Talking about science, religion and oneself

Copyright The British Library

Joseph Farman: “Well I mean as Scouts one went to church […] I don’t think I ever found it very attractive and […] when you sort of kept saying, ‘You use these three letters together, g-o-d, and I haven’t yet fathomed out what on Earth you mean by it’ and then they just say, ‘Well forget all about that, you know, it will come, it will come.’ [Laughs] To which the answer is […] that if you think in the silly ways which I do, I guess it never comes at all. [Laughs] There’s no room for it.  […] Science is thinking you know how things work. And so you make something work and it either works as you think it does, or it doesn’t work as you think it does, and now you move on. It’s no good sort of praying to God and if something doesn’t happen so – I mean this isn’t a test of anything.”

John Houghton: “And I believe that, you know, very much in retrospect – it’s not always in prospect, of course, but in retrospect, I can look and see the way God has helped me to do a variety of things and has also … answered prayer in regards to the way my scientific work has gone. […] And, you know, the remarkable balloon flight is something which in retrospect, of course, I – I see as God helping me to do something which – which is very important in my career. But also announcing to me that he was helping me by the way in which that particular event occurred […] we were right on the edge […] the third one had to work whatever and it did. And without that I wouldn’t have been – I wouldn’t be here today, I don’t suppose, in the sort of way I am. And it’s a – it’s one of those, you know, absolutely pivotal points.”

These are two extracts from the award winning National Life Stories, British Library website Voices of Science.  In the first Joseph Farman, the atmospheric chemist whose team discovered the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica, recalls his childhood churchgoing in an account that develops into a sketch of how religion is different from science.  In the second, another environmental pioneer, John Houghton – the atmospheric physicist who led the first IPCC assessments of climate change – explains why he believes that God helped in the launch of a balloon experiment that led onto work ‘remote-sensing’ the atmosphere using satellites.

The extracts suggest immediately something rather straightforward: that two scientists working in similar fields might have very different religious views and beliefs.  Consider also – in two more clips from Voices of Science – the very different views of reality held by scientists John Nye and John Glen who both pursued similar work applying physics to glaciology in the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes working together in the field:

Indeed, the wide diversity of positions is a feature of the 16 audio clips on the Voices of Science page devoted to ‘Religion and Belief‘. These clips include Dame Julia Higgins marking out the “separate territories” of science and religion, and Sir Colin Humphreys recalling his journey from a child of a young Earth creationist father to adult scientist and Christian “with evolutionism replacing creationism.” On this page you can also hear Dame Stephanie Shirley’s concern, in the absence of faith, to attend to the life-affirming “non-material aspects of life” and Russell Coope inviting creationists to view the evidence for evolution in his garage.  Across the extracts science and faith are variously held apart, folded together, understood as opposed, complimentary, distinct, aligned, or incongruous.

That scientists are complicated and differ from each other is not an interesting conclusion and so I would like to return to Farman and Houghton’s extracts to point out what might be common to them.  Both are viewing past events through a thickness of accumulated time and experience.  Farman appears to talk about childhood churchgoing, but in doing so he draws not just on memories of being in church as a boy scout, but on sixty or seventy years of action, thought and experience since.  Houghton, too, is understanding past events by casting a backwards view over events – God’s help with the balloon flight is perceived “very much in retrospect” – and these events only make sense in relation to others, leading up to the present: “...without that I wouldn’t have been – I wouldn’t be here today, I don’t suppose, in the sort of way I am.”  Present sense of self – at the time of the interview – matches up with and is understood as the logical outcome of past experience.  Very different depictions of the relations between science and faith have very similar autobiographical effects: they offer narrative and personal coherence.  A quick visit to Voices of Science will confirm that this is as true for Humphreys, Shirley, Higgins and others, as it is for Farman and Houghton.