Conklin: Where science and religion intersect

Guest writer Gary Conkling started writing stories as a child and publishing them on his own hand-cranked printing press. Little did he know digital technology would make it possible to repeat the task as an adult by publishing his own blog, Life Notes. He is a journalist by trade who has worked in the trenches of public affairs at the federal, state, regional and local levels. But he also is an observer of life occurring around him. This piece is from his blog, found at https://garyconklinglifenotes.wordpress.com.

Science can be described as the continuous study of what we don’t know but wished we did.

That’s why science is discomfiting for humans who believe they know all the answers. Scientists like answers, too, but mostly because they raise even more questions.

At its core, science thrives on exploration, from ancient civilizations digging ditches to redirect water and clambering into boats to see what’s over the horizon, and in more recent times from dissecting cadavers to understand human anatomy to discovering the connection between sewage and pathogens.

Mankind has long stared into the sky to see what’s out there and understand how it affects Earth. Sky explorers continue making discoveries such as black holes.

Despite their name, black holes are actually dense objects with intense gravitational fields that make it hard for objects and light to escape.

Astronomers believe, at least for now, that jumping into a black hole in space is a one-way trip. But no one knows for sure because we lack the means to reach a black hole since the closest one is 1,600 light years away.

Humans have intuitively understood the importance of the sun to life on Earth. What astronomers have learned is that our “sun” is a very old ball of energy that holds 99.8 percent of our solar system’s mass.

Astronomers predict the sun will burn through its existing hydrogen supply and then expand, engulfing Mercury, Venus and eventually Earth on its journey to becoming a giant red star. Luckily, astronomers estimate the sun has enough hydrogen to keep burning for another 5 billion years.

The science of cells is even more jaw-dropping. Biologists believe cells are the fundamental unit of what we call life. This had led to the scientific fields of cellular and molecular biology.

These biologists now routinely uncover new knowledge about genetics, immunology and neurobiology by learning the relationships within cells of DNA, RNA and protein synthesis.

There are parallel scientific discoveries regarding atomic matter and its properties that govern space, time, energy and matter in the observable universe.

Scientists have uncovered the existence of what physicists call antimatter, which consists of antiparticles with the same mass as matter but with the opposite sign. What sounds like worthless knowledge is actually critical to medical tomography, better known as PET scans.

Quantum mechanics is perhaps the most disruptive discovery by physicists.

Albert Einstein’s insight gave us the theory of relativity, but he was never able to combine it with a provable field theory. Einstein wanted to believe how our universe operates was predictable through direct observation.

Physicists have learned matter and light at atomic and subatomic levels have predictable patterns that can be harnessed in things such as integrated circuits, but also can be altered by random events. The course of Earth and its universe is not a foregone conclusion.

That was demonstrated when NASA’s DART spacecraft successively slammed into an asteroid, redirecting it onto a new course. This was planned intervention.

At the quantum level, most intervention is unplanned and often unnoticed. Our best evidence of this randomness is human disease, which may affect some people but not others, even among family members.

Scientists examining a random meteorite made a surprising discovery. Even though the meteorite consisted of nickel and iron, common minerals on Earth, they had cooled a million years or so in space, congealing into something not found on Earth — tetrataenite.

It turns out tetrataenite is ideal for high-end magnets used in electric vehicles and space shuttle turbines. And scientists have figured out how to replicate tetrataenite in laboratories, which holds the prospect of displacing rare earths that must be mined and processed.

Science may seem like it has reduced life to a soulless existence. Atoms, antimatter and black holes don’t provide satisfying stories about life, survival or after-life. In fact, science challenges many religious beliefs, ancient myths and human historical accounts.

Challenging what some accept as truth doesn’t need to shatter a belief in a greater power. Scientists have uncovered a great deal about how our universe works but not how it all got its start. The Big Bang Theory explains how the universe is behaving, not why the Big Bang occurred.

What we know is that scientists discover a lot of things that travel well in our everyday lives.

Space exploration best exemplifies the upside of science. In support of space travelers, NASA and various corporations have innovated devices now commonly used in terrestrial life, such as air purifiers, workout machines, flame-retardant clothing, camera phones, invisible braces, solar cells, better tires and baby food.

Scientists may be on to an even more novel, climate-friendly ideas, such as chicken meat without chickens, which the Food and Drug Administration has just given the nod to go forward to a market near you. “Slaughter-free,” lab-grown chicken meat, referred to as “cultivated meat,” originated with California cardiologist Dr. Uma Valeti, who was inspired by stem cells used to repair human hearts.

If you can grow heart cells, Valeti reasoned, you can grow chicken meat. Ten years later, he was proven right.

A taste-tester who tried his cultivated meat commented, “It tastes like chicken.” Valeti’s quick response, “It is chicken.”

That’s why chicken brands are salivating to get his laboratory recipe. And it’s why science can defy everyday logic and understanding.

Brian Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics, is renowned for his breakthrough discoveries in superstring theory, which is an attempt to model fundamental forces of nature as vibrating super-symmetrical strings. It’s basically an effort to resolve the theory of relativity with the realities of quantum physics.

However, Greene ventures into a more problematic field ­— the meaning of the universe.

In his latest book, Until the End of Time, Greene uses scientific knowledge to trace the origin of the universe and the human place within that universe. He writes in his preface: “Although obscured by mist here and fog there, the panorama is becoming sufficiently clear that we cogitating creatures can glean more fully than ever before how we fit into the grand expanse of time.”

Greene wrote that before he knew about chicken meat without chickens.

People with religious beliefs often view science as anti-religious, even as an attack on religion. The tension between scientific inquiry and religious zealotry is real. Scientists focus on questions while zealots settle for answers, sometimes based on dubious evidence or misconstrued history.

There is a path through the tension, though. Scientists don’t have to dismiss a greater force and zealots have to rely on faith rather than crypto-facts.

We could someday figure out how the universe truly works, but still never know how it came to be. The desire — and for many the desperate need – to know there is something larger out there larger than life as we know it can yield an emotional calm and an enhanced ability to deal with very real and present distress.

It also would help if scientists and zealots played by the same rules.

Questions are not disbelief. Probabilities are safer to cling to than facts in assessing the universe. The scientific method and faith are not incompatible.

The branch of science we call archaeology has unearthed the remains of creatures long ago gone extinct and capable civilizations that vanished.

Contemporary religions rarely acknowledge their existence or their successes and failures. Their religions and gods are reduced to pagan rites, despite their reigns that lasted for centuries and may have grown out of the early struggles of post-evolutionary humans.

Their achievements in building grand temples and practical waterworks are overlooked behind the smudge of time covering their history-revealing wall paintings and rock carvings. Their migrations are just lost legends. But like space, we are learning little by little about our forebears on Earth.

It was just 75 years ago that scientists in a New Jersey lab invented the transistor, which created the foundation for what we now call the Digital Age and a fierce global competition to manufacture advanced semiconductors.

The US Department of Energy just announced a scientific breakthrough to mimic the sun by using nuclear fusion to create more energy than it consumed, raising the prospect of a limitless zero-carbon energy source to replace fossil fuels in the battle against climate change.

Science isn’t perfect. Neither is our pantheon of perceptions about God.

Believing in something larger than our human selves is something scientists and people of faith have in common. If both were honest, they would admit they have more questions than answers and that faith can help people abide life’s travails.

Science isn’t perfect. Religion isn’t infallible.

Another point of mutual intersection between science and religion is history. Galileo’s proclamation that Earth circles the sun turned him into a religious pariah, but opened the window to a more accurate picture of our universe. Think how limited our world would be if we still clung to the belief Earth was flat?

In 1910, zoologist George Murray Levick went to Antarctica to study a penguin colony. Through photography, he observed male birds having sex with other male birds.

Fearing blowback, Levick omitted those observations and photographs from his official report, even though same-sex animal behavior — and human behavior — had been studied as far back as the 1700s.

Homosexual and bisexual animal behavior has since been chronicled and studied in more than 1,000 species, including mammals. Ironically, the prevalence of homosexual animal behavior conflicts with Darwinian evolutionary theory that stressed reproductive ability as critical to survival.

Today scientists still aren’t certain what leads to homosexuality. One thing is scientifically known, though: Homosexuality and bisexuality aren’t moral choices.

They could even be in some species a key to their evolutionary success. Do we have to wait a century or longer to recognize homosexuality can be as determined as human DNA? Couldn’t scientists and religious believers agree we have more consequential things to worry about in our world?

Finally, science can inform us about history. Vaccination saves lives. People with black skin aren’t mentally inferior. Females can be as accomplished as men in operating rooms and sports fields. And yet cult-like groups make false claims about vaccines, women continue to be oppressed by patriarchies and Black people remain undervalued — much of this in the name of quasi-religious doctrines.

Humans face massive challenges — climate change, artificial intelligence and gene-editing technology. These challenges, among others, represent opportunities for scientists and moralists to cooperate and point to directions that are humane in the face of fundamental change.

We should be at the point where we can say scientists aren’t always right, and neither are religious leaders. We all have a lot to learn about the human condition. And we have a long way to go to improve the human condition for everyone, including suffering or impoverished people.

Surely that could be a mutual rallying point for scientists and religious leaders. All it would take is some humility that we may never know everything to know in our universe, and that a dose of genuine faith can do more good than harm.



The problem is that science has been perverted into a religion with the stereotypical dogmatic refusal to consider new, alternative theories and experimental results. It began in earnest with the Club of Rome's "Limits to Growth" theory proclaiming that a Malthusian crisis would decimate an overpopulated human race. Anyone who could understand the math should have recognized that we reached the inflection point in the mid 1970s. More importantly, the supplies of critical resources including fossil fuels were vast or at least far larger than was presumed. The cabal was obliged to invent Anthropogenic Global Warming Theology as a pretext to impose totalitarianism and cull what they view as surplus population.


1. Man has the capacity to reason.
2. Man thinks he's a penguin.
3. ???
4. profit

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