There are perhaps few topics of conversation more taboo in the lab environment than religion. You would be hard pressed to find a research lab where religion is discussed as freely in casual conversation as sports, popular culture, and even politics. 

This reluctance to discuss religion is driven by the belief that religion and scientific research are two seemingly incompatible systems. And yet, persons of faith abound in scientific research. 

A study led by researchers at Rice University that surveyed scientists based in research institutions in the UK and the United States found that close to 30 per cent of participants identified as having at least some degree of religious belief. 

This is not a recent development. Leading scientists who were devoutly religious during their lifetime include Francis Bacon, Srinivasa Ramanujan, and Abdus Salam.

There is also a pervasive stigma about being a person of faith in a scientific setting. According to the same study, more than a quarter of participating scientists perceive a conflict between science and religion, viewing themselves to be on the side of science. 

But people of faith do have a place in scientific settings — both historical and contemporary evidence say so. The science-religion divide does not have to exist. Ultimately, they are both rooted in our desire to understand ourselves and the universe we inhabit. And so, lab environments should be accepting — even welcoming — to people of faith.

A poor conflation

Adam Hincks, a Jesuit priest and professor in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, provides a useful starting point for comparison and contrast. In an email to The Varsity, he argued that “there are important ways in which [religion and science] should not be conflated.”

This occurs when religious belief, or belief of any kind for that matter, is conflated in the wrong way with science. With respect to religion, the extreme end of this kind of belief presents itself in new world creationists, who believe that the Earth and its inhabitants were formed in six days as recounted in the book of Genesis. 

This erroneous and harmful manner of thinking points to an important finding: it is nonsensical to hold a belief if that belief is shown to be false. At that point, the danger is that it is no longer a belief, but rather a delusion for the person who holds it.

Unfortunately, the secularized view of religion often reduces religion to these most extreme, erroneous, and draconian ideas. In the lab environment where we emphasize the pursuit of new knowledge and an attitude of momentum that continually strives for forward progress, these stereotypes characterize the whole of religion as an archaic system devoid of any place in our world.

In response to the “perception that you can’t be religious and scientific at the same time,” Hincks noted, “That’s unfortunate because it simply isn’t true, and it means that those of us who are religious don’t always do a great job at getting that message out there.”

A shared root

To this end, when we discuss beliefs, including those of a religious nature, they must have utility for their holder. Religious beliefs accomplish this, in part, by providing a sense of direction toward the ultimate mysteries, conceptualized in our anthropocentric lens, pertaining to the ‘whys’ and ‘whats’ of our existence and purpose, respectively. 

This desire to discover, albeit on different terms and under different circumstances, might represent the starting point of a serious discussion on the relationship between religion and science. We have an insatiable need to question, probe, ponder, inquisite, and understand both ourselves and the universe external to us. 

As Hincks explained, for persons of faith in scientific research, religion provides another outlet through which to accomplish these aims.

This in itself is something worth pondering: that diverse ways of knowing can be united within a single human subject,” he wrote. “The common factor is the human person who wants to understand the world, what our place in it is, and what the meaning of existence is.”

Religious persons are more than capable of success in a lab setting, but this depends on the openness of the environment. The ethos of the lab environment should tolerate persons of diverse backgrounds in personal creed, including in matters of religion. This is a two-way front: religious persons likewise should not denounce those who do not share their beliefs.

“In my own experience my fellow scientists are respectful and often open-minded when it comes to religion, even if they are not religious themselves,” Hincks reflected. “And I’ve also had good conversations about religion with other scientists of faith over the years. Some of my best conversations a few years ago were with a Muslim colleague. I think we both learnt a lot by sharing our experiences.”

This is what we should strive to create. Open, honest discussion and mutual respect are at the core of the values that make the scientific environment such an enticing and fruitful one. These qualities ought to translate into the overall atmosphere of the lab.