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Feb. 6 2014 2:57 PM

Science, Religion, and Compartmentalization

A picture of Jesus Christ on a wall in the Philippines, Nov. 13, 2013.

Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Today I defended creationism, in compartmentalized form, as a harmless delusion. Many of you objected vociferously. Some of you argued that creationism can’t really be compartmentalized—that it inherently corrupts the thinking of citizens and scientists who accept it. That’s a logical argument. But in real life, it isn’t true.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

People compartmentalize their beliefs all the time. That’s particularly true of religious beliefs in modern society. Over the centuries, science has steamrolled religion. Faith has fervor, but science has evidence, technical power, and progress on its side. So religion has retreated to the margins. Today, if you’re a serious scientist, you can still believe in God. But you have to consign Him to the spaces unclaimed by science. You have to compartmentalize.


That’s what Dr. Jennifer Wiseman has done. In today’s piece, I mentioned two Genesis-believing scientists who were cited by Ken Ham in his debate with Bill Nye on Tuesday. Some of you dismissed these scientists as liars or fools. Good luck pinning those labels on Wiseman. She’s the senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope. She isn’t a creationist. But she does believe that divine power has intervened in the world.

Three months ago, I met Wiseman at the Faith Angle Forum, a conference on religion and public life hosted by the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She answered questions from a room full of journalists. The last question, and the best, came from Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard. He asked Wiseman, “How do you, as a scientist and a believer, deal with matters like the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and the existence of the Holy Spirit?”

I thought she would duck the question. She didn’t. Here’s what she said:

I tend to think of a miracle as possible, and that miracles actually have happened, but they are just what they sound like: They are a miracle. There’s something that’s outside of the natural working of the forces of nature, and so science is not equipped to address that one way or the other. Science is equipped to address how things normally and naturally work. So as a scientist, I study the universe in the way it normally and naturally works and has worked throughout the whole history of time. I don’t look for anything else, because my scientific tools are not equipped to measure anything else. But does that mean that nothing outside of the normal, natural physical processes that science can address ever happened or ever does happen? Well, science can’t answer that question. So I have to answer that question in some other way. And to me, the answer is yes, because I see both historical and personal evidence for God’s actions …
I do see evidence for things—in particular, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is to me ample evidence that that event, in the course of time, changed history and changed lives, and people are experiencing the living Christ today. Is that a scientific conclusion? Absolutely not. But is there enough evidence for one to believe it? For me, yes.

That’s a textbook case of compartmentalized religion. It isn’t creationism. But it is a belief in historical events that originated, and will forever remain, outside the realm of science. You’d have no better luck talking Wiseman out of her belief in the Resurrection than you would talking Ken Ham out of his belief that God breathed life into the first man.

Creationists become a problem for society when they interfere with the teaching of science. But creationism per se, as a compartmentalized belief system, isn’t a problem. Compartmentalization is exactly what you should want from creationists. It’s what allows them, and the rest of us, to get on with the business of science and technology and living in the real world, without having to eradicate the pervasive craving for transcendence. You don’t have to disabuse everyone of religion. Clear a path for science, and let faith have its space.

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.


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