eruditio et religio

Eruditio et religio” is Duke University’s motto. I have written some personal comments on the subject of learning and religion, partly for fun, and partly because I often get questions on this subject. Some assume that since I am a scientist, I must not be religious (untrue); others wonder if religion informs my choice of career (yes); still others are curious based on the knowledge that my parents taught religion. An additional reason for addressing “eruditio et religio” explicitly is the possibility that the discussion of science in the context of society has been decreasing, and that this decrease contributes to American ambivalence towards science (an idea discussed here:


I was raised largely in the Church of the Brethren. I currently attend the Durham Friends (Quaker) Meeting. My thinking is also informed by reading, especially Annie Dillard and Loren Eiseley on religion and nature, and Madeleine L’Engle and Khalil Gibran on religion in general.

Why do I believe in God? First: I am not out to convince anyone else; I answer this only to give perspective on how I think of religion. Second: it is a belief, not knowledge. So, I can’t give a fact-based answer1. In fact, I can’t say why at all, despite having thought about it a fair amount. But that is not the point of this piece. Rather, my goal here is to give some of my perspectives on the relationships between science and religion.

Science and religion

While I can’t say exactly why I believe, I do want to emphasize that new scientific discoveries are not at all incompatible with my (mysterious!) belief. Here is a quote that captures my thoughts on the effects of scientific discoveries on mystery:

“We live on an island of what we know, surrounded by a coast of mystery. The bigger the island grows, the further the coastline goes.” Dotty Murray, as told by Andy Murray

I start with this point because clearly, for some people, scientific discoveries or understanding are incompatible with their faith. A current example is evolution. As a scientist (although not one who studies evolution directly), I think that evolution is easily the best scientific explanation we have for the history and diversity of life. I have two responses to the controversy over evolution, one based on the question of literal interpretations of the Bible, and the other based on the broader issue of what questions science and religion can and cannot answer.

A major argument against evolution is that it does not fit with a literal reading of the Bible’s Creation story. I do not read the Bible literally2 because I think it is impossible to do so. We nearly always read translations, and having learned Spanish, I know that some concepts are very hard to translate perfectly from one language to another. In fact, I sometimes misunderstand other native speakers of English! Worse, both language and culture change over time; if Shakespeare is hard at 400 years, how much harder is a 2000 year-old text? Language, simply, is not clear enough to permit literalism3.

My second response to the evolution vs creationism4 debate is that science and religion address fundamentally different kinds of questions, often with fundamentally different approaches. Science asks questions about how the world works, and can only answer them insofar as they involve testable ideas. Religion asks how the world should be, and the answer cannot be reached by testing5. For example, as an environmental scientist, I can test whether exposure to chemical X will cause detectable DNA damage. Let’s imagine that the answer is “yes.” This scientific answer does not make that chemical “bad,” or its use by people “wrong”—rather, that information can inform our societal debate about whether its use in a given context has greater benefit than cost. And that question has a religious/moral dimension6.

This distinction between the realms of science and religion also helps with the difficult (from a religious perspective) question of “Why does God let bad things happen7?” We have the ability to make our own choices, which must mean that God lets people do evil things. I think that God wants us to try to do good8–but the doing of good would be meaningless unless it were indeed a choice.

If God does not interfere with our free will, what about the workings of the natural world—including evolution? Again I think that God does not normally9 intervene in how the world works10. If we choose to act in way that results in nature’s hurting us; or choose to remain ignorant of the workings of nature, resulting in harm to ourselves; or if we choose to damage the natural world itself; should God intervene? No—again these are our choices. What about simple random acts of nature—lightning strikes, or earthquakes? To me, they are part of our world—free and inherently full of beauty and tragedy11.

While what I have written so far highlights differences between religion and science, there are some similarities and relationships as well.

A first similarity is the importance of doubt for both. I think I should constantly re-examine my religious beliefs12, although I will rarely if ever answer any in a permanent or dogmatic fashion (beyond rather vague expressions, e.g. “Love your neighbor as yourself”)13. Similarly, in science, any idea should be tested and challenged, and most research creates as many questions as it answers. As my brother put it, doubt and mystery are necessary, not inimical, in both science and religion. Also similar is the fact that institutions have a tendency to get in the way of such questioning in both science and religion.

A second relationship, at least for me, is that my religious beliefs inform my choice of career as well as how I do my job, which makes me feel good about the job.14 This relates as well to Duke’s goal of generating “Knowledge in the Service of Society,” and we are far from the first to think along these lines:

“I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” Einstein

“The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action.” Herbert Spencer

Further, just as religion informs my wish to make a difference with my life, it recently occurred to me that science may tell us something about the practicality of doing so. “What difference can one person make?” can be answered from a moral perspective (“The Star Thrower” by Loren Eiseley is a nice take), but science may offer a pragmatic answer as well. I think of it as the “butterfly effect” of our actions. We may not know ahead of time that specific actions will have important (in terms of practical effects) outcomes—but we also don’t know that they won’t! It strikes me as both humbling and empowering to realize this: our best efforts may have no detectable effect…and seemingly small actions may be what triggers the avalanche.

A final relationship is that there is uncertainty in both science and religion. This is related to the first, but distinct I think. Scientific uncertainty can sometimes be quantified, and there are whole fields of science devoted to decision-making in the face of scientific uncertainty. We also often make moral and religious choices in the absence of absolute certainty, and for me at least, faith is certainly a journey, not a destination.

The End (or is it?)

Learning and religion are helpful to me in different, yet related and complementary ways, so I’m happy with Duke’s choice of motto15. And thinking about them both is fun. I welcome comments (by email—too lazy to manage a blog or anything similar!), although I can’t promise a fast response.



1Dave wanted me to define God at this point. Luckily my brother rescued me, saying that God is ineffable, and adding some interesting thoughts about that: “If your starting point is God is ultimately beyond the scope of full human understanding (though not beyond true human experience), what do you do with that?  The Hindu tradition seems to be, let’s then address infinite aspects of God, each of which is true in some way, and false were it taken as a complete representation.  Versus a Judaic tradition of saying, never utter the name of God, any attempt at representation is blasphemous.  Both I think are in ways beautiful and elegant and each has its pitfalls.”

2Andy Murray argues that this is a misuse of the word “literal,” which should in fact involve an understanding of the language and culture at the time that the text was written. He may be right in principle (see discussion here:, but I am using the term in what seems to me to be the common practice. In any case we agree on the point that such texts need to be interpreted, not “simply” read.

3Dad makes the point that it is interesting to look at what parts of the Bible different religions take literally. I was brought up in the pacifist Church of the Brethren to believe that ALL killing is wrong (an amusing take on this:,222/); Catholics believe that the Holy Communion is the literal Body and Blood of Christ; Jews avoid pork (based as I understand it at least in part on Leviticus 11:7-8).

4Or intelligent design, which is equally untestable as a hypothesis and therefore outside of the realm of science.

5My brother pushed me on this one, arguing that religion does often explains how the world is –only it does so through analogous pathways, via metaphor. Further, our senses and tools for communication, even when used for science, rely heavily on metaphor. I agree with that, but I don’t think it affects my point about evolution.

6This perspective is explored in more depth by Nobel Prize winner Eric Cornell in his essay “What was God Thinking?”

7My thinking on this has been informed by this quote from Rabbi Harold Kushner:

“The … theological conclusion I came to is that God could have been all-powerful at the beginning, but he chose to designate two areas of life off-limits to his power,” Kushner says. “He would not arbitrarily interfere with laws of nature. And secondly, God would not take away our freedom to choose between good and evil.”

As well as by the essay “God and Haiti ” by David Boulton.

8A wonderful related quote from George Bernard Shaw:

“This the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

9I’m on the fence on miracles—I’ve not witnessed one in the strict sense, but if there are interventions, they must be rare (“miracles”). Tangentially, if God in fact wants us to believe in God…what happens to the people who witness miracles? How is it faith, if you know for a fact that there is a force that carries out miracles? I prefer Dad’s perspective on miracles (see footnote 11), also captured to some extent buy this quote:

“Days pass and the years vanish and we walk sightless among miracles . . . . How filled with awe is this place and we did not know it.”

Rachel Naomi Remen in My Grandfather’s Blessings

10Did God “set up the rules?” For example, kick-start the universe after creating the basic laws of physics, etc, setting the stage for the eventual creation of earth and evolution of life? Maybe—I’m not worried about it. Maybe that is compatible with a less “literalist” interpretation of religious creation stories. Maybe science will one day discover what preceded the Big Bang—if so, this simply once again extends the coastline of mystery.

11What about animals—especially “higher” animals–are they supposed to do good? My first reaction is “that’s ridiculous”—but if not, why not? Because they are fully programmed, acting only according to instinct? I don’t think that is entirely true of all animals. And, of course, the converse is that we humans are, to some extent, affected by instinct. Does this absolve us of all responsibility? Of course not, but perhaps there is some level of mitigation? I haven’t figured this one out yet!

12I would be comfortable making many of these same points with respect to thinking about moral beliefs instead of religious beliefs.

13Of course, the lack of absolute answers does not excuse a failure to make choices based on my beliefs.

14Here is a short piece that Dad and I wrote on the relationship Quakerism, nature, and miracles (“Quakers and Nature ”), and another that Mom wrote on the value of a connection to nature (“Sanity Insurance”), that further explore this relationship.

15A little background on the history of “eruditio et religio” as a motto at Duke: