
Guests will receive complementary copies of both magazines.
An informal networking event will follow immediately at a nearby establishment. Light refreshments will be served.
Arizona State University
Lee Gutkind, Founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction
Dan Sarewitz, editor of Issues in Science and Technology
Michael Zirulnik, Director of Think Write Publish
Watch the Video
>> KEVIN FINNERAN: I would like to let you know that although we are ready to go, there is a line to get in so probably five minutes or so.
Welcome everyone. We are ready to get started.
I am Kevin Finneran. I am one of the editors in Issues in Science and Technology, because I had nothing to do with the articles that appeared in this issue, I will get out of the way right away and hand it over to the people who are responsible for what makes this such an exciting and interesting issue, Lee Gutkind and Dan Sarewitz.
Dan is my coeditor at Issues and director at consortium of policy and outcomes columnist at Financial magazine and author of several books.
Lee Gutkind since 1991 has been founder of Creative Nonfiction and magazine you see in your seats.
He is also a professor at Future of Innovation and Society at University state of Arizona.
He has written more than a dozen books on everything from personalized medicine to robotics and also been teacher and mentor to innumerable group of successful writers on narrative nonfiction writing.
The two of them will explain their role in bringing these articles to you and the program we will have.
With that, I think Lee is up first. Let me hand it over to him.
>> LEE GUTKIND: So nice to have you all here today. And it’s totally and completely untrue that Kevin had nothing to do with this event. First of all, maybe it wouldn’t be an event if it wasn’t for Kevin’s work a half dozen or more years ago.
An important thing that is happening today is a magazine launch. It’s not a magazine launch but magazines launch.
We have Issues in Science and Technology, which is the publication of the National Academy of Sciences. It is read almost exclusively, up until a little while ago by policy wonks and other people like that.
And then there is Creative Nonfiction, a literary magazine read almost completely by dramatic, poorly‑dressed people who breathe deeply and sigh.
So we have a literate magazine, policy, wonky magazine but somebody a half dozen years ago realized that we love ‑‑ everyone loves stories. You can communicate really terrific, important vital information through stories.
A couple times, like this time, we have had Issues in Science and Technology and Creative Nonfiction publish the exact same stories.
Communicating vital and important information through nonfiction narrative, exciting and dramatic narrative.
The issues you have today is our science and religion special issue. There are a couple articles and essays that are different. Essentially, four or five are the same essays appearing in both magazines.
Whether you are a poetic, literary person for a policy wonk, you can enjoy both and learn at the same time; that’s kind of the lesson of one of the things of what we are trying to do today with Think Write Publish, which is what our program is called.
Kevin, however ‑‑ I want to get back to Kevin sooner or later ‑‑ saw this six years ago.
The first narrative essays we published through the first iteration of Think Write Publish was published by Kevin when he was editor and still is at Issues in Science and Technology editor along with Dan.
That’s what we are doing here with Think Write Publish. People who think deeply, research, have great ideas about the future, have great ideas about all kinds of really difficult things for the general public to understand. Our idea is to take Think Write Publish, bring the people, scientists and people who appreciate technology together. People who care about religion or are unsure about religion, bring them together and get them to write powerful narrative essays. Style. Substance. That is what Creative Nonfiction is all about and what we try to do.
The first two iterations of Think Write Publish were funded and supported by the National Science Foundation we brought together science policy scholars and creative nonfiction writers to work together to write cooperative essays, in conjunction with one another, in order to do exactly that.
With this new iteration, supported by The John Templeton Foundation, we are doing a little bit different ‑‑ a lot different, actually. We are now worried about and concerned with and motivated by the idea that there can be harmonies between science and religion; so that’s what those issues and what, today, is all about.
I thank you for being here. It’s really terrific. We are happy to have all of these people to talk about our issues. It’s a project we have been working on for two years.
I am now going to introduce my colleague, Dan Sarewitz, who will tell you a little bit more about the current iteration of think, write publish.
>> DAN SAREWITZ: Thanks, Lee.
Policy wonks can be illustrated two ways.
To flesh out more the nature of the dialectic, I read Lee’s book on robotics and said to him, Well this is interesting stories but there are so many ideas you don’t develop.
He read something of mine and said, Well, these are interesting ideas but the writing sucks. Who would want to read it?
We realized we should start working together, which we have been doing happily and I hope productly for five years.
A map of what will happen. I will talk only for a couple minutes and turn it over to the people who have done the writing, thinking and publishing on the issue of science and religion.
We will first hear from some special guests, who I will introduce in a minute and then we will hear a reading from one of our favorite narrative nonfiction writers and then have a panel of people whose business it is to write about things science and religion and turn it over to you, hopefully for a full half hour or so to ask questions of each other and all of us.
Just quickly, a couple words of background about what this Think Write Publish science and religion project is about.
It arises from a sense that Lee and I had and shared in talking to many others that in the kind of very difficult political times that we all inhabit in this country and elsewhere, the kind of standard narratives around science is one thing. Religion is another thing. They are continually in conflict. They are each exploited symbolically and politically. It was unnecessary and in some ways didn’t reflect what we know about the history and meaning of science and religion for people to take seriously.
Many years ago, one of my early heroes (inaudible) talked about science and religion as nonoverlapping magicsteria and interlocking, two important aspects of the way people find meaning in the world; that often have, through history and continuing to the present day spoken to each other in meaningful ways; that’s what we wanted to explore.
We did it in several ways. First we had a fellowship program we have 15 out of 600 and something applicants people with great story ideas not all were writers although some were.
And we put them through a series of workshops where they worked closely with mentors, writing mentors ‑‑ one of whom you will hear from in a little bit ‑‑ to develop their stories over time. Very diverse group of people ranging from a two an ‑‑ inaudible ‑‑ oncology nurse, molecular biologist, neurologist ‑‑ who else?
>> LEE GUTKIND: Marketing manager.
>> DAN SAREWITZ: Procurement manager.
A pretty nice cross‑section of people and experiences. They are now having finished their stories or undertaking the difficult task of looking for wonderful places to publish. Some of them have already found a suitable home.
We are working with science museums, a half dozen around the country, to develop exhibits or displays or other activities based on the work of the science fellows ‑‑ of the writing fellows.
We have an online course that launches on Monday. There should be a brochure about that course on your seat, either on your lap or under your lap, that you can look at if you are interested in that. Again, it is a course about narrative writing related to science and religion.
And then, to get the material for the dual publication of Issues in Science and Technology we issued an APB for great stories, a contest. We got several hundredent.
We awarded first and second prize, and prize‑winners are here today, which makes us happy.
I will very briefly introduce them. They will provide brief introductory biographical information about themselves and give short readings. Then Lee and I and the two of them will have a conversation, hopefully to help you all understand what they did and why they did it and why it is interesting.
So first, I want to introduce your grand‑prize winner, Rachel Wilkinson.
Rachel Wilkinson is a writer ‑‑ [APPLAUSE] ‑‑ Rachel is a writer. Her story called Search History examines the meaning of Google in a world where it is possible to try to answer any question you might possibly have.
Rachel, do you want to say a little more about yourself and read a little bit from your story?
>> RACHEL WILKINSON: Hi, everybody. Thank you for coming.
I feel like I have been writing about science and religion and intersection in one way or another for a long, long time.
I was very happy that this was a theme and ongoing project that found a home here. Before everybody arrived, I said this piece was about five years in the making. I actually had to update before its publication obviously the technology of Google evolved quite a bit.
I am excited to see the print, share it and continue the conversation. I will just read a little bit of the beginning and then hopefully will encourage you to keep reading.
Some people go running or meditate; they recite mantras affirmations carry pictures of the saints. My brother used to keep a mini Zen rock garden in his room as a teenager.
For me there is nothing like pouring feelings into an empty search bar posing questions too big for any one question to answer.
Some questions I asked Google between the ages of 11 and 26 in rough chronological order.
Why did my cat die?
How do I talk to people?
Why don’t my parents understand me?
Who shot JFK?
Do I have a brain tumor?
Why isn’t love enough?
Will I ever stop grieving?
Why are there seasons?
Why do cats purr?
How do I know what I am worth?
Will I ever be a good writer?
Should I be studying philosophy?
Why was Nietzsche such an asshole?
Does anyone’s family ever change?
What is the difference between guilt and shame?
Why did Elvis meet Nixon?
How do I let go of anger?
What if I hate my job?
Why are avocados so weird?
Am I having a quarter‑life crisis?
How deep is the deepest part of the ocean?
Why can’t I want what I am supposed to want?
How many times does a blue whale’s heart beat per hour?
Searching is the only prayerful thing I do. Google search is problematic as a part of prayer.
The purpose of prayer is not to find answers or get things for our self. Instead, it is a means of going God, something closer to surrendered.
Through knowing and accepting God, we can begin to know and be at peace with ourselves.
Maybe Google isn’t Christian. Maybe it is Buddhist. Everyone on the internet‑connected world familiar with Google’s uncluttered homepage. Single rectangular search field with two buttons fixed in the middle of white screen. Colorful logo originally designed like toy blocks the word search only appears once in left button on search field and can find again after clicking in top right feature added in 2013.
It has been praised for simplicity. Homepage has been called Zen like.
It returned 13 million results.
When I Googled what is Zen in my third result.
It is nothing and yet nothing. It is both empty and full. Zen encompassed all and is encompassed by all it is the beginning and end.
A fifth century Buddhist monk suggests it is a direct pointing to mind and heart. A practice of studying the mind and seeing into one’s nature.
You sit, without expecting lightning to strike but in concentration waiting for things to be revealed to you.
That’s the first section [applause]
>> DAN SAREWITZ: One of your questions has been answered; that you are a beautiful writer.
One of the painful things we had to do was decide between first and second prize.
The wonderful second‑prize winner is ‑‑ I am trying to figure out how to pronounce ‑‑ Jamie Zvirzdin, who is also a writer who came to us from Johns Hopkins science writing program and has a more complicated biography that she will tell us about, maybe about the bone missing from your foot. Her story called Shuddering Before the Beautiful Trains of the Thought Across the Mormon Cosmos.
>> JAMIE ZVIRZDIN: So last year my husband wanted to go on an anniversary trip hiking the Adirondacks. We did 36 miles in three days, and I got a bone fracture.
I just came from the surgery. I wasn’t about to miss my own party.
I am happy to be ‑‑ to follow in Rachel’s footsteps. I live in Nicaragua. My husband works as an Econ officer at the embassy down there.
Because there are some surveillance issues, I will say, Rachel, that when I type things into Google, I have to be really careful. That’s a problem since I am writing a novel and novelists search many crazy things. My Google searches will be interesting for those who are watching them.
So I am going to just read a little section from the middle. I feel like it hits the crux of the matter.
Here we go.
As a Spanish‑speaking Mormon missionary in Toronto I often talked to passengers on buses, a captive audience.
It was my first step into the wider world. How wide it was. On just one bus ride I talked to immigrants from China, Peru, Ghana, Ukraine, Mexico and Afghanistan.
Our mission president asked us to visit Spanish‑speaking church members who had fallen away and invite back to the fold.
In their homes I used an analogy: If a train is heading to the place you want to go and a fellow passenger steps on your toe, are you going to get off in a huff and deny yourself the destination?
If the Mormon church is a train heading towards eternal happiness, why would you ever disembark?
I had many faith‑affirming situations, but some were terrifyingly stabilizing. The kind you get when the car breaks down in the tunnel and the lights flicker on and off.
We were out one night. I had fasted all day in the summer heat to be worthy enough to find someone to listen to us. I was weak from hunger and thirst.
We noticed a man in the black turban walking by. We gave him a card for free English class, but did not try to engage him in conversation.
We just started talking to teenagers in a driveway when a woman came barreling out of a house. She was a proper Christian and ordering us off of her property.
We apologized and immediately crossed to the other side of the street. Shaken, in tears, I was trying to compose myself, when the man in the turban came back and said, in excellent English, he had seen what had happened.
He kindly invited us to dinner with his family. His smiling wife greeted us at the door and introduced us to their small son. It boasted little fancy furniture but was clean.
The family immigrated from the middle east. We ate rice, vegetables and fruit.
They were not interested in religion but their kindness demonstrated a principle that religion teaches better than science: To show goodness and mercy where none is required.
The son showed us calligraphy, which formed a child praying. When we thanked them for their generosity at the door, the boy gave me his drawing.
I knew there was goodness elsewhere in the world outside Utah and Mormonism, but here was a family who doesn’t need what I was offering the family and heartfelt blasphemist, who didn’t need saving.
Kneeling at the altar with my husband, graduating in English instead of physics, editing science books and articles, giving birth to my son, all the while cursing Eve’s curse. I kept the boy’s picture.
>> DAN SAREWITZ: Where did the other microphones go?
>> LEE GUTKIND: I have been wearing my microphone.
>> DAN SAREWITZ: Why don’t you share one and we will share one.
>> LEE GUTKIND: So gee whiz!
These politic people are always trying to push writers around.
Telling me what to do all of the time.
Five years in the making? That’s crazy?
>> RACHEL WILKINSON: Yes!
Well, it is one of those things that, you know, I guess I think I submitted it something like 15 times and, you know, submitted it to this contest.
>> LEE GUTKIND: Fifteen times?
>> RACHEL WILKINSON: No, you were the 16th time.
I thought, maybe, I will kind of set it aside if this doesn’t work out. Eight months went by and I am so happy I found a home.
I thought it was maybe a little bit too weird and hyper to be published. So I think it definitely ‑‑ I was happy it found its home here. Yeah.
I think a lot of that was to try to achieve the balance you have been talking about, about how much recording and science or personal narrative.
>> LEE GUTKIND: One more thing ‑‑ a lot of things stood out but the way your father signs his emails.
>> RACHEL WILKINSON: That was added pretty recently.
>> LEE GUTKIND: Tell us about that.
>> RACHEL WILKINSON: Well, gosh.
>> LEE GUTKIND: You don’t remember what you wrote?
>> RACHEL WILKINSON: No. No. No. I guess as parents loom large as religious figures in all of our lives when it was going through editing I thought that is ‑‑ the themes of the piece.
My parents are very devoted to data and hard science, but the statement ‑‑ I have a mother who is a PhD who talks about what God is working in and through our cats.
I am, okay, mom. There is a lot of, like, weird intersections of you can worship science and at the same time there is room for other things.
>> LEE GUTKIND: How does he sign it?
>> RACHEL WILKINSON: He says ‑‑ because you haven’t read my piece ‑‑ his email signature since I was five says, “In God we trust, all others bring data.”
It is on his business cards too, actually.
It was imparted in me pretty young.
>> LEE GUTKIND: One more follow‑up question.
Speaking of family, you took quite a chance in your essay. What has happened with ‑‑ has your family read your essay? What will happen when they do?
>> JAMIE ZVIRZDIN: So I stayed with my inlaws for foot surgery. I just came from their place.
Two days ago I read to both my mother‑in‑law and father my essay, and they both loved it. I considered that to be the heart of what writing is about. To reach people that you couldn’t speak ‑‑ that I couldn’t speak with them directly about these things.
My father‑in‑law said that he understood me much better after reading it; and that meant a lot to me. It really did.
Unlike Rachel, this piece needed to be written and so when friends told me about this contest I wrote it in a week and I had to get it out.
>> DAN SAREWITZ: If you want me to ask a question you have to give me the mic.
>> LEE GUTKIND: Well, forget it then.
>> DAN SAREWITZ: Thanks. So one of the wonderful things about both of these stories is that they are revelatory on a personal level as they engage really difficult, big questions.
I am interested in just in terms of the craft of writing to what extent each of you found that the process of writing actually helped you come to terms with an understanding of science and religion and their inter‑relatedness that you hadn’t had beforehand.
>> JAMIE ZVIRZDIN: Let’s go to the winner.
>> RACHEL WILKINSON: I am curious to hear about your research process. You have so much science research in this ‑‑ the research would be to discover the entire history of search engines and the science of search, which you know it was not ‑‑ it was hard ‑‑ I do not have a science background so it was difficult teaching myself artificial intelligence in my free time.
The more I learned about it, the more I felt that it grew out and out and out and formed the idea that something magical was happening.
Actually, it was funny. The more technical the research got the more mystical it got because it was something that happens.
Then to bring in philosophy, I guess, that was all stuff I had been reading and thinking about, percolating the idea of searching and seeker. I feel I had to think it out and it was what I feel you have this beautiful experience of it coming through you. I had to think it out painstakingly over a long time.
>> JAMIE ZVIRZDIN: It doesn’t happen for every essay, unfortunately.
So my piece sort of just came chronologically as my experience growing up as a Mormon in Utah and then starting to question some things that didn’t seem fair or just to ‑‑ in religion and science. I would like to be a careful researcher.
I really like bibliographies. I know that sounds weird. I was a textbook editor for a long time. So that was my job.
The cross hairs of the telescope is the image.
Is symbology in different layers.
>> LEE GUTKIND: Thank you so very much.
Congratulations. There were many, many essays that were quite terrific and it was a hard choice, but I think we did okay. Thanks a lot and good luck.
>> LEE GUTKIND: We wanted to know how people felt about the intersection and harmony between science and religion. How people feel all over the America.
Most importantly, all of that, may be pretty exciting to help Dinty go out into the world, travel and capture for us the feeling that people have in the heartland of the US about science and religion and how they fit together and how they don’t.
So it’s a pleasure to introduce you to dint I Moore.
>> DINTY MOORE: Thank you, Lee. Thank you, Dan. Thank you my fellow readers and writers this evening and thanks to all who have shown up. It’s a packed house. Very nice.
I will just dive right in because I am more articulate when I have 43 revisions, than when I just spout from the top of my head.
Beyond the primordial ooze. Jeff, John, Eldon, Ben and Bruce meet most weekdays around the back table at the only McDonalds in Ravenswood, swapping theories about why everything has gone to hell. They tell me the aluminum plant has shrunk from 12,000 to fewer than 1,000 employees.
The other is people today simply have no common sense.
The men offer me a variety of examples, focusing on out‑of‑town visitors who can’t drive, don’t think and huddle mindlessly blocking the fast‑food eatery’s back entrance. They are retired having earned their living as electricians, mechanical engineers and dairy farmers. They seem proud of the fact that Ravenswood is said to have had more churches per capita than any other town in America.
We have one on every corner, John boasts.
Jeff adds, we are in the Guinness Book of World Records.
I am out‑of‑town visitor as well on a road trip to explore the notion that America’s current political divisions are tied somehow to conflicting attitudes about science, religion, rationality and faith.
Ravenswood, with dying aluminum industry, sounds a likely spot to ask questions.
Jeff jumps right in all too happy to oblige.
Science and the Bible go together just fine, he reassures me. They are finding that more and more once they track the DNA. They are finding the people from Europe came from Egypt.
Jim sporting a ball cap speaks at a dizzying pace, rattling off more ideas than my pencil can handle.
From the looks of him, he is warming up. A lot of people don’t know this, he continues. Einstein’s theory of relativity is directly from the Bible. Of course, he was threatened not to talk about it because the powers that be wanted to push evolution.
Science and religion used to be the same thing before the tower of babal. You know that. Right?
Jeff’s theories on Einstein and Babal are news to me, but the others at the table just chuckle and smirk like maybe they heard all of this before.
Dave leans forward. If you want to know about Big Foot and UFOs, that guy there is the best source. He points to John, a red‑surfaced, thick‑set man in dungarees and stained shirt.
I clearly lost control of the conversation and we are only a minute or so in.
John puts down his breakfast sandwich scowls in Dave’s direction. They are trying to get my goat. Trying to make me bad. He turns back to the out‑of‑towner the scowl widening into a friendly grin.
I have never been mad a day in my life.
Oh, really? Bruce counters, not a day in your life? How many marriages have you had?
Three. Eldon, tall, ranke, pushing 80, scolds John.
Now, you tell this man the truth about those Big Foot stories.
All he saw was the hair, some hair on a tree. He didn’t see no Big Foot. He did, Dave insists, he couldn’t get close enough.
Science. The Sasquash threat finished. Until Jeff decides to fill me in on John and UFOs.
He was taking a pee, chased the aliens away and saved the world.
For the past year I have been part of the project Think Write Publish using tools of nonfiction to explore the idea faith and rationality can coexist nicely, thank you, despite bru‑ha‑has and how we got here.
As ovulate, thanks no doubt to a contentious cycle, pock‑marked, by hyperbolic squirmishes over science and religion, Americans are more divided, locked away and separate, seemingly incompatible camps; that’s the dominant narrative in media. My instinct says it cannot be that simple.
I guess the truth is more complex, less predictable. Which led me to this town and others in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and central Ohio, where I had a series of conversations with so‑called “real Americans”. Folks outside of politics and apart from the expert analytical academic bubble where I, tenured professor, professional skeptic and inveterate agnostic spend most of my timetory.
I wanted to speak to people who are either steeped in political rhetoric or provoked into shouting by the appearance of television cameras.
As simple as I can make them, the rift between those who favor science and follow religion, as real and wide as some suggest?
Is the room for more complexed and nuanced views, if so, what do they look like?
One damp winter evening I visit the Mills’ family. Largely white, religious county that challenge vote counties, such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
The Mills are devout Christians. The Bible is ultimate authority on all manners, every word true. A direct message from God.
I join the parents, Don and Rhonda, and two of the three children in the family’s living room in chairs prearranged in a conversational circle.
The two sons are home on spring break from Grove City College. The older, Samuel, plans to follow father in engineering, while the younger, Isaac, sophomore is double majoring in biology and biblical scientology.
Science and religion go hand in hand, Isaac assures me.
Confident and well‑spoken, Isaac has close‑cropped blond hair,the wide, squared shoulders of disciplined weight lifter.
There were always strong Christians, strong scientists, he goes on; and they can prove the theories they came up with.
He looks over at his brother and they both nod.
In more recent history, though, there is the idea that you don’t have to prove what you believe in order for it to be true, he continues.
Darwin, for example, he really was never able to prove each step in what is called each step of evolution.
Rhonda moves forward. In today’s day and age she interjects opinions weigh more heavily than truth.
While I hate to be a barer of bad news, not everybody’s opinion matters.
People followed what is more exciting, Isaac continues. Is it more exciting changed to this and that as opposed to something being created?
I mean, yeah, it seems exciting, but there is not the evidence.
I would argue the idea of an all‑powerful, white‑bearded creator waving hands and fashioning this in seven days is electrifying tad polls crawling out of muck.
They are both amazing when you come right down to it.
Isaac’s idea, on the other hand, those who support evolution, are caught up in the idea of lure.
Isaac’s older brother Samuel anticipates my unspoken objection jumping in to point out that the scientific certainty can change over time.
During the middle ages, people thought mice came from grain, he tells me. Whenever they opened a sack of grain, they saw mice running out.
Today that idea seems silly.
Another good example would be the model of the solar system. Isaac thought we thought the earth was at the center until Copernicus came along and had the exact same data, but came to a different conclusion.
Grove City College advertises Academically excellent Christ‑centered living and learning experience.
I feel safe. Issac and Samuel present ideas in classroom they paid attention. It warmed my heart. Science is right and the Bible is right, Issac explains further.
If they seem to agree, it is because our interpretation of the data is wrong. He pauses briefly, or maybe our interpretation of the scriptures is wrong.
This is some of the nuance for which I have been looking.
Isaac is perfectly at ease with science, but still holds firm the faith of Evangelical. Whatever problems, he feels, can be solved with patience.
It is then that Samuel surprises me.
We heat our house with sustainable energy, he announces proudly.
Isaac joins back in. We actually heat it with the sun and air. Right?
I look puzzled. We have a wood‑fired furnace Don explains pointing out the window of the tree‑covered acreage behind the house.
An efficient wood burner. We found a good balance of how much of our resources we use to maximize the efficiency of our property.
I have liberal friends, environmentalists in their own minds, who do less than the Mills are doing. Whatever their views on global warming and fossil fuels, the boys enjoy steps towards sustainability proof wrong the critics who may want to change climate change with except says im.
The house I am sitting in, crisscross of wooden posts and beams tying together the first floor with second and connecting the walls with the ceilings might be part of the family’s sustainability effort as well.
Did you build this, I asked Don?
He smiles when I came around to the realization.
I started excavating the day Samuel came home from the hospital. The day Isaac came home, we raised the frame.
Isaac and Samuel joke about growing up in the handmade house. The network of posts, beams and pegs were a perfect playset for two restless boys.
For a moment they seemed willing to illustrate.
It is time for me to go so they can have their dinner. Rhonda walks me to the door and says she will be praying for me and the success of the article I am writing.
She says, I don’t have all of the answers. We can’t have all of the answers. God is God. We are not. I am fine with that.
I’m fine with that. I am not God. To be honest, am not sure how I feel on God. I turn my back on organized religion in my teens like Groucho I am suspicious of a club or church who wants me as a member. It has to start somewhere. If there was a big bang, who lit the match?
It seems clear that neither science nor religion has the answer to the large question, Where exactly did we come from?
Maybe a modicum of both make and rationality are in order or as Samuel Mills rightly points out. Many scientists were motivated by the desire to understand God’s plan in nature. Why can’t the views simply coexist?
>> LEE GUTKIND: You will have the opportunity to ask Dinty questions, if you would like, and all of us who are participating this afternoon, after the media perspective panel.
We are really excited about this because we have had questions about how magazines, newspapers, networks cover science and religion or do they cover equally science and religion?
What is the philosophy? What is the approach? What is the idea? So that’s the subject of our panel today.
I want to introduce you to our moderator of the panel, who is currently the books and arts editor of The Weekly Standard, but quite recently, the founder and the ‑‑ founding editor and editor of the new Atlantis magazine.
It is an honor to introduce you to Adam Keiper.
>> ADAM KEIPER: Hi, everybody.
As the panelists are making their way up and getting microphoned, maybe I will say a few words about them. That will be ‑‑ as everything is going on up here I will say a few words about each of the panelists. If we could get one more water bottle up here, that would be great too.
Starting from closest to me. William Wan is The Washington Post’s science correspondence.
In the dozen or so years since he joined the Post, he reported for more than 20 countries including a three‑year stint as the Post’s China correspond in Beijing.
He covered an enormous number of subjects including religion. In fact was twice given the title of religion ‑‑ even though I urged you to put your phones away, I urge you to look up the article he wrote, just as an example of his fine writing: The one child policy in China and a married couple that lost their one allotted child.
It is gripping. It is moving. It is well worth your time and so it is well worth taking your phones back out to file away now.
Sitting next to William is Sigal Samuel, who is an editor at The Atlantic. She oversees global religion coverage. She joined The Atlantic earlier this year, February or so.
Before then she was an editor at the Daily Feast. She is not just a journalist. This is a journalist‑heavy panel. She is not just a journalist, she is a novelist too.
Her novel, The Mystics of Mile End. I had it on my mind earlier this year. I turned 40 years old last month. This is a fact I learned from her novel sometime ago in order to traditionally be appropriate for studying Kabbalah, you have to be 40 years old, a male or father?
>> SIGAL SAMUEL: Married.
>> ADAM KEIPER: I have been urging you to put your phones away, but look up her book on Amazon. It’s on sale for under $13 right now. Well worth your 13 bucks.
On the end is Ross Andersen, also at The Atlantic. He is the senior editor and oversees science, technology and health.
Before he came to The Atlantic, he was deputy editor at the wonderful web magazine Ion.
In his editorial work, in his own writing, you can see that he has a real and biding interest in the harmonies between science and religion. I have been urged to encourage you to put your phones away. Andersen ends with E‑N.
His most recent long essay called Welcome to Pleistocene Park. It is all about woolly mammoths. It is wild and woolly. Well worth the investment of your time.
Thank you to all of you for coming. Thank you to Dan, Lee, Kevin. Congratulations to the winners.
Thank you, Dinty, for that reading. I was thinking, we might start our conversation just kind of picking up in a way where you left off, Dinty.
I mean, there is a widespread longstanding belief that science and religion are inevitably, necessarily in conflict with one another.
Sometimes that conflict is framed in lessons in school, deep philosophical lessons, but the heatedness of the conflict between science and religion changes over time. There are times when it seems especially heated and times it seems to kind of go away or at least recede.
So my question for you is, do you agree, does the conflict, the so‑called conflict between science and religion wax and wane?
If you agree with that, are we more waxing or waning now? What direction do you see the trend? a broad question to start off with. Ross, since ‑‑ I know you have deep thoughts on this. Why don’t you kick us off.
>> ROSS ANDERSEN: Let me turn my mic on first.
I don’t know if I have any deep thoughts, but I will give it a go.
So obviously, we are experiencing what feels like an extraordinary political moment in the US, which Dinty sort of eloquently gave voice to.
I want to make sure not to give too much DC‑inflicted answer, but I’m sure I will.
Donald Trump does not appear to me and it’s a private matter to be a person of especially strong faith. None the less, I think there are people on the left who suspect that his rise to power will empower the religion right in a way it had not been empowered in a generation.
During the Obama years it seemed to me that liberals began to sort of view the science‑religion conflict from a position of sort of perceived victors; that was almost a light condescension. We can get along now that we are in power.
Now that assumption appears to be unfounded, perhaps. It seems to me that you can see kind of the first sort of rustling of a waxing period of conflict.
So that’s a depressing view and pessimistic view. Maybe I will start there and see what my colleagues have to say.
>> SIGAL SAMUEL: I also feel like we are in a waxing moment for the same political reasons. I thought it was interesting about what you said previously about there was a feeling of being able to approach from the position of victors, the perceived victors.
I feel like I often detect in stories, including in ‑‑ not just stories, media stories that are about the intersection of science and religion, even just within religion reporting, sort of snarky under tone or sort of ‑‑ I don’t know if this is anywhere from the position of victors but almost a defensive wink, wishing between the writer, a progressive journalist and the reader, sort of, like, a wink‑wink. We know who are the smart people in this ‑‑ who are the crazies here.
That’s something that I am kind of on the lookout for.
I don’t find it particularly just interesting even when articles have that feel to it. It feels sort of cheap to me. I prefer when for me one mark of a strong reporter is when they can kind of put aside that reflexive need to do that and just ‑‑ not even a just the facts way but in a way ‑‑ assessing everyone’s claims on their minds without the need to inject your defensive posture to it.
>> WILLIAM WAN: I am really glad Ross went first. I don’t have a good answer.
The one thought that occurs to me is that, you know, that it’s not really science and religion. Either in conflict waxing or waning people appropriating these things as tools in cultural wars; that ‑‑ I think that is definitely on the increase and we are probably looking at several years of that getting worse.
It saddens me because the people who really do care about science or really care about religion, it is much more sincere ‑‑ when they are in conflict it is a much more sincere argument that they are having. It is a much more sincere actions that we are taking into that light or into the convergence. It is the only thought I have on that.
>> ADAM KEIPER: Would up agree with what Ross and Sigal hinted at that some journalists in this area has occasionally a, na‑na‑na! We won! Ring to it or a victory lavishness to it?
Is that something you think is right or do you not really see that?
>> WILLIAM WAN: I think that that ‑‑ it especially goes on in urban centers where all of the thought is often pooled and come out of.
I apologize. I am quiet. It’s the Asian in me.
I think it is probably true.
I think it is two different things too. When it is the religion reporting and when it is the science reporting they are both weaknesses often in that as well.
Religion, I think come from PC ecumenical place.
The harvest core religious people are very ‑‑ on science they look at things black and white on terms of data and fact. The truth of it is that science is just as squishy as religion. I think there is the bias.
>> ADAM KEIPER: This is an excellent point about the most well‑informed writers on religion tend to be people who are narrowly informed. They are informed about their particular tradition most often.
In a way, it kind of highlights some of the strangeness of the entire conversation, not just our conversation today, but the entire conversation.
To say it is a incredibly modern conversation to be having. The way we talk about science and use terms like scientist is all very recent.
The way that we even talk about religion as a religion instead of coming from a particular religious position we talk about religions, and rise of studies. It’s not much more than a century old.
Even though the issues that we are grappling with, at their deepest levels, are philosophical, theological and get to questions that get back to the ancients. This is a very, extremely modern way of looking another all of this.
One strange and interesting aspect of it then is kind of being next step which you will sometimes hear from the people who are the hardest core in one camp or another.
For instance, on the science camp, you get somebody like Neil deGrasse Tyson, a personality at this point more than anything else who proposed the idea of rationality. The idea that we can some day govern ourselves. It’s a kind of what used to be called technocratic. The way of living our lives and governing everything we do he imagines a utopian world in which we are all scientists.
On the other side you hear people who will occasionally say we need a third‑grade awakening a real religious revival to properly reorient the country or world to fix everything that is broken and wrong today.
And they seem in a way like too complementary strivants. The outside poles of the science and religion “conflict.”
Does that make sense to you, Ross? Does that seem like the outsiders or are there even further out people?
>> ROSS ANDERSEN: Yeah.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is a really interesting case. There is no doubt that he sounds like a sort of philosopher king, doesn’t he? Talking as though there were nothing to ruling human affairs but just applying rationality. It strikes me as quite a naive view. I thought it struck philosophers as a naive view for thousands of years.
Look, there is an arch that popular eyes of science people take.
I remember seeing videos of him talking to Stephen Colbert out of character some 10 years ago.
I thought it was him at his highest and best because he was, as you point out he is a personality but at the time he could still credibly claim to be something of an astro physicist.
He was still publishing.
He has gifts of language and enthusiasm that certainly exceed my own and most peoples, I think. He was able to use those gifts to illuminate. As much as I regret that science and religion have found themselves opposed in our culture, I think there is no question that officer the last 5 to 600 years that science has really shown us a lot about the on tolling of the world unsurfaced in the contributions and Neil deGrasse Tyson was almost a poet of that. He could ‑‑ he illuminated the far reaches of the cosmos and hysterias aspects of it. They are worth dwelling on. There are still many questions that remain open which sound like religious questions to me.
Can something come from nothing? Things like that.
After he was drafted in the culture wars, I guess, I began taking these lines.
I think a similar thing happened to Carl Sagan. He found himself in a position where he was often giving interviews and taking the most absurd among them their views as more popular than they might be and saying things like, you know, we should just rule ourselves rationally and that sort of thing.
It is regrettable: Neil is a swell guy but he is an artifact, really, I think of the sort of ugly culture wars that we find ourselves in.
>> ADAM KEIPER: Sigal?
>> SIGAL SAMUEL: Those sound to me like extreme poles.
Ideally, in my opinion, we want to avoid being drafted into either of the extreme camps which I think is a false dichotomy being set up.
What I think of ‑‑ well, just the personal staunch refusal to be drafted into the camps is Richard Fineman a physicist, who is near and dear. If you never saw a video of him science lecture or playing bong owes. They are both amazing.
He identifies as atheist. He has not extremist view. I think you said, science is also squishy and can be as squishy as religion. I think he acknowledges that.
I love this one passage in the character of physical law lecture he gave, which is on YouTube if anyone is interested where he talks about scientists, you know, trying to figure out motion, why do ‑‑ why the plan eliminates orbit. He talked about how hundreds of years ago people thought it was because behind each planet there were angels, invisible angels with wings beating their wings and pushing the planets forward.
You know then he goes through Kepler and Newton and all of those things and basically says, like, essentially, they were right. It is just that the scientists figured out the angels are not behind the planets they are at a different angle to the planets when you figure out Newton’s gravitation explanation.
So his thing was gravitation, we replaced one spooky force angels with another gravitation the mechanism no one explained he don’t understand the contented just how it works and the fact that it makes the planets do what they do.
The spookiness remains.
I like how he says, These guys were essential e essentially right just that the angels are advertisemented at a different angle.
I think that that kind of humility is an attitude that we would prove well to gravitate towards.
>> ADAM KEIPER: I would invite for you to respond to that but elaborate when you referred to science as being kind of squishy.
>> WILLIAM WAN: I have to admit I am relatively new to science reporting. I just started this year. I find that, you know, every ‑‑ take red wine every other month a few years ago red wine is bad, red wine is good. This particular component in red wine will do this. This other component cancels it out.
Evolutions of that. Even in larger, if you look macro. We used to talk about medicine? Terms of humors in the body then we evolved into Hippocratic looks and modern MRIs.
I am writing a lot about the brain these days. There is so much we don’t know about the brain. Yet we try to explain it the best we can. That is the squishiness of it.
Being new to this. The whole thought of rationality. It occurs to me that the extremes like when you let the extremes take power, like this is what turns into authoritarian regime. I reported from China. I reported from Egypt.
In China the one child policy as you mentioned is taking science to the extremes without humanity.
In Egypt when the Muslim brotherhood was in power it is the opposite legitimate without rationality.
Both are scary to me.
>> ADAM KEIPER: Before does our country fit? Would you say we have the balance just right?
>> WILLIAM WAN: I think we have the worst.
>> ADAM KEIPER: Really the worst? Say more then.
>> WILLIAM WAN: I mean, when I reported ‑‑ I have reported a bit on the election and just being out there it is just not that we are a melting pot or ‑‑ I don’t know like magnets all mixed in and nothing can stick together. It is a scary time in this country.
>> ADAM KEIPER: You are saying politically the country has a centrifugal thing. We are flying apart and not sticking together.
Coming back to science and religion if Egypt is an unfortunate model and China a different unfortunate model.
>> WILL WAN: Our country is unusually placed. We have an extraordinary place for science and technology, how we educate people before college or what we accomplish in our Universities or whether you are talking about our astonishing industrial scientific things at the same time, we have one of the world’s most religious populations, depending how you look at international polls.
It is extremely interesting fact. Neither of the two countries you talk about seem to have what you were talking about.
>> ADAM KEIPER: Would any of you say that there is a kind of profound social relationship between these two or do you think that they may just spin off in separate directions?
Do you think the United States, if we some day become more like increasingly secularized Europe, that that may shift the balance between the two and maybe science will come into the floor or maybe it will suffer for it?
Big question. Anyone? William?
>> WILLIAM WAN: I feel bad because now that I am thinking about it, I think I agree. I do believe we have the worst of that.
I also feel like we have the best of it too.
There is a mixture even if it is not direct.
For example, in China they have the cultural revolution and wiped out any trace of any belief system even to, like, even Tai Chi very small ‑‑ you believe in anything they got rid of it.
When you go to China these days, there is an actual moral vacuum you can feel in everyday interactions with people there is something missing a more at and humanity that is just missing.
America is so abundant with that, even with the cultural wars. I feel bad now saying we have the worst.
>> ADAM KEIPER: The best of times and worst of times.
>> SIGAL SAMUEL: To your question, in US, signs come to the poor and religion recedes entirely.
I mean, like, no, I think that these two impulses they are human impulses and will always be with in different manifestations.
Thinking about China. So all these religions were very much pushed aside. We just ran into The Atlantic we The Souls of China, which is a wonderful book where there is a resurgence of religion in China in underground churches and all kinds of ways that the government is kind of, you know, not explicitly shutting down. People are trying to ‑‑ are feeling this sort of moral or spiritual vacuum and are trying to fill it.
I think that the impulse is never going to die in us.
>> ADAM KEIPER: Ross, I know you spent some time in China ‑‑ I don’t want to stick too long on China, but I would love to hear your thoughts about that.
In particular the thoughts of China and the future and us and the future.
I gather you spent some time with major science fiction author in China?
>> ROSS ANDERSEN: Yeah. Adam is scooping my forthcoming feature.
>> ADAM KEIPER: I am helping you promote it.
>> ROSS ANDERSEN: First I wanted to say, I am surprised I find myself saying this as something of a partisan of science, but I, actually, think that in terms of William’s eloquent statement. On one side you have Egypt and on the other you have China so you have faith‑dominated world or an extreme scientific technocracy I think the latter is more of a risk in the US in part because we have safeguards against state religion and no such safeguards when it come to the sciencing of American government.
As the world becomes more complex and administrative state responds to the complexity there is a sort of ‑‑ you can understand why people want scientific experts or technocrats manning the helm. It does lead to a creep, of sorts.
China, one thing I would say about China, I am happy to be corrected at any time since I just parachuted in and have been reading about their history I was only there for a couple weeks.
I think post this regime, China was thought of as religious rhetoric. Science and technology.
I was curious to know that for some time there was no distinction between science and technology in the language, which may be ‑‑ inaudible ‑‑ people sort of regard science and technology as having, you know, China just having immerged from century humiliation that science and technology played a huge role in arousing them from the historical low point and that, you know, one of my earlier interviews I was talking to a historian of science there and I expected science ‑‑ China has a sophisticated ‑‑ or history of technical achievements. They invented paper money, coins, gunpowder. Some hundreds of years before the west.
So I wondered if nationalism is of course, not just on the rise in China but endemic to the entire culture.
I thought is there nationalism where they want to recapture the glories of old China?
It was interesting, what they told me was that Chinese scientists, actually, perceive themselves as being in the western scientific tradition. They do not see themselves as occupying distinct technical Chinese tradition.
The shadow of the cultural revolution of wiping out the past. They are, like, that’s old.
Glorifying ancient China and Confucianism made it so we found ourselves on the ‑‑ we want to do western science and do it better than the west.
>> ADAM KEIPER: I want, in a moment, to provoke some fighting ‑‑ [laughter] ‑‑ turning the conversation towards journalisms.
I want to see if we can explore the future a little bit more and touch on some of the big questions connected to where this conversation is taking us.
Rachel, in her essay talked a little bit about Google. Ross, in your comments you just now alluded to the technocratic future, one could argue that not just Google but other, you know, other big tech firms have ambitions to fundamentally remake what it means to be human by, for instance, merging human behaviors with machine.
And in other ways, altering some of the things we take for granted about man’s evolved or if you prefer created nature.
And in a way that isn’t just peripheral, like the fact that we wear watches, glasses or clothes, but that gets to the very core of who and what we are.
For some people who are interested in and invested in these things, there is a kind of movement the transhumanist movement that aims to create so radically enhanced human beings we are a whole new special Is altogether.
People listening to this say they sound like prophets rather than advocates but this sounds more like religion than like science and technology; and that this is a kind of way of replacing the role of religion in people’s eyes.
In fact, I gather ‑‑ I saw a headline at some point in the past few days some high mucky‑muck Google or Facebook somebody involved in one of the projects.
In fact, correct me if I’m wrong, is actually filing for non‑profit status for a religion to actually turn this into a formal religion.
I just wondered, since this is touching on so many of the things that Rachel mentioned and kind of been brought up here, I wonder if any of you see trends towards the trans humanist future clashing with traditional religions or if you see this as kind of natural and even inevitable next step in the growth of our scientific power or knowledge in technology and power over our severals.
>> ROSS ANDERSEN: Having gone on quite at length, I will say, briefly, you know, I ‑‑ despite not being explicitly religious myself I have a respect for religion it has been proved quite elastic over the long‑term.
Obviously it’s not true of individual movements or individual people but when you look across history, it is true of any institution that survives it has to go with the ebb and flow of human affairs and technology is ebb and flow is a powerful.
If we get super human or enhance ourselves ‑‑ these are the core beliefs at transhumanism. I suspect the successful religions will accommodate themselves to those realities.
It’s the same ‑‑ I was in China doing partly a story about search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
I had somebody on staff who really ‑‑ I will not name the person ‑‑ what it would mean for religious people if we could make such a discovery.
I thought, part of my instinct was, it is not that interesting question to me for the reason, I just sort of assume religions would take it on board when I did the research, most of theologians are entirely untroubled by it. Well, yeah, we assume a grand teaming universe or ‑‑ in Jewish faith you have lion and peace there is no limits on the power of God, especially not limits that would, you know, restrain themselves to the cosmically small surface of planet earth.
Those were the kind of sentiments. Yes, there were questions about Christianity and whether the salvation of Christ would extend to the inhabitants of other planets and so forth.
It seemed to me that would get worked out in the wash.
>> SIGAL SAMUEL: I totally agree. I find it not at all surprising that they were taking statuses of the religious movements however you said it it seemed natural to me.
Religion is not just any one thing as you said it is an elastic thing.
It is an impulse in us that takes different manifestations, places, different times in history. Even Judaism, looking at one religion, you know, at a time when rationalism was dominant, at the time of ‑‑ he wanted to remake religion as a super rational thing, took Judaism and made it a rash system. You have catalysts or masters came along in Europe and made it a mystical thing where rationalism was pushed aside.
So whatever dominant gender is coming up in our world at the time, technology or whatever, religion is going to come and just take that, take on that face.
>> ADAM KEIPER: Did you want to jump in?
>> WILLIAM WAN: No.
>> ADAM KEIPER: I will have to start the fighting with you then.
Let’s do that.
When I mentioned to a friend I was having a panel on the subject he suggested I ask the question, Why do scientists want to discover the meaning of meaningless.
William, as a science correspondent, how would you respond to that question or reject its premises?
>> WILLIAM WAN: What is it?
>> ADAM KEIPER: Why do scientists find so much meaning in discovering the meaninglessness?
>> WILLIAM WAN: Meaning the incremental nature of science?
>> ADAM KEIPER: I take it to mean that scientists in discovering the mechanisms by which the world operates, there are not ‑‑ the angels pushing the planets. They drain some of the meaning from the universe. I think that that is the direction the question comes from. I would love to hear you either accept it or fight back. If not you, somebody else is going to have ‑‑ we are going to start a fight or else I am ‑‑ what is the point here? We are putting on a show for these people?
>> WILLIAM WAN: I don’t think that that is true. I think I interviewed are driven by things, just like priests and believers are.
I mean, to devote your life to such minutia requires real commitment. I cannot just ‑‑ meaning their studies. I would kill myself if I had to do that kind of work.
I think it is not necessarily ‑‑ just the methodology is maybe different I think they are meaningless without each other.
If you take religion to mean meaning of life questions and science to mean incremental little things that we can add up to discovery of larger things. They cannot exist without each other.
All of last week I spent covering the Las Vegas shootings.
My team was tasked with discovering everything we could about the shooter and why he did what he did.
So it’s a lot of meaningless data points that you are just stacking up like his pilot license, what kind of medication was he taking according to that. Where did the turn happen, nothing adds up to anything.
At the same time you are asking the huge spiritual, essentially, questions of his father was the most‑wanted bank robber. We wanted to find everything we could. There is no data about dad and him. It’s not like medication and it makes your brain do this. You add the two together to get a why.
The two things ‑‑ I think scientists may say without the why am I doing this, it is even meaninglessness is meaningless.
>> ADAM KEIPER: So it seems to run counter to what you were saying earlier about America’s religion and science. The fact that we have so much of both actually, in a way, maybe they need one another? Maybe they complement.
>> WILLIAM WAN: I accept your premises that I am usually wrong.
>> SIGAL SAMUEL: I reject the premise of the question.
>> ADAM KEIPER: All right! Nice!
>> SIGAL SAMUEL: Like I said before, the different types of spookiness. I don’t think scientists are stripping away meaning and go about their business. We are all trying to find meaning or explanations. We have, as I said, different methodologies going about it. Everyone has that hunger for meaning.
I was recently talking to a friend of mine who is a scientist. We were talking about ‑‑ this was a deep conversation by watching the movie Arrival.
In undergrad I loved pondering metaphysics. He said, I find it utterly uninteresting.
I said, what do you mean? That is what life is for. If life is not that, what is the point of living?
He said, I am just not interested in ‑‑ I can’t answer those questions. So what is the point of me even trying. I am going to do science so I can build up piecemeal, bit by bit.
That’s just, like, that’s what he is interested in. He is not interested in pondering the bigger questions.
So I mean, I guess some people are just not interested in that but I think even those people, like, surely want some sense of meaning in their life.
>> ADAM KEIPER: Taking what you just said, I am going to ask the question of Ross. How many of the scientists that you talk to, roughly, would you say, are driven or motivated by some specific charitable intention? Something, in other words, that they hope some good, some specific concrete practical good will arise from their work?
How many of them are, primarily, motivated by just a deep curiosity? A pure curiosity to solve mysteries and crack riddles. They don’t really care one way or another about any kind of charitable intention. They don’t long to have discoveries applied.
How would you say that that breaks down the scientists and ‑‑ [inaudible]
>> ROSS ANDERSEN: I think there is a third category. There are people with utilitarian view of science and technology. Maybe trying to create medicines.
Then there are people who as you characterized them, they are waiting for the next puzzle. They recognized they have quite a mathematical or technical mind. They like building that muscle. They like, you know, it is like Sudoku give me the harder and harder puzzles and let me try to crack them.
Then there was a third category maybe you intended to include this one in the sort of puzzle‑cracking where people are drawn towards sometimes just particular but they just genuinely have philosophical questioning spirit that Sigal was describing they hunger to know they are not utilitarian particularly depending on the value theory.
They want to know about the big questions. I do want to ‑‑ while I have the floor, I want to add to the chorus about your friend’s question about scientists stripping meaning out of the world.
You have to have such an impoverished theory of meaning to think that, you know, discovering the qualities of nature itself was removed meaning from it.
I just don’t sympathize with that view of the world.
>> ADAM KEIPER: I won’t even ‑‑ I guess I will ‑‑ [laughter]
The other half of his question which I didn’t offer was intended ‑‑
>> ROSS ANDERSEN: [inaudible]
>> ADAM KEIPER: Here is the other half intended to anger who were not angered by the other question.
Why do relevantionists write so many dumb pieces about how there is no conflict between science and religion. In fact it is true. There is a strain of writing on ‑‑ some people who look at these kinds of questions who say, there is no conflict at all. In fact, science and religion are entirely in every way compatible. Take this religion, this science there is no conflict at all.
So I think he was aiming to see if we could make as many people angry as possible. It seems sang weed here.
We have five more minutes I would like to turn it now to a thing we can all agree will make people angry.
William, you just recently have come to science journalism and come to it from having covered many, many different subjects for quite a long time.
I wonder if looking at it first as an outsider and now as somebody who is at the heart of it.
I wonder, could you give us a sense of what science journalism in America today does best and what it does worse? Add at you guys are next.
>> WILLIAM WAN: What it does best and least. I think explanatory part of science journalism, the strongest part of it. You are given the incredible chances to not just explain the world but explain very minute parts of it in discreet ways you give it to people.
I struggle with this now daily just making people care about these discoveries. I think it is the biggest challenge for me. Just how do you make people care?
>> ADAM KEIPER: Ross has a management sign journalism in the trenches now.
What do you think science journalism is doing unwell?
>> ROSS ANDERSEN: Unwell.
I think the least sophisticated science journalism treats sort of plays fast and loose with justified gravitas of science. I say justified as a tool, science has ‑‑ as I said earlier it illuminated nature and depths of the universe and intricate workings of biology up to and including the human body.
It sort of owed its due for that. I won’t take this opportunity to quibble with religion, but I will say when people misinterpret ‑‑ when science is used without authority and invoking methodologies when arrived at an experimental result. When it is just, Science says! I think that is when it is at its weakest. Anything myself or colleagues write, we always try to get the story of the science itself in partly because it makes for good narrative tension. We are writers and like narrative tension.
Also, let’s show not all science is equal. Let’s show our readers that polling 20 college kids with very similar backgrounds in a particular University in the United States on some psychological question is not the quickest way to sort of deep truths about human nature.
I think we should wear it on our sleeve more often.
>> ADAM KEIPER: There is a clickbait science journalism that takes press releases for granted accepts them at their word, doesn’t look closely at the methodology. Will aim to hit the widest possible audience with the widest possible misinterpretation of a particular study.
I wonder, do you ‑‑ any of you think that has an effect on the practice of science itself or do you think that science themselves are pretty well insulated?
>> ROSS ANDERSEN: Scientific journalism have their own problems what counts as high‑impact research is skewed by the same sorts of distorting factors you see in the popular press which is, you know, people want to know if there are aliens. They want to know if they will be able to get designer babies and the secret of falling in love. They want to know the very simple secret to nutrition.
They are very susceptible to evidence‑free claims made on those grounds.
I do think that scientists are a bit more insulated obviously with all due respect to my own editing the peer review process tends to be more rigorous than what you see in journalism.
>> ADAM KEIPER: Did you want to jump in on that, Will?
>> WILLIAM WAN: I think they are also insulated because just ‑‑ I think a lot of scientists are motivated by a claim. The claim doesn’t necessarily come through quick bait it will be a strong pillar that buffers against that.
>> ADAM KEIPER: I want to end with a question for Sigal, if I can.
Regardless of whether or not it is fair to say that science can ever really be accused of draining the meaning of life. We put it to bed.
It does seem clear that it does take away certain kinds of mysteries and you have thought deeply about the relationship between mystery and faith and some of the large unanswerable mysteries of human existence and how they are connected to faith.
I wonder if, you know, to put the largest possible question on your plate, I wonder, to what extent science really does challenge the possibility for mystery and wonder that is core to so much of the deepest, truest kind of religious faith, something you thought about?
>> SIGAL SAMUEL: I don’t think it challenges that at all. I hate to be constantly rejecting the premises of your questions.
>> ADAM KEIPER: It’s okay it’s incredibly reassuring.
>> SIGAL SAMUEL: I have been reading a lot of Richard [inaudible] I will refer to a different quote of his I was recently reading he talked exactly about this question. He said the “goddess stuff” the stuff we use God for is mystery stuff.
As science progresses and have scientific laws and discoveries they have explanatory power and take some of the territory away.
The God stuff is used less for explaining that territory.
I don’t see it as slowly chipping away to the territory. Actually this will have no territory. The when science comes along and says, this is how something is working, I don’t think that that decreases wonder at all. I any it just, to me, it increases the wonder. Science says, Oh, okay the mechanism happens is this, this, this and this. Then I come into contact with that and I say, How insane! Why should it be the case that this is the mechanism by which it happens.
Then I feel ‑‑ my wonder is just displaced by one decimal point it is just, oh, now I am feeling wonder at the fact that this is the particular mechanism it happens and on a different mechanism, why should it be ‑‑
>> ADAM KEIPER: Infinite wonder is it what you are saying. Ultimately, factual but you have to look down and down.
>> SIGAL SAMUEL: It can be infinitely deferred.
>> ADAM KEIPER: That is a wonderful note for our distinguished panel to conclude the conversation.
We have time for Q & A. There is a microphone there and there.
The Q & A is not just for the distinguished panel but also for either of the essayists you heard from or Dinty Moore or if you wanted to drop back, you can do that too.
We welcome the questions. Anything else I need to know about the Q & A.
If you can introduce Michael? Michael Zirulnik.
>> ADAM KEIPER: Yes, good to see you.
>> MICHAEL ZIRULNIK: I think I came up here to invite you to a party.
If you take a look on your seat, you will see a small invitation that looks something like this. We put a small map on the back at Teaism end quarter from 6:15 until 7:30. You request stay longer if you like.
Most of the panelists.
>> LEE GUTKIND: Will be there to celebrate, mix and mingle.
With that, I see we have folked lined up to ask question. If you would state your name and affiliation and direct your question to either the panel or one of the individuals that you seek an answer from. Please do so. Thanks. My name is Roger Cocheti. I am not a scientist but author of two history textbook, history of technology.
One of the observations you come to in studying the history of technology is that science is never settled, that it is always evolving. The only thing I can say for seven is that centuries from now, students will be looking at the articles that you and your colleagues have written and say things like, They just had no idea. Their science was so primitive! They didn’t realize the Zeta waves from the center of the earth was causing ‑‑ they had no idea happening because it was so primitive.
Given that, I mind it shocking how frequently how scientists and science writers saying that “the science is settled.”
Looking back historically, you couldn’t ‑‑ it would be laughable to talk about the number of things that even in my lifetime or even in the past year where the science was settled and we discovered that we had no idea what we were talking about. There were new discoveries and new things we didn’t understand.
On the other hand, the contrast of that is, if you qualify everything you say with the pref ayes that, well, given what we know today and best theory we have to explain this is blah, blah, blah, blah, no one wants to listen to that. They want the succinct simple straightforward answers.
My question is, how do you deal with the dilemma that anybody who knows the field knows the science is never settled, anything the science says, this is how it works and why it works, he will be rebutted years from now by someone. He didn’t know what was going on or she didn’t know what was going on.
On the other hand, we all want it answered in six seconds.
It is a dilemma I don’t know the answer to. But I hope you think about it.
>> ADAM KEIPER: If I ask jump in to make it worse. It’s not only that we like to have or believer science in any area is settled because it is easier to understand we like to believe it because we need to act in the world and take action.
It is hard to act in a world, whether you are a policymaker trying to figure out what to do about climate change or how much red wine to drink, you’ve got to make a decision.
So you have to base it on something it is a profound logical question. Who wants to answer it?
>> ROSS ANDERSEN: I will start by saying I like to err on the heavy side about red wine.
You mentioned it is cumbersome in a piece of writing to have endless caveats about the science not being settled and the field still ‑‑ the new discoveries some hundreds of years from now may actually attribute this phenomenon to Zeta waves from the center of the earth or whatever.
I would hope a sophisticated reader would bring it into the understanding of science itself.
As I said earlier, science is misunderstood as a kind of religious text. As an inflexible, at its worst, inflexible body of knowledge. Its best understood, I think, it’s a tool and narrow not a tote ‑‑ science cannot answer all questions. Questions of human value, for instance. That was what was so absurd about the Neil tie son ‑‑
We can poke at the edges and maybe to your point as a distinguished reader and author in the history of technology, one thing we like to do at The Atlantic is illuminate the history of science. If we do that, people will have that kind of as a background assumption.
>> ADAM KEIPER: Was that to, were you trolling for a writer there?
>> ROSS ANDERSEN: Sure.
>> ADAM KEIPER: I want to make sure that we can get to everyone in line in the 18 minutes we have.
I will speed things along and alternate microphones.
>> I am Rudy. I am a science and technology policy fellow at DOV.
I was wondering, you guys talked a lot about and I think this is a pervasive theme in our society, the strength of signings and technology and how it is continuing to pervade our lives in many forms.
I was wondering if you think that that plays role in undermining our society and something that is manifested in politics, et cetera today.
>> ADAM KEIPER: Can you say a bit more about what you mean? You seem to be subjecting science, the prevalence of scientific thought in some way is chipping away at American social more at?
>> Rudy: Sure.
You could take it to say just the basic idea in the way that science continually ‑‑ not just in the last, you know, decade but in the last couple centuries, since the renaissance, has chipped away at ideas like the earth is the center of the universe.
Evolution takes away from the idea of creation.
The ideas that undermine belief systems and maybe infiltrates some of the other subtle pieces of more at that historically have come from religions.
I think there is a lot of, you know, areas in our society where people used to maybe understand how to live that came from things that were not science.
As science tried to replace a lot of these things or undermine them ‑‑ I’m sorry I don’t remember your name ‑‑ as was said earlier. The idea that the journalists might write little things to other progressive readers, hinting at, Us in the know we know it is ridiculous that people think of us at add like‑minded insiderism.
I am thinking, Sigal we will have you answer it.
I would like to twist it a little bit, though.
If we are talking about science displacing man from the center of the universe, we are talking about the ungodding of the skies as we learn about what the hinges are really made of, the physical heavens, do you think that there is a way in which the fundamental shift in the nature of our understanding of who and what we are and what the universe is, has had moral effects that, you know, are lastingly changing how we understand ourselves, how we relate to the world and our future.
>> SIGAL SAMUEL: In stereotypical Jewish fashion, I will answer the question with another question.
Just as religion isn’t one thing more morality isn’t one thing. It is coming off from a time and place in history and is codified in certain text.
Certain scientific discoveries may displace a particular social norm that was, you know, that is considered part of biblical morality.
Homosexual, for example, becoming increasingly recognized and acceptable and cool.
So that’s ‑‑ yeah, it is a shift from sort of literal biblical morality that we saw over the past several decades.
I don’t think in a pejorative sense a shift away from morality, as if we can talk about morality as one mono lific inherently good thing.
Our understandings of morality is conditioned like everything else.
>> ADAM KEIPER: He let me take the questioner’s question and turn it a little bit and make it more pointed in this way. Say, for instance, that science has altered our understanding of the Christian belief Judeo Christian belief humans are created in the image of God.
It has been to some extent supplanted by the idea that we are evolved beings. We learned it all from Darwin.
The idea that we are created in the image of God is an idea in intellectual history is connected in very deep and profound ways to the idea of human equality. Everything that we take for granted about human equality.
If you take away that, do you risk losing some of the foundation for this thing that we all lover, the fact that ‑‑ the belief, as we Americans hold dear, that all men are created equal.
I think that is what he is getting at.
Should we save that for drinks?
>> Rudy: I can make it explicit.
>> ADAM KEIPER: I will ask you to hold off until drinks or until after the Q&A?
>> ROSS ANDERSEN: I would just like to say, briefly, in the depends of human dignity and kind of ‑‑ I don’t know if morality is having if it is you based on knowingly false beliefs about the world in literature.
If it were the case that there was transition costs such that when certain new beliefs entered the mainstream that people found themselves philosophically disoriented and thought that that meant that none of this meant anything and sort of turned to nilism I will think it woo be temporary effects I think people would find their way back to trying to wrestle where what is the good.
>> ADAM KEIPER: The eternal questions.
>> ROSS ANDERSEN: Maybe that makes me part atheist.
>> ADAM KEIPER: You are up next. What is your name and question?
>> My name is Sy Garr. I am currently visiting professor at Rutgers. I am active in the United Methodist Church.
I would agree that there is a waxing ‑‑ going back to your first question of the tension between science and religion and I think that that is because of the waxing of some of the atheist ideas and fundamentalist Christian ideas that are now prevalent in the country.
There is another movement that is waxing that has not gotten almost any attention, which is why I am raising it to journalists; that is a movement of Christians and scientists who are often the same people, like me, to show that, in fact, the false idea of a war between faith and science is in fact false.
That’s a very active movement and it’s growing. It is represented by, I can think of three organizations and we are very fortunate to have leaders of at least two of them in the audience.
One is the American scientific affiliation, which is an organization of Christians in the sciences.
One is the bilogos foundation knew the head of NIH.
One is dialogue on science, ethics and relevantion part of the AAES the leader is with us today.
All of those organizations fully committed to the idea that we should not only just have signings journalists and religion journalists, we should have science and religion journalists.
Because, in fact, this is a whole new area which has a real hope of removing the warfare that is fake.
>> ADAM KEIPER: It is an excellent comment since it is a comment instead of a question we will accept it and take it and move on.
If anyone wants to talk with any of the individuals you mentioned, again, afterwards, invite you to do that.
Ma’am, you are up next.
>> My name is Whitney McKnight. Until recently I was a full‑time science journalist with a creative writing agree. I recently left my position where I was a clinical medicine reporter for a few years.
The last 10 I covered psychiatry.
As I mentioned a creative writing degree also put me in touch with a lot of poets. I spent a lot of time reading poetry in particular James Wright.
To your question about meaninglessness in science. I think it is a ridiculous question. I think ‑‑ I spent so much time and such passionate and compassionat scientist particularly researchers of the brain and what makes people do what they do and feel what they feel.
What I would say is, missing from the conversation, is two things: One is an appreciation of poetry. Science is very beautiful. It has a lot of poetry to it.
I don’t see a problem at all. I don’t see it as irreconcilable that angels would be flapping their wings as a scientific theorem. It is just how you describe it and words you use. Science is breath taking in its scope and what it seeks to explain.
That leads to the second point that I think everyone ate their way around and didn’t have an opportunity to really make clear but I think you got to it, Ross, which is seen, is, actually, its own histologic approach to things.
What I would offer my two cents for the audience to take away is, really having been somebody who has been involved in both the poetic approach to life and at one time too I was very involved in a religious community the approach that it is all beautiful and meaning based and spiritual. It is no different in science really. It is all dogma. The thought science gets temped isn’t poetry personal to the person who reads it. You can’t say the poem means ‑‑ I spent a long time dealing with data and scientists who can into the replicate the data.
>> ADAM KEIPER: Thank you so much. It is a helpful question.
In some ways you are touching on something that scientists have thought about for a long time.
>> What I am touching on is the street smarts we need is that it is approached from the same human need that science and religion to whatever the gentleman said from Rutgers it is the same thing you does can approach from dog Naoma you have to understand dogma comes from a specific point of view it is still dogma and can be changed.
We have a problem with being too literal. Scientists are afraid to see the poetry.
Those who are evangelical to Christianity or religion is afraid of getting away from the fact that being literal is wrong it is the same wrong. There is poetry in everything and it is leaping ahead of what is literal.
>> ADAM KEIPER: There are definitely people in the room who agree with you on that and started programs and speak to exactly that sort of thing. You are in the right room.
Your comment ‑‑ first comment about reminds me of Richard Dawkins before he became one of the best known atheist figures in the country he was best known for being a gifted scientist.
He heard so many people over the years make exactly this complaint about relevant John and poetry he named win of his books titled one of his books “Unweaving the Rainbow” speaking to the question ‑‑ Isaac Newton discovering the prism and thereby taking the beautiful natural phenomenon the rainbow, making it as Kestes suggested something tamed and we understand how it works. Then it is not that beautiful or lovely anymore.
He said, it doesn’t need to be that way. His other failings regardless, there is something powerful in what Keates argued there is beauty in scientific knowledge that can bring to our understanding in the natural world.
Anyone want to jump in or should we save the rest of that for drinks?
I see two more people in line we have time enough for each.
Why not end with these two questions. Sir, you have been waiting very patient.
>> Thank you. Not patiently but I have been waiting.
>> ADAM KEIPER: For those who can’t see him he was gesturing.
>> Right. Move along timewise.
I have a deep concern about most of what I heard today; and that is that this whole thing has been framed as a conflict. A conflict between religion and science as if there were a conflict.
There is a conflict because of cultural factors, the extremists on the religious right and extremists of atheists on the scientific left but there is a huge middle ground of very, very deep and powerful integrative thinking by great minds who are physicist and theologians there is no reason in the world why it has to be framed as a conflict.
It is not the conflict unless you are confused.
Truth is one thing. If the truth is, there is a structural principle and intelligence in the universe and we chose to call it God, that works perfectly well with physics.
God is out there 13.7 billion light years from here structuring atoms molecules and stars like he is right here.
We don’t have to take the narrow little religious categories, whether Christian or Muslim or whatever and say, you know, this is religion. What is religion is all in appreciation of the imagine knife sense of the universe and magnificence of human beings.
We really need to get ‑‑ they are, very, whether you start thinking deeply enough, they are very compatible. We have plenty examples Frances Colins who, you know, is the head of the genome project, he is Protestant evangelical Paul Dave he’s who is writing books like The Mind of God. We have astronomers in Vatican doing great science and reporting to a religious organization.
>> ADAM KEIPER: Yeah.
>> This is a false dichotomy talked about ‑‑
>> ADAM KEIPER: I fresh that.
>> Powerful integrative factors.
>> ADAM KEIPER: Many smart people agree with you 100% and many smart people who ‑‑
>> Screams on either side but there is a middle ground.
>> ADAM KEIPER: We are delighted to have the conversation. There are organizations to encourage exactly this sort of conversation. I will invite you to talk to them some of them who are in the room and are really quite good.
>> I am Harvey Schulman. I am nobody special. I want to notch this down a little bit. When you are the last questioner you are able to hear all of the other questions and a lot of your questions get refined.
To notch it down, the assumption seems to have been made that religion is monolithic. You know? There is religion.
In fact, I suspect, you know, talking about this issue before evangelical Christians versus Episcopalians versus American Catholics versus other Catholics versus Jews, would be a very different discussion.
So to kind of notch it down to day‑to‑day as opposed to the theoretical, abstract, philosophical thing, take some real issues like racial inferiority where science was used at one point to justify the different treatment of races.
And what is happening now with stem cell research.
The issue I would like to ask you about at the very day‑to‑day level is same‑sex marriage and user gay people. We have the view ‑‑ well, there is DNA explanation there is a scientific explanation you have the other view, no, it is nurture how people were brought up.
Did God really make a mistake when God created gay people?
So to take that very specific issue and because we have seen a tremendous change on issues like same‑sex marriage over the last 10 years. When you poll it the opinion polls, you see the shift has come amazingly in a lot of different religious groups.
>> ADAM KEIPER: What is the core of your question?
>> The question is, Is science really changing religion and religion’s view of issues?
Is it changing it for the better or for the worse?
>> ADAM KEIPER: I appreciate that.
I would like to give you the opportunity to respond to the last few questioners. I hope we have a round of applause for Ross Andersen, Sigal Samuel and William Wan our panelists.
Let’s start with Ross ‑‑ I’m sorry to keep putting you on the spot. One last time, Ross, everybody has a chance to answer the question and give a final word.
>> ROSS ANDERSEN: Well, I think the changing views on homosexuality, I would ‑‑ one of the big things I would like to of my writers is not to tell mono causal stories.
I think a complex social phenomena changing attitudes towards homosexuality could not be pinned on the sciences strictly. I think there is quite a lot going on there.
There is integrated middle ‑‑ I think that that is true.
I would ‑‑ to push back just a bit, I would say that often ‑‑ so I have ‑‑ my wife’s father is an evangelical pastor. One of the elders in his church is a very good friend of mine. He belongs to bilogos telling me there is a movement afoot!
Frances is always trotted out in this conversation. I don’t know that many evangelicals share his view. When I hear that I think, go become leaders in those communities.
I am not sure the problem is lack of media attention, for instance.
>> ADAM KEIPER: Sigal, last word?
>> SIGAL SAMUEL: I just want to speak to that and say, sure, science is, you know, science is influencing religion is influencing science and that has always been the case for many centuries.
I think that ‑‑ I often just wish that more people would take, you know, take a lot of time to sit with the centuries and centuries of rich, you know, interpretation of scriptural texts that happens in any religion.
So there are, you know, we are not the first people in this room to be discussing all of these questions like many centuries, Millenia of great thinkers have come before us and grappled with exactly these questions in their time periods.
How lucky we are that we have books in which the thoughts are recorded. We can see how through the centuries the science of their day impacted their religious thinking. And by the same token religion impacts science.
I distinguished with my distinguished copanellists who subjected earlier science is insulated from popular trends, clickbait and whatever sort of social trends are driving that.
Peer review processes are great. They do a lot of great work.
The direction that science goes in is ‑‑ I’m sure actually you agree with this but the direction science goes in is driven ‑‑ of course, it is driven by what interestses us as human beings and what we want to explore and, you know, what interest is us is is driven bring religion? Drove each other.
>> ADAM KEIPER William Wan, last word?
>> WILLIAM WAN: What you said was interesting. With the original question you had people take science and religion and use them as tools.
When you think about the slavery and the science used to justify all of that crazy stuff.
On the reverse side, passages of the Bible quoted to say slavery is a good thing ordained by God. It is kind of ridiculous on both sides. I think the same thing is happening in all of these issues with sexuality, stem cells all of it. People pick up the tools and try to hack each other.
I don’t think it is fair to attribute that warfare to those sides, necessarily.
Then what you were saying was really ‑‑ I think everybody in this room agrees with some of the convergence that exists is part of the whole beauty of both religions.
The eclipse ‑‑ I got to write about the eclipse it was such an honor. It was so interesting talking to ‑‑ I interviewed people standing at their church shouting to God in the middle of it.
I talked to the scientist that was sobbing in tears not because he believed it represented some higher power or anything but because the sheer understanding the sun and all that it is, it is still an awesome ‑‑ it is still a mystery.
>> ADAM KEIPER: Wonderful. Did you want to have a final word?
>> JAMIE ZVIRZDIN: Yes, if I may. So I feel that I needed to get up and share this that just yesterday night my missionary companion came out. She was my mission companion for about three months.
She has been through a great deal not being able to express who she is. She is very shy.
So I think science has come ‑‑ has helped religion see that LGBT are deserving of too.
She told me and I have permission to share this. She said although it took me a long time, I finally came to terms with the fact that my religion might not have it quite right because I didn’t sign up for this life to become a nun. Maybe it is just a missionary for a year and a half but not a nun.
I found that to be pretty profound.
In my essay I talk about how religion has also helped science. So there is a balance.
Certainly, I am really grateful that my companion felt that she could come to me in love and tell me the truth after so many years.
>> ADAM KEIPER: Thank you.
On behalf of the organizers, congratulations to the two essay winners. Thank you to the entire audience for your attention. We hope you will be able to join us at the party that was just describe you had.
Would you please join me in thanking this panel.
>> MICHAEL ZIRULNIK: Without your attendance here this would not be possible. Please join us. Also a shameless plug, please visit thinkwritepublish.org. We have a free online course that starts this Monday. You are welcome to join the science museums around the country. Thank you again for your attendance.
(Event concluded at 6:18 p.m.)