A few years ago, my husband and I took our three children to Pompeii – the ruined and partially buried Roman city near Naples, Italy.
As one of the most spectacular sights one can see in a lifetime, I was sure my children would be forever affected by their firsthand encounter with the history of this special place, destroyed during an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. but rediscovered in 1738.
As I looked upon the children, my chest puffed out with the pride of a parent trying desperately hard to show her children the world, my suddenly very bored 6-year-old son turned to me and said: “Mommy, I wonder if anyone has ever made an M&M as big as a cookie. Could we try sometime? How could we do that?”
What? How could he say such a thing? Doesn’t he realize where he is?
I’m reminded of this story today as I struggle with a different and much more complex issue: how to elicit an interest in religion from my overtly cynical and science-minded children.
For years I’ve been a foreign correspondent and more recently became the author of a biography called The Fossil Hunter: about an English woman named Mary Anning who helped launch the debate over extinction, evolution, and the earth’s real age in the early 1800s.
As a result, I’ve found myself writing and speaking a great deal these days about the reconciliation of science and religion, often preaching to the choir in rooms filled with educated people who understand that the two are not incompatible.
But somehow I fear I’ve failed to make a connection with my own children as I’ve attempted to get this same message across.
Raised a Christian, I was always taught by my mother to go through life with the faith of a child, a wisdom spelled out in both the Gospels of Luke and Mark. Although I grew to become an endlessly curious reporter, I was never one of those children who asked a heap of searching questions like “Why can’t I see angels?”
But the mustard seed of faith planted during my childhood has never left me even at a time where in some circles it’s a badge of honor to skate over issues of religion.
Today we live in a world marked by one scientific discovery after another, an age when scientists are extracting DNA with the hopes of resurrecting the woolly mammoth while talking about human cloning as a very real possibility.
My children love this stuff. They make straight As in science and physics classes and when they search out information they like to find answers that make sense to them.
I’m thrilled about their pursuits but also have worked hard to try to force them to get excited over something they have a tougher time getting their young heads around – religion.
I’ve read them Bible stories and then cringed when they’ve begun to laugh. I’ve prayed with them for friends to get well only to get irritated with them a week later when they ask why the friends are still ill.
Most importantly I’ve emphasized the mysteries that science can’t explain. For example, despite centuries of astronomical observations it is thought that more than 90 percent of the mass in our universe is still undetected.
But I fear that I’ve been trying too hard and that I need to be sending them the same message I send when I speak to adults about my book: that both science and religion can give explanations that are not in any kind of competition with each other, but rather are complementary.
In other words, we can believe that the earth is close to 4.5 billion years old – and also look toward religion for answers about our ultimate purpose in life.
Many of the early scientists were themselves people who saw their faith as the key driver in exploring and understanding the natural world God had created.
According to Denis Alexander, director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Isaac Newton would have looked puzzled in the 18th century if asked what he thought about the relationship between science and religion.
“For so many centuries science and religion were so closely intertwined that I’m not sure that people would have thought about the ‘relationship’ between them with the implication that they represent two distinct bodies of knowledge,” he said.
In a recent study, Elaine Howard Ecklund, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University, found that 52 percent of scientists in the United States express no religious affiliation compared with just 14 percent of the general public.
But – interestingly -- she also found that younger scientists are more likely to express a religious affiliation than older scientists.
And so when my 11-year-old son tells me enthusiastically that according to new theories, the earth didn’t start with a big bang but actually with an endless series of expansions and rebirths, I will not immediately recoil and wonder why I can’t evoke the same sort of elation over Sunday School.
Certainly I will continue to encourage my children to see the big picture and not to be blind to the possibility that religious faith is hugely important.
But I will also emphasize and appreciate that they can have an interest in both religion and science and remind myself that belief and inquiry are not mutually exclusive.