Science, Religion, and the True Stories that Inspire Them Both

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“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind,” Albert Einstein once remarked. But where can the resonances he discerned be found? Can we take the genius of general relativity at his word, in a world often dominated by narratives of conflict between science and religion?

Think-Write-Publish Science and Religion, a new project at Arizona State University, funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, will explore how the two domains describe reality in ways that are mutually reinforcing. The project seeks to mobilize the power of “creative nonfiction” to generate and convey thoughtful and inspiring accounts of this sophisticated relationship. “It’s a conscious attempt to use narrative to communicate complicated ideas,” says Lee Gutkind, writer, editor, and, according to Vanity Fair, the “Godfather behind creative nonfiction.” Gutkind describes creative nonfiction as “using storytelling techniques to communicate important factual information.”

The project seeks scholars, scientists, religious figures, writers, and others who are interested in creating a lively community of storytellers. One part of the project will award twelve $10,000 two-year fellowships to help individuals develop publishable nonfiction stories. The winners will be mentored through a program that also includes three intensive training workshops. Applications are due by May 15, 2016.

A second competition, to be launched this spring, invites essayists and authors to write about the rapport between science and religion, with the goal of inspiring readers to think differently and arrive at their own conclusions. In addition to cash prizes, the winning essays will be published in special issues of two periodicals, Creative Nonfiction and Issues in Science and Technology.

The project is founded on the conviction that the narrative of contradiction between science and religion is historically simplistic and philosophically naive. These two ways of knowing not only co-exist but mutually deepen one another. “A compelling voice that grasps the interactions of science and religion, in the lives of real scientists, can reach audiences in ways that more abstract discussions of the bare issues do not,” explains Gutkind. “The attempt to write in detached, objective ways may be required in journals, but if that’s the only way scientists write, that adds up to an abdication of responsibility.”

“It’s crucial for those who work in the sciences to be able to communicate effectively outside of professional circles,” continues Daniel Sarewitz of Arizona State University. “Technical isolation has constrained the public imagination, which tends to be shaped by a small handful of stories of conflict, referencing individuals like Galileo or contentious areas of contemporary research. This stultifies public debate as well as reflecting neither the historical truth nor present-day realities.”

Think-Write-Publish Science and Religion emerged from previous work, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, that focused on creative nonfiction essays to communicate important issues in science policy to a broad general audience. “The fundamental building blocks of creative nonfiction can be used to communicate important factual information embedded within more personal stories,” says Gutkind. Consider Einstein again. Many people can gain a deeper sense of his work through such narratives. The physics of relatively can be communicated via the thought experiments that inspired him when he imagined what it might be like to ride on a ray of light. Suggestive links to what can, with qualifications, be called a “religious” sensibility are also integral to his story, as he grappled with what the human mind can grasp of the structure of the cosmos.

Einstein’s views are subtle, as are those of others in this domain. But they, alongside the full richness of the relationship between science and religion, can be unfolded in exciting, open-minded, creative nonfiction.