Emily Ruppel served as BioLogos Web Editor from January 2013 to August 2014. In part 1 of her final post, she shares her intellectual and academic journey, and how the current debates between science and faith have shaped her calling.
Ten years ago this fall, I entered college at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky determined to become a poet. I spent the next four years studying line and language, rhythm and rhyme, craft and criticism to deepen my understanding of what it would mean to make it in the world as a full time teacher and crafter of verse.
Upon graduating, though, a new path appeared. I took a few assignments as a freelance nonfiction writer, and promptly found that I liked writing for magazines as much as, maybe more, than I liked writing poetry. From there it was a clear and quick shift to a specialization in science communication. When my editors assigned me stories about science, I was constantly learning new and fascinating things about nature, technology, and humanity’s intricate relationship with both.
As much as I loved learning the science itself, I also loved the fact that science writing was deeply tied to narrative—it wasn’t just a dry regurgitation of information in an existing body of knowledge, which is how science was taught to us in grade school. Rather, my long-time fascination with science became more about the process of science than its “facts.” As a science writer, I was doing the creative work I’d been trained to do while at the same time learning how scientific exploration moves forward through trial and error and a collective, burning curiosity. Thus, I started searching for graduate programs that could help me make my way into the world of professional science writing.
A little over a year later I found myself at MIT, wandering somewhat dumbfounded among some of the great scientific minds and artifacts of the past 150 years. I forged friendships among biologists, geoscientists, mathematicians, and engineers—friends who occupied positions at every level of what some have called the "academic feudalism” of science and medicine. I learned from those in serfdom—grad students and postdocs—a new definition of stress. The sheer volume of work they and the MIT undergraduates did every week seemed insurmountable, especially to someone whose previous definition of work included sitting quietly by a river considering whether slant rhyme would be appropriately aggressive at the end of this or that poetic line. In fact, I was surprised at how infrequently my friends complained about doing the lion’s share of labor and observation for a study just to produce a paper for which their advisors would then take the lion’s share of credit.
I learned from MIT professors and department chairs—the seemingly “ordained” lords and monarchs who both hold and distribute power in science—just how hard it is each year to secure the country of their ideas against the ever-threatening spectre of a shift in institutional interests or the drying up of a long-trusted river of funding… thereby exposing all who depend on them to the cold truths of academic homelessness.
Historically, survival for the subjects of feudal societies required fealty not only to a particular lord but also to a single, governing religion. Is a certain type of religious observance also required for citizenship in the scientific enterprise?
Maybe it appears that way because some of the most famous scientists who are also writers seem to say so. They talk about science as though science were a kind of religion and scientific observation the one and only path to truth. Because they are some of the most outspoken and opinionated voices in science today, they end up speaking for everyone instead of voicing minority opinions in a diverse community. But positivism, secular humanism, empiricism, scientism, or whatever else you might call it is not, in fact, the only kind of religion practiced among scientists, who indeed hold a wide spectrum of beliefs.
But the mischaracterizations prevail. Thus one of the more distressing aspects of my transformation from ‘writer’ to ‘science writer’ was the recognition of a troubling assumption by some of my colleagues. They seemed to think that “foster[ing] the dissemination of accurate information regarding science through all media normally devoted to informing the public” does not include communicating about science to the large portion of that same public who ascribe to an “unscientific” set of religious beliefs. I was shocked by the eye-rolling and dismissive comments made by fellow science writers when I first told them I work for an organization striving to increase appreciation of science among evangelical Christians. I don’t think my colleagues were being brusque because they’re not thoughtful people or because they really assume the efforts of BioLogos in this direction are a lost cause. Rather, I think it’s a disturbing reflection of how the overly simplistic opinions of a few can come to dominate patterns of thought even among those who have committed their professional lives to, and are passionate about, making science more accessible to nonscientists. (Of course, it’s not just a few vocal atheists but also many of our religious leaders who can be implicated in the monopolizing of public opinion on the subject — and yet I think both sides are trying to do what they can to correct the greatest problem they see threatening society: the persistence of worldviews that are not clearly compatible with their own.)
The lack of a nuanced and public dialogue about how science can inform and deepen faith, or how the values held by believers might be helpful and instructive for scientists, doctors, and engineers is problematic for those who, like me, hold to the conviction that science and religion are not just compatible — they’re soul mates. “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind,” said Albert Einstein of the rather mercurial love affair science and religion have had throughout history. Einstein was no Christian nor was he a religiously observant Jew — he had clear criticisms of faith even as he respected the values of believers. This is as it should be; insulting the intelligence of the faithful is just as bad behavior from a secular scientist as questioning the integrity of nonbelievers is from a committed Christian.
In the time that I worked as Web Editor for BioLogos, I watched this organization I love get called out time and again by scientists and Christians, alike, who assume that because we struggle to create a space for much-needed conversation on these topics that we have no “real” fidelity to either, or that the foundations upon which our convictions rest must be infirm and our motivations suspect. The consternation continues to baffle me. Science is not the enemy of faith. If it challenges us to think more deeply about our convictions, to consider alternate interpretations of Scripture because what we learn from creation through observation seems to contradict the reigning understanding of a particular biblical passage, so much the better. I don’t believe a God who possesses unfathomable love and power is threatened by the fact that we revised some dates on our cosmic calendars, or have begun to consider that creation might be even more wonder-full and intricate than we once had reason to believe.
Likewise, if the scientific enterprise doesn’t ask its citizens to swear fealty to empiricism before performing experiments or grappling with theory, why should some begrudge the metaphysical explorations that can add such depth and meaning to empirical ones?