Science-based Religion Blog

Science and religion are not intrinsic enemies. Science strives for revelation. It is the revelation of the universe as we find it. The current picture of the universe is in perfect harmony with many religious perspectives and in stark contrast to others. This blog intends to explore these harmonies and conflicts of Science and Religion. Keep an open mind and a gentle heart please.

Location: Richmond, Virginia, United States

My family background is third generation German-American. I was the younger of two sons. My father was an English professor who had also served a Protestant minister and missionary to China. My mother was a nurse and social worker. I went to Purdue University, where I earned a B.S. degree in the Honors Physics program. I got a masters degree in Physics from the University of Southern California and also a masters and Ph.D. in Religion and Social Ethics from the USC school of religion. I have worked as a teacher and as an IT professional. I am married, with no children but two cats.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Evolution Defined

Since evolution will play an important part in the ideas I will be expressing in this blog, and since many do not understand evolution at all, let me define what evolution is.

Evolution happens under certain conditions. This is not a theory but an observation of how the world works. "Evolution" is just the name we give to a particular process. Consider the idea of acceleration. No one says acceleration is just a theory, because it describes a common phenomena of objects in motion changing their velocity. Acceleration only enters into the realm of theory when it is part of a hypothesis about the way things work, like Newton's theories of motion (now considered fact, since they have been so well demonstrated).

So what is evolution?

Evolution is what happens when four conditions exist.

1) There exists a large population of entities (not necessarily living organisms) which are similar in most respects, but not identical.

2) These entities get replaced over time with copies of themselves, copies which are similar but not necessarily identical to the original.

3) Some condition exists which causes entities to reproduce or replicate to different degrees based on some difference in their makeup.

4) Those entities that reproduce more readily gradually come to dominate the population, in terms of numbers, and over time, the overall characteristics of the population shift.

This can be demonstrated in a number of ways. The most important way is in the human project of breeding domesticated animals with certain traits. Horses have been bred so that some are huge, strong draft animals, while others are lithe and fast, and others are diminutive. This was done by selective breeding (condition number 3). It is the same process that biologists know happens in nature, it having been observed in the wild and in the lab. It can also be demonstrated with computer programs, manufactured items, and ideas.

So evolution happens. That which is commonly called the "theory of evolution" is really a theory about the diversity of the species of plants and animals found on earth now and in the past. This theory posited that wherever the four conditions exist, plants and animals can be expected to change because of this process of evolution.

Scientists have found so much evidence for natural selection or evolution of species that they no longer consider it to be "just a theory." It is an established fact. The only questions remaining are how the process works. This will come up again and again in this blog because evolution is how the universe works. It will have to be taken into account to have the possibility of the development of religion that can effectively link the moral issues facing us to the eternal truths of the cosmos.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

What is Religion?

For an excellent overview of various attempts to define religion and some critiques of these definitions, see the website of Religious They point out that many definitions exclude as much as they include.

For example, one definition says: "Human recognition of superhuman controlling power and especially of a personal God entitled to obedience" [from the concise Oxford Dictionary, 1990]. Where does a religion like Buddhism fit in this definition? What about all the people who see God as something other than a lawgiver?

I agree with the criticisms expressed by the Religious web page, but I have a problem with their definition as well. They say that “Religion is any specific system of belief about deity, often involving rituals, a code of ethics, a philosophy of life, and a worldview. (A worldview is a set of basic, foundational beliefs concerning deity, humanity and the rest of the universe.)”

This definition includes a wide range of religions but has the drawback of focusing on ideas rather than function. It begs the question of why religion is such a widespread phenomenon that we find in every culture and every time. I think the function of religion is imbedded in their definition when they mention ethics and worldview.

All ancient cultures have religion because until very recently, religion served to aid in the survival of a group of people by encouraging cooperation by individuals who by instinct would act selfishly. It turns out that the best way to motivate people to overcome innate instincts toward self-preservation is to link cooperative behavior (ethics) to forces in the universe that are awe-inspiring and powerful. This link between ethics and worldview is found in every religion.

I will develop specific justification for aspects of this thesis in other entries. Here let me just note that most religions have very similar ethics. True there are some variations when it comes to marriage or diet, but where is the religion that does not condemn stealing, greed, and murder? Where is the religion that does not encourage love for one’s family and fellows? These things are universal in religion because they are necessary for survival. For early tribes of humans, survival meant that everyone had to cooperate and share resources (hence stealing is discouraged and sharing encouraged). The strong helped the weak survive. Families had to make sure children grew up physically and ethically strong. Conflicts had to be settled without violence as much as possible.

The second thing that is obvious about religions is that they have very different worldviews. Some believe in a personal god, some in gods and goddesses, some in an impersonal absolute (such as Buddha or Tao). Some describe a single afterlife divided into heaven and hell, while others teach reincarnation. Some describe a single creation and predict a specific end to the cosmos, while others teach that there is an eternal cycle of creation and destruction.

The things that tend to vary with religion are precisely the worldview elements that cannot be objectively proven. The things that tend to be the same are the concrete needs of individuals and society to know how to fit in and be a contributing member of a society.

Because of this, I believe that religion has a function in society which links the worldview of the society to healthy social cooperation. Religion helps people to identify with other members of the society, to treat them as they want to be treated, to understand their place and role. Religion guides individuals through the transitional stages of life, childhood to adulthood, single to married, childbirth, old age, and death.

Generally, one religion has dominated a society, so that people did not choose their religion, they were born into it. Sometimes one culture would conquer another and force a change in religion. As society has become more complex and interrelated, it has become possible for multiple religions to coexist and this raises new issues for each religion.

The situation became more complicated with the advent of science, which developed and changed the worldview component of a culture without directly dealing with the ethical component. Hence, Galileo wanted to change the way the culture thought about the planets and the mechanics of the solar system. He did not want to challenge the idea of how to be a good Christian. But the conservatives in the church recognized (perhaps without being conscious of it) that to fiddle with the worldview was to alter the way religion would have to function to continue to link ethics to worldview. So they opposed Galileo. (The situation is more complex but this gets at an important element in the persecution of science in Galileo’s time.)

Today, we have a very different worldview from what existed as Christianity (and all the other traditional religions) developed. Some Christians have tried to let the religion change and evolve with this change in worldview, while others have resisted it. Those who resist may be given credit for attempting to maintain a vital element of culture, the promotion of cooperation through religion (they rarely would think of their efforts in this way, of course). But they illustrate Einstein’s statement that religion without science is blind.

The challenge is how to maintain a viable religion that can still help a person through the transitions of life and promotes cooperation but that links these to the new worldview of modern science. I was raised in a liberal Protestant environment and tried mightily to reconcile the essence of the teachings and example of Jesus with the current scientific worldview. I conclude that this is impossible without changing the focus of Christianity away for Jesus and onto more universal principles that Jesus espoused and practiced but did not originate. How can a religion do this and still call itself Christianity? I think it is impossible.

But I’m not inclined to conclude, as many scientifically minded people do, that there is no further need for religion now that we have science. We still need to nurture in people a sense of belonging in this cosmos and a sense of ethics to keep us from destroying ourselves with war and ecological disaster. For this we need religion. It may be impossible to do this with religions like Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.

We either need to adopt a different tradition, one that can act in harmony with the current scientific worldview and promote cooperation and a sense of belonging; or we need to develop a new religion (or new religions) that can do this.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Albert Einstein: Religious Scientist

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. --Albert Einstein

Today, March 14, is Albert Einstein's birthday. Einstein's legacy to the world ought to be well known to everybody. Most can quote the E equals M C squared, even if they don't know what it really means. Einstein's attitude toward religion is less well known.

Einstein was Jewish, but he never observed the religion of Judaism. This did not mean he was an atheist, only that he did not regard any traditional religion has having anything he felt was worth practicing. So what does he mean that "science without religion is lame"?

Einstein did refer to God, although he has a different concept of God than a Christian or Jew usually has. He objected to the probabilistic definition of sub-atomic particles that was the basis of quantum mechanics by saying, "God does not play dice with the universe." Einstein's God was a non-personal concept of the Absolute that transcends what we can observe in the physical universe. God is responsible for the universe, but is not a player in the universe. One might add that God does not play chess with the universe, that is making things happen as a chess player moves chess pieces.

So what is the basis of religion for Einstein? He cited the need to base religion not in scriptures but in the feeling of awe that comes from properly understanding the universe. What most people experience staring up at the night sky and the Milky Way, Einstein experienced in equations and the way all the laws of the universe come together to create the intricate web of life and death that we experience.

I experienced that awe while studying physics in college. I sat in lectures copying down the equations that the professor wrote on the board. It would start with some general law of motion, for example, and then would have some mathematical transformations applied to allow the equation to be solved. Staring at the lines of letters (most of them Greek), numbers, and other symbols, it looked like nonsense; but I understood it, because I had spent the years learning algebra and calculus that form the basis of the equations. After some twenty revisions of the equation, a solution would emerge, much like a blurry image coming into focus. The equation described things that we could observe in the real world.

Time after time I had this experience over five or six years. After so much evidence for the interrelatedness of the universe, it is impossible not to be in awe of the way it all works. Nowhere in all of this did we need to introduce a term that represents the will of God. God's will, if it exists, would be seen in the universe as a whole, not specific events.

Einstein pointed out that God was not concerned with ethics, meaning that God did not do as described in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and cause events to happen based on whether or not the people obeyed ethical requirements or not. But he stressed that we human beings need to be very concerned with ethics, since the way we live has serious implications for our quality of life. This is what he meant by "science without religion is blind."

Einstein did not describe in detail how the religion of awe at the universe translates into an ethic that allows science to see the ethical consequences of discoveries and applications of those discoveries. He did stress that this was the role of art.

I will write more about how I think the picture of the universe provided by science can be incorporated into a religion that utilizes art and education to promote the best quality of life for all people. As I do, I will draw inspiration and courage from the example of Albert Einstein.

Happy birthday, Albert!

Monday, March 13, 2006


I grew up in a liberal Christian community in Indiana. I embraced Christianity from an early age and participated joyfully in all sorts of church activities. I briefly considered becoming a minister but then I discovered physics. I decided to major in physics in college. By the time I graduated, I had realized that my childhood acceptance of Christianity could not endure in the face of what I had learned about the universe.

The doctrines of Christianity, even in a liberal interpretation, was inextricably linked to the world-view of the first century, which saw the earth as a flat disk with a dome of sky over it, surrounded by the planets and stars, beyond which was God. The earth was the center of the universe and human beings were the center of God's attention. The whole thing had only been around a few thousand years and was not expected to last much longer. They knew next to nothing about the other people of the world nor of the true history of the universe. Things happened because God (or gods) and spirits caused them to happen, often in response to what people believed and the rituals they performed.

Now we know that the earth is not the center of the solar system, much less of the cosmos. We are but one in countless trillions of solar systems across an unimaginably large universe. Our stay on earth stretches into the millions of years but that is but a tiny fraction of the age of the universe. Humans came to be by the same forces as shaped all the rest of the species on the planet. The laws of the universe are universal and available to anyone who looks with an open mind and an inventive spirit. And the perspective of the early Hebrews and Christians are but one of hundreds of other cultures that have survived and thrived over the centuries all around the earth. Things happen because of universal laws. These laws have nothing to do with the things people do, except in the case of pollution of the environment.

How to reconcile this view of the universe with even the most liberal interpretation of the first century? Even if Jesus were God incarnate, he would have to communicate using the accepted view of the universe of that time. The universe we live in is a marvel and a wonder, but it is nothing like what the people of 1st century Palestine understood. Such a radically different universe demands a radically different religion.

By the time I started graduate school, I no longer felt called to be a physicist. I wanted to explore the world of religion. I wanted to see what other religions had to say about our place in the cosmos and how to live a life in harmony with the universe that science is revealing. By the time I had earned my Ph.D. in religion and social ethics, I had found many possibilities for religion in harmony with science. I also better understood the perspective of those religions that tried to deny the findings of science. In the years since, I’ve explored this further.

I am now a member of the Unitarian Universalist religion, one of the few religions to take the contributions of science seriously. I have developed adult religious education classes to share these ideas with my congregation and have also presented a number of worship services around the themes of science and religion.

I hope in this blog to get some of my ideas out into wider circulation and interact with those in the blog0sphere who are interested in the relation of science and religion. While my perspective is distinctly liberal, I encourage respectful comments from the conservative side of this issue. As time goes on, I hope the various categories of posts will begin to provide a comprehensive overview of this complex and fascinating issue.