Man of Faith/Science: An excerpt from Chasing Proof, Finding Faith

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What’s it like being a Christian in the field of science? An excerpt from “Chasing Proof, Finding Faith” by Tom Rudelius

August 14, 2023 -

A black thought bubble containing dozens of written scientific equations balloons above the head of a silhouetted man's profile, his mind glowing. © By Tryfonov/stock.adobe.com

A black thought bubble containing dozens of written scientific equations balloons above the head of a silhouetted man's profile, his mind glowing. © By Tryfonov/stock.adobe.com

A black thought bubble containing dozens of written scientific equations balloons above the head of a silhouetted man's profile, his mind glowing. © By Tryfonov/stock.adobe.com

People often ask me what it’s like to be a person of faith in the field of science. It’s a hard question to answer, because my experiences have varied widely.

Sometimes, physicists will ridicule religion. Once, while visiting the University of Texas to give a talk on my research, I went to lunch with a number of physicists, including the late Nobel laureate (and outspoken atheist) Steven Weinberg. Unaware of my religious leanings, Weinberg began the lunch with a pointed question toward the antievolution movement: “Do all these people who reject evolution also reject cosmology?”

I thought about explaining the difference between young earth creationists and old earth creationists, but ultimately held my tongue.

Sometimes, physicists respect religion. Several of my colleagues have expressed admiration for my religious faith, or religious faith in general, though they themselves do not have any religious convictions.

Sometimes, physicists embrace religion. I don’t know very many Christians in my field, but whenever I meet one, I feel an immediate kinship. Our scientific drive for knowledge pushes us to learn as much as we can about the physical universe, and as Christians that same drive pushes us to learn as much as we can about God. The result is a common language of science, theology, and philosophy not so different from the “twin telepathy” my brother and I have shared since childhood. Though sometimes it is discouraging that so few of my colleagues embrace religious faith, it is encouraging—perhaps even more so—that the ones who do are so strong in their faith and so capable of defending it intellectually.

In much of the world, there is intense animosity, and sometimes even violence, between people of differing religious faiths. Perhaps it’s because we religious physicists represent a minority in our world, but I’ve certainly never felt anything like that from my Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu colleagues. And I hope they’ve never felt anything like that from me. Rather, there seems to be a sense of solidarity among religious scientists. Though there are important differences between our faiths, there’s an even deeper sense of mutual respect among us: I’ve probably received more comments of admiration regarding my faith from Jewish colleagues than I have from Christian ones, and a Muslim colleague once told me that my public interviews and articles on science and God had strengthened his own faith.

On the whole, though, I can say with certainty that I have never felt persecuted or personally attacked for my faith. There are places in the world where Christians are suffering for their faith. But America is not one of those places. I can go to church, pray, read my Bible, and even write books like this one without fear of losing my job. Some of my colleagues may not agree with my faith, but fortunately my success in physics depends on my ability to do physics, not on how I worship in my free time.

Though science and faith are often viewed as enemies, I can also say I have felt less hostility toward religious faith in the upper echelons of physics than at the lower levels, or in the soft sciences or humanities. Anthropology, history, and religious studies departments are famously dismissive of Christianity—a trend many of my Christian friends and I experienced during the course of our university studies.

One of my friends who studied chemistry at Princeton had a high school science teacher who forced the class to learn the definition of a so-called scientific theory—an explanation for some natural phenomenon supported by a vast body of evidence—to refute the common creationist retort that “evolution is only a theory.” But when he got to college, my friend soon realized that such definitions are nonsense: In practice, scientists use the term theory to describe many different things. Some theories, like quantum field theory, are among the best tested phenomena in all of science. Other theories, like string theory, lack any experimental verification whatsoever.

My high school physics teacher—who was one the best and most important teachers I ever had—occasionally made snide remarks about religion. Yet at Cornell, Harvard, and Princeton, I met several religious physics professors. One professor even suggested to his class that God might be the best explanation after all for the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life—and he wasn’t even a theist.

Now, it’s also true that most of my extraordinarily brilliant colleagues do not embrace religion. But I’ve found that their reasons are generally quite ordinary. If you ask the average atheist why he or she doesn’t believe in God, you’ll probably get some version of the problem of evil: “If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving, why do evil and suffering exist?” If you ask one of the world’s most brilliant scientists why they don’t believe in God, you’ll probably hear the exact same thing.

That’s not to say that the problems of evil and suffering are easy for theists to deal with. It’s simply that the most brilliant minds don’t have a huge advantage over others when it comes to questions of faith. We all have basically the same questions, objections, and doubts. In my experience, the ones who find answers to these questions are typically those who need answers the most. Personally, before Steve’s conversion and subsequent conversations with me, I never felt much need for religion, as I was generally able to get by on my intelligence alone. Perhaps other scientists feel similarly.

Finally, I have found that most scientists—even nonreligious ones—believe in some sort of power greater than ourselves. It’s very common to hear physicists refer to Nature as a sort of placeholder god. For example, Ed Witten once said in an interview, “If I knew how Nature has done supersymmetry breaking, then I could tell you why humans had such trouble figuring it out.” There is a widespread acknowledgment that Nature has chosen a particular way for our universe to be, and it could have chosen something different.

What’s the difference between this Nature and the God (capital G) I believe in? I think the biggest difference is simply that Nature doesn’t really care much about the affairs of humanity, whereas God does. Most everyone would agree that Nature has a preference for order, simplicity, and beauty, but many balk at the suggestion that it would concern itself with the affairs of one particular species on one little insignificant planet. We humans are, to quote astronomer Carl Sagan, nothing but “a mote of dust in the morning sky.” Why would God care about us?

To this, I like to point out that size is not a very good measure of value. I care more about the life of a baby than I do about most galaxies. I care more about the ten-nanometer transistors that make my computer work than I do about distant stars. And even as someone who studies black holes and the big bang for a living, I find nothing more incredible about the cosmos than the fact that it somehow birthed intelligent, conscious beings like us.

Ultimately, one can choose to view the size of our universe as a sign of our insignificance, or one can choose to view it as a sign of the great significance of its creator—a creator whose attention is not divided, who built and sustains the intricate workings of the cosmos, yet who simultaneously cares enough about humanity to become a human himself, to experience pain, suffering, and death so that we could have life.


Adapted from “Man of Faith/Science” in Chasing Proof, Finding Faith: A Young Scientist’s Search for Truth in a World of Uncertainty

By Tom Rudelius, releasing August 2023 from Tyndale House Publishers.


About the Author

Tom Rudelius completed his undergraduate work at Cornell, earned a doctorate in physics at Harvard, and has conducted postdoctoral research at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Currently a postdoctoral researcher in theoretical physics at the University of California, Berkeley, Tom will begin a faculty position at Durham University (UK) in the fall of 2023. His research focuses on string theory, quantum field theory, and early universe cosmology. A man of faith and an avid sports fan, he is frequently requested to speak on topics related to science and faith. He is also on the board of the Mamelodi Initiative, a tutoring organization based in Mamelodi, South Africa. Tom’s newest book, Chasing Proof, Finding Faith, released on August 8, 2023, from Tyndale.

More by Tom Rudelius

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