When people think of MIT, most people imagine one of the bastions of the scientific and engineering world. But there are at least two people there who embrace not only science, but religion, as well.
As part of Sinai and Synapses‘ series “More Light, Less Heat,” Rabbi Michelle Fisher and Professor Ian Hutchinson share how they view the relationship between religion and science.
Rabbi Michelle Fisher, Executive Director of the MIT Hillel, shares how her background in organic chemistry helped her feel a sense of both love and awe of God:
Professor Ian Hutchinson, who is both an MIT Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering and a Christian, warns against “scientism,” a belief that science can tell us all we need to know:
Rabbi Michelle Fisher
Hi. I’m Rabbi Michelle Fisher. I’m the Executive Director of the Hillel at MIT. I’m both a scientist and a rabbi. Both my undergraduate and my graduate studies were in organic chemistry before I decided to switch my career slightly and go to rabbinical school.
I never saw a conflict between science and religion. When I was working in the lab, I saw the beauty of God’s handiwork every day, in the natural product synthesis that I was doing.
The intricacies of how molecules [and] compounds fit together, natural products were made and could be recreated in the lab, or how the processes of photosynthesis [and] respiration all worked together in specific ways, inspired awe in me, and I saw it as God’s paintbrush.
Maimonides, who was both a rabbi and a doctor, teaches that science is a path to learning the love and fear of God. My personal perspective reflects the love and the appreciation on one hand, and awe and fear of the power we human beings have to create or destroy.
So while science gives me an appreciation for God and of religion, religion also gives me among other things an ethical framework for considering our scientific work. There are many things we are capable of doing with our engineering [and] with our scientific discoveries. And no amount of science will teach us what we should do and how we should use those products.
Religion and Judaism remind me that life is not black and white. In the laboratory, in the engineering world, it’s very important that there are blacks and whites. If someone is building a bridge, it is vitally important that if the engineer says it will take 50 tons, it doesn’t collapse after 2 tons of truck go over it. And in building the Hubble Space Telescope, the fact that c [the speed of light] is a constant is vitally important.
But the real life of human interactions, of experimental play in the world, becomes gray. And religion teaches us responsibility for that which we have created.
Further, both science and Jewish thought teach us that the world is understandable by human beings. We believe that the Torah in Jewish tradition is to be studied, is understandable, was given over to human beings with human minds to comprehend. And similarly, the laws of nature can also be studied and understood.
Learning more about how the world is put together, and at the same time, what our roles are as human beings in this world are parallel and equally important acts for each one of us.
Professor Ian Hutchinson
I’m Ian Hutchinson, I’m a plasma physicist, MIT professor of nuclear science and engineering, and I’m a follower of Jesus Christ.
I became a Christian as an undergraduate at Cambridge University. So the Christian faith and the scientific understanding grew together in my intellectual development. Perhaps that’s the reason why I never felt the sort of conflict between science and faith that is commonly presupposed and promoted in America today.
My own conviction of the reality of God grew in the context of a wonder and fascination with the amazing consistency and complexity of the natural world, and seeing nature as the creation of a wise, loving God, for me, makes sense of science in a profound and intellectually satisfying way.
It was only in later years that I found out that this attitude was commonplace among the original founders of the scientific revolution. They saw no inherent conflict between their faith and science, and in fact, a good case can be made that the Biblical worldview served as a kind of fertile intellectual climate in which science grew and prospered.
What fuels much of the modern suspicion of science, as well as the militant atheists’ arguments against religion, I believe, is not science, but “scientism” — the usually unspoken belief that science is all the “real” knowledge there is. This erroneous worldview is the underlying cause of many of the arguments between science and religious faith.
But scientism also discounts and distorts many other human endeavors, for example history, or the law, or philosophy, or sociology. And I became so concerned with the pernicious effects of scientism that I wrote a book about it. It’s called Monopolizing Knowledge.
Repudiating scientism is the most important way to make progress in understanding the relationship between science and religious faith.
As a Christian, I believe that God is active in the world today, that humans are reconciled to God the Father through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus, His son, and that we can personally experience the love of God through the indwelling power of His holy spirit. And to me, this is a reality. It’s not something that I discover through science, but it is fully compatible with the modern understanding of the world of nature, which science brings.