Essay Contest

First Place

A Place for Everything: The Overlap of Science and Religion to a Burgeoning Atheist

By: Sarah Claypoole

Sophomore, Providence High School


I remember the exact pattern of the ceiling tiles at the temple I attended in elementary school, the precise detailing of the bima and the fine torahs that rested in the ark.  One of my clearest memories of that age occurred when I was ten, sitting in synagogue on a Wednesday evening. I found myself endlessly fascinated with obscure details of the lovely room, when the class clown raised his hand to ask a question from two rows over.

“How do you know G-d exists?” he asked, and as the fourth grade class laughed along with the cantor, I remember seriously pondering the question. I was annoyed by the lack of thought the surrounding people granted to what I felt was a very important question, one that has haunted me ever since.

I am the product of a line of scientists and doctors, the genetic result of dozens of people far more concerned with laboratory work or patients than G-d. The same religious deficiency lies in my family, with my Christian-turned-Atheist father and my mother who loves Judaism for the cultural strength more than any sentient being that may or may not exist. Because of this distinct background, I suppose it wasn’t much of a surprise when as early as twelve or thirteen, I would label myself as Atheist to those who asked, although in those days I still felt obligated to attend synagogue regularly.

In the years that have followed my shameless proclamations of religion or a generally uncomfortable lack thereof, I have faced the backlash of my Atheism. In fact, there have been quite a few times in which I have felt jealous of believers, of people who simply do not doubt the existence of something greater than themselves – there is a certain honor to it, a steadiness and expression of faithfulness that I wish I possessed. At the same time, I am learning, slowly but surely, that these believers are essential not only for the world at large, but also for my beloved field of science. In so many ways, religion and science are yin and yang, a perfect system of checks and balances perpetuated by believers and non-believers alike.

Religion is capable of proposing limits to science, particularly on issues of morality, like those raised in both abortion and cutting-edge genetics (i.e. stem cell research). Classically, religion has been better equipped to tackle ethical dilemmas, and as science raises more and more of these tough questions, religion plays a bigger part in the scientific world by providing answers and determining boundaries in areas where they are difficult to locate otherwise. In this way, religion is serves as the moral compass of science.

Science changed in order to address this lack of moral and ethical response. The Human Genome Project specifically listed a goal as identifying and handling the ethical dilemmas raised by the discovery and the field of genetics it gave way to. Until science is capable of the moral consideration, religion will provide it, whether it is through statements of the Pope on birth control or a local minister expressing distaste for embryonic stem cell research.

Before I understood the positive impact of religion on science, I was aware of what science does for religion. This stems from the fact that I am a lifelong history nerd, a trait which has granted me an early and profound knowledge of the constant power struggle between science and religion. From Galileo denying the geocentric viewpoint and being forced to spend the remainder of his life on house arrest by the Roman Inquisition to Richard Dawkins balancing his fight for atheism with his genetic-based evolutionary theories, religion and science  have certainly had their arguments over the years, but revolutionary figures like Galileo and Dawkins have forced progress not only in their intended field of science, but in religion as well. In the wake of the heliocentric discovery, the Catholic Church was forced to change their position and move forward, which also granted this scientific truth to the many disciples of the Church.

It is this give-and-take that characterizes the interaction of science and religion, and will continue to do so in the future. Although I am still defining my beliefs on G-d, science, and the way they correlate, I hope that the passage of time does not deteriorate the beneficial element of religion and science’s often-tense interactions.