Very few Americans know much about the Baha’i faith. Yet one of its core principles is a commitment to scientific inquiry, which means that Baha’is have a unique perspective on how science and religion can interact.
Thus as part of Sinai and Synapses‘ series “More Light, Less Heat,” Lisa M. Ortuno, Ph.D. and Dr. Carey Murphy share how their Baha’i faith has enhanced their love of science, and how science has strengthened their commitment to their faith.
Lisa M. Ortuno has a Ph.D. in biology and currently works for the Promega Corporation, a biotechnology company. She is a member of the Sinai and Synapses working group, and she discovered that using the scientific method and her training in biology were invaluable in her journey towards becoming a Baha’i:
Dr. Carey Murphy is a retired 8th grade science teacher who taught in a predominantly evangelical community in South Carolina. Since the Baha’i faith emphasizes rationality, she used her religious commitment to help her students embrace critical thinking:
Lisa M. Ortuno, Ph.D.
Hello, my name is Lisa Ortuno, and I am a biologist and a Baha’i.
I’d like to talk about how the Baha’i faith has influenced my thinking as a biologist, and how the scientific method I’ve used to employ towards my thinking as a Baha’i.
So my faith says that the hidden mysteries of nature can be transferred from the plane of the invisible to the visible. And this is how the act of engaging in science is viewed in the Baha’i faith. It is indeed a sacred act. It is divine.
It is this novel way of looking at it that was very attractive to me. And this is especially true given that as I was going through my high school years and college, I was an agnostic. I was never able to hold onto the faith that I was exposed to growing up, and therefore, I found that science was the way of discovering truths about the world.
I still believe that, of course. Now I believe that’s one of at least two ways of gaining truth and wisdom about the world.
So as I continued in graduate school, I learned how to develop new questions, or ask novel questions, develop new hypotheses, test them, and to apply the scientific method in my discoveries. And it was through the act of writing publications and presenting the information to the scientific community that I was able to take this knowledge, again, from the invisible plane into the visible.
I was always one of those people who was interested in science, and even as a child, I could be found in the creeks overturning rocks, and grabbing a hold of frogs and turtles and bringing them home to live in glass jars in my room…
So thinking about my development as a Baha’i, when I became exposed to the faith, as you might imagine, I was a little bit skeptical, and so what I did, because I was trained as a biologist, was I applied the scientific method to the claims of the faith. And I did this for three years.
And what I found as a result of it was that my relationships improved, and some of them I had been struggling with. And so this was a real, actual, scientific result in a lot of ways. And I continued to test it. And I found that for me, that this was the path that I wanted to take.
At the same time, as I continued learning how to be a person of faith, I found there was another transformation that was occurring, and that was a growing sense of humility. It’s very easy to become overconfident in the ability of science to solve the world’s problems. And looking around, of course we all see that there are huge problems that we face, and so now subscribing to the idea that it’s both science and religion together are where we can find sources of knowledge, and taking that information and applying it globally with a heart that’s full of humility, is the way that I’ve learned to live my life.
Of course, all the major faiths of the world take a posture, or claim, that we need to take this posture of humility. Therefore I am fully confident as a person of faith and a person of science with this humble posture in the ability that together these two can help us deal with these great problems that we have before us.
Together, science and religion are the wings of one bird, and together, we will advance the human civilization.
Dr. Carey Murphy:
I’m Dr. Carey Murphy, I’m a Baha’i, and I’m a retired 8th grade middle school science teacher. I want to talk briefly today about how my religion influenced my classroom teaching.
The Baha’i faith teaches that science must sanction religion, and religion fortify science. It emphasizes that science and religion both come from God, they are not in competition with each other, and they are not in conflict.
In that spirit, I taught for 25 years in a diverse but largely evangelical Christian culture here in South Carolina. Many of my students believed that fundamentalist, literalist teachings trumped all other kinds of knowledge, including what I was teaching them, which included geology, paleontology, a little physics, evolution and astronomy.
I decided early in my teaching career, therefore, to help my students to think more critically by teaching them the steps of rationality. Steps that are both secular and expressly found in the Baha’i scriptures.
These steps include the need to master a body of knowledge, to possess a spirit of inquiry and detachment, to hold to the tentativeness of knowledge, to possess a grateful and humble spirit of service, to test and retest ideas, to engage in peer review and consultation, and not to judge before you know, avoid dichotomous thinking, and lastly, to dispel fear of authority, criticism and failure.
Well, I found that my students did very well understanding these ideas and methods, and they gained a real respect for science in the process. This experience taught me that rational thinking could be taught to young people and adults, and that it should be included in both our academic and religious curricula.
In the Baha’i view, it applies to both. Science as well as religion need to be understood rationally.
Young people, then, in short, as well as adults, deserve to have rational tools with which to analyze the ideas that they encounter in their lives.
I want to end with a quote from the Baha’i writings: “God has endowed man with intelligence and reason. If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science, they are mere superstitions and imaginations; for the antithesis of knowledge is ignorance, and the child of ignorance is superstition. Unquestionably there must be agreement between true religion and science. If a question be found contrary to reason, faith and belief in it are impossible, and there is no outcome but wavering and vacillation.” (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 177)
Thank you so much for listening.