Often, religion and science are treated as binaries. A person must solely believe in creationism or pure evolution. There was a great flood or there wasn’t. Stem cell research is good or bad.
Fraser Fleming says that view of the world is “black and white thinking.” Fleming, PhD, professor and department head of Chemistry in Drexel’s College of Arts and Science, firmly plants himself in the gray.
“Everybody either has an ax to grind or puts you to sleep,” he said of discussions on science and religion.
In light of that, Fleming wrote a book this year, “The Truth About Science and Religion: From the Big Bang to Neuroscience,” with the aim of bringing the discussion more toward the gray.
Fleming is neither an evangelist nor Richard Dawkins. He’s not out to convince anyone of anything: He’s just willing to stay open, and hopes others are, too.
With that in mind, Fleming recently spoke on science and religion and how a polarized argument hurts both.
Why do you think the discussion of science and religion always seems to boil down to a one side or the other argument?
Some people get bent out of shape about the Big Bang. Well, why? I think it’s about the sense of purpose.
The Big Bang provides a set that everything else occurs upon. So, if you went to God’s universe machine and fiddled with all of the knobs, would you get a universe? No. Gravity had to be just right, otherwise everything would have settled back into itself. Temperature had to be just right. A lot of things had to be just right.
The question is, are we here just by accident? And that’s where purpose comes in.
Life is messy and people are messy. And there aren’t very many avenues where these two topics, science and religion, intersect well. So, I think it becomes polarized because people like very black and white answers. There’s this tension in our lives and we don’t deal with it well. We tend to take what we know and put it in a box.
Why do you look at these subjects from a “gray” point of view rather than “black” or “white?”
When you have people on either side of the issue, it doesn’t advance anything.
Sir John Polkinghorn, a prominent quantum physicist at Cambridge who wrote a leading book on quantum physics and was a contemporary of Stephen Hawking, figured that you don’t make any meaningful contributions to physcis after 40, so he left to become a priest and served as the head of a parish for a while.
He was asked about prayer, and he said that prayer is like a laser. When you send it to God, it’s in phase. And if He sends it back in phase, it will work. But if you’re not in tune, in phase, then it won’t.
I think that’s such a beautiful way to describe it for scientists. It’s common terms and understanding.
Do you think the polarity of the argument hurts both sides?
The middle ground tends to be best for the advancement of both.
John Paul II said — I’m paraphrasing — what science can do for religion is prevent it from mistakes it might otherwise make. And what religion can do for science is keep it from making absolute statements it can’t prove.
Sometimes in science, we think of things in a certain way that we may not be really equipped for. Sometimes an engineer can see the world as a system to be fixed. And that’s good because people are comfortable with that and there are some times when that can help. But that’s not good for intangible solutions.
Also, if we understand the world exactly as the Bible describes it, the points that science has provided us about how the world works and how it came to be are then lost.
It’s when we have a little give and take that we can really understand the world.
For example, in a university, you can have someone who is really smart as an engineer and you can have someone who is really smart as an artist. And it’s when you blend both of those intellects that you get a great university. And so it is for religion and science.
Media interested in speaking with Fleming can contact Frank Otto at 215.571.4244 or firstname.lastname@example.org.