I study space. Yes, that space, the one with the planets and the stars and the rockets blasting off of our planet at an ever-increasing pace. However, I am not a rocket scientist or a planetary geologist, I am not even an engineer. I am a political scientist.
It is not an obvious connection to most, but a lot of space is politics — from the policies that enable commercial companies to dream about Mars to the international treaties that set forth guidelines for the peaceful uses of space. My research means I often have a foot in differing disciplines as space touches of multitude of spheres. I am used to the difficult terrain one must navigate when dealing with multiple sets of rules, norms, and procedures.
I often think about how language from one area influences the other. I also think about how each discipline handles complications like failure and change, and this relationship between disciplines sometimes reminds me of the relationship between science and religion. Both are searching for truth, but each is playing by a different set of rules and, at times, using a different set of definitions. Lately, I am considering what each teaches us about how we respond to change.
In science, we live for the unexplained. Something unexpected can teach us a great deal about our world, our theories, and about what we thought we knew. For example, when the New Horizons mission flew past Pluto in 2015 it changed our understanding of geology on icy worlds. It was inspiring; scientists weren’t afraid to say they had no idea why Pluto had active geology when previous knowledge said it should not, and they immediately started trying to find out why.
Science teaches us to respond to change with curiosity and to seek explanations. It can be tempting, especially when the whole world seems to be changing around us, to look inward and to be afraid, to stay at home and hide. Science teaches us not to be afraid of the unexpected, but to seek to understand the why behind the phenomena.
In religion, we seek answers. We want to know why. Why are we here? Why is there suffering? Why is there altruism? Why do bad things happen? While the answers may vary by religion, often when faced with change, our faith has the ability to help us through it. Religion teaches us that must accept change as an inevitable part of life; that to every season of life there is a time, that change is the law of the universe.
Religion also teaches us that change is not just an external circumstance but an internal process. The Qur’an teaches Allah does not change people’s condition until they change what it in themselves, the Bible promises God will transform a believer by their faith. Change, whether good or bad, is an opportunity to grow in our faiths.
In America, we are facing a change. We have peacefully transitioned power from one administration to the next, and I am proud of this hallmark of democracy. Personally, I was deeply disappointed in the election results, not only because an unqualified man was elected over an incredibly well-qualified woman, but because our nation elected a man who rode to office on a swell of slogans with racist undertones and after admitting to sexual assault on tape.
How do science and religion teach me to respond to this kind of change? My religion teaches me that I must speak up for the rights of others, that I cannot turn a blind eye to injustice. It also teaches me that despite the change around me, what is true and what is right has not changed, that some truths are not dependent on people to give them value.
Science has taught me that I cannot hide from the uncomfortable result, that it cannot be swept under a rug. We cannot ignore data because it does not neatly fit into our theory.
We have seen the disturbing evidence of an America not yet free of her past, and we must all do our part to confront it. However, we should not lose heart, because even as one hallmark of democracy took place on January 20th, another happened on January 21st when millions turned out to lift their voices up against a rhetoric of hate, and thousands more are showing up at airports to welcome diversity into our nation.
Yes, change is scary, but change can also be the start of something good.
(This post is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our Winter 2017 series, “How Science Influences Religious Language.”)