Science and religion so often seem to be in conflict, with the chasm between them widening all the time.
For many, the grounding of their religion is in faith and belief in powers beyond our understanding. For people of science, the grounding is in empirical facts and measurements that can be tested to help explain our world.
The conflicts between science and religion have been many, perhaps most intensely on issues including evolution, how life on Earth began and how our universe came to be.
The era of pioneering scientists being punished or hounded by religious leaders — think of Galileo, astrobiologist-before-his-time Giordano Bruno, Charles Darwin — is largely in the past. But so too is the era when the most prominent natural scientists were profoundly religious people, such as Sir Isaac Newton, James Maxwell (who correctly theorized the nature of electromagnetism) and one of the 19th century physicist and scientific titan, Lord Kelvin.
The field of astrobiology presents innumerable issues where a scientific and religious focus certainly could clash. Astrobiology is focused on the search for life beyond Earth which, if detected, could raise significant issues for some religious people.
The astrobiology effort is grounded in our scientific theories of how the universe began and evolved over its 13.6 billion years, so spiritual and religious views that once dominated thinking about these questions play little role.
And then there is the origin-of-life issue, which is also part of astrobiology and is, of course, an arena where scientific and religious views are often in conflict.
With so many divides between a scientific and a religious approach to astrobiological questions, it might seem that there is little room for overlap.
But then I spoke with the Rev. Pamela Conrad, who I knew from some years ago when we often talked about astrobiology and even took a trip to Death Valley together, where she helped me understand some of the science of life surviving in extreme environments and how to find it.
She was then an astrobiologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. She was a member of the science team that would work the most complex, and probably most important instrument on the Curiosity rover that would soon be headed to Mars — the Sample Analysis on Mars (SAM.) She would move east to NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center when SAM’s work on Mars began in earnest.
Well-liked personally and respected for her science, she has participated in seven Arctic expeditions as well as two Antarctic expeditions (one as principal investigator,) and explored deep-sea hydrothermal vents as well. Conrad seemed to have settled into a demanding but important role at NASA and in Mars science generally.
But she actually was not settled at all. In 2014 she not only continued with her NASA job with the Curiosity rover and successfully co-proposed two instruments for the 2020 Mars rover, Perseverance, she also added studies at a theological seminary with the goal of becoming an Episcopal minister.
She was ordained in 2017 and became rector (pastor) of the St. Alban’s Episcopal Church Glen Burnie, Md., where she stayed for six years. She just left that position to lead St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Baltimore as interim rector.
While overseeing the religious well-being of her flock, she nonetheless keeps on with her Mars science. An association with the Carnegie Institution for Science, where she had been a postdoctoral fellow years before, allowed her to continue working on the Curiosity science and then, when the Perseverance rover payload was selected, she joined that science team as well.
For her, there clearly is no conflict between a very active and deeply felt religious life and an on-going scientific career focused on understanding the make-up, the history and the mysteries of Mars — a focus for much astrobiological work.
“To me, both science and faith investigate the wonder of the world and our place on it,” she told me. “I don’t see any clash at all.”
Given her professional background, her personality and her longtime interest in things spiritual, it is perhaps to be expected that her moment of inspiration came, quite literally, at the ends of the Earth. It was 2000 and she was on a select Antarctic Biology expedition soon after beginning her science career at JPL (which followed training and a short career in music.)
She had stepped away from her colleagues for a bit towards an overlook of a vast expanse of white. It was the Ross Ice Shelf, as seen from nearby Antarctic explorer Robert Scott’s “Discovery Hut.”
“On the first night we were taken up to Scott’s hut and we looked out over the ice. I stood apart so I could be by myself and went to stare at it. I stopped in my tracks; I couldn’t believe the experience that was happening.”
As she describes it now, she felt awe for sure, but then also a profound connectedness to the grandeur of the planet. She had felt early stirrings when she visited deserts and other extreme environments for her science, but the vastness of the Ross Ice Shelf touched something deeper in her.
“The wind was fierce and continuous but that didn’t bother me at all. I felt an elemental harmony, a spiritual dimension to the physical world before me. I felt awakened.”
It would take another fourteen years for Conrad to make the decision to add three rigorous years in Episcopal Divinity School to her NASA job, but what she calls her Ross Ice Shelf “epiphany” stayed very much with her and drove her on.
As Conrad sees it, science and faith (or spirituality) are not two different worlds at all. They are instead two different ways of knowing — one speaking in theology and one speaking in empirical observation.
Take, for instance, the “Big Bang.”
“For people of my faith tradition, God created heaven and Earth,” she said. “I don’t see how different that is from what the science community sees as the Big Bang beginnings of the universe. The universe exists because of an energy field of first causes….Both faith and science are approaches to search for and find first causes.”
“So, a set a materials was formed by those first causes and, in quick succession, a few chemical elements appeared…Then later there are a whole set of other chemicals that evolved.”
As a scientist, she has worked to understand the processes by which the chemicals are formed and become useful to living things, but that understanding does not rule out belief in a divine hand,
“I look at our building blocks of chemical elements and I think, ‘God , how clever are you to make these chemical elements that allow for life.'” In this way, she says, there is no real conflict between scientific and religious or spiritual knowledge. They co-exist.
This way of seeing the world is part of what Conrad says she always brings to her sermons, in part because she sees the divide between science and religion actually growing in the nation.
“I routinely put physics into the sermons, routinely talk of sciencey things.” For instance, she sees a “miracle” — speaking somewhere between the literal and the figurative — in the way that sunlight, carbon dioxide and water vapor make a plant.
Sure, photosynthesis can be explained in the language of science. But step back for a minute and there is also something miraculous about it.
Conrad still works for NASA regularly on the characterization of biosignatures and the habitability of Mars.
She left her full-time job at the agency when she was almost finished with divinity school and has had a part-time position at the Earth and Planets Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution for Science ever since. Her funding comes via grant money she receives as a co-investigator on the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission
The work is with two payload investigations. One characterizes Martian materials, both geological and organic, as well as taking detailed images (the SHERLOC Autofocus and Context Imager, and WATSON.) The other is the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer, which helps us to understand how rapidly environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, and air pressure can vary in a day, a season, or over the course of a year.
She says all the measurements can give clues to both the potential for life and the evolution of materials on the Martian surface.
So in becoming an ordained minister and taking on the role as leader of a church, she certainly did not leave science behind. Indeed, she sees herself a better advocate for science now.
This is from her NASA profile:
“I thought I could do more good in society if I could be an advocate for science within the context of communities of faith, which are sometimes wary of science and exploration. As a leader, I have the trust of such communities, and in particular children and teens, so can encourage them that STEM training and exploration is completely compatible with their religious upbringing.
Conrad recalls that when growing up the spiritual world was important to her and she attended church in high school and college –although her parents were avowed atheists. While she never lost her feeling of spirituality, she did lose her interest in organized religion because, she said, of a “deep disillusionment with religious institutions.” And remained that way, to one degree or another, for 34 years.
Following her Ross Ice Shelf epiphany, she felt drawn anew to a spiritual life and especially to the feeling of a universal connectedness that she had experienced in Antarctica. As she put it “In science, we believe that on a quantum level, everything has connections to everything else.”
Her own — and much of the nation’s — focus on the individual rather than the larger community seemed increasingly short-sighted and at odds with the physical realities around us.
Astrobiology is also laser-focused on seeing the world both near and distant as a collection of systems to be understood; the path forward involves teasing out the ways that one system organizes itself and then interacts with others.
So her spirituality and her science were pushing her in the same psychological direction, the same embrace of the centrality of connection.
When she moved back east to join NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center staff she returned to the church she had attended as a young woman in college. Most of the people she had known in those early church days were not longer around but the church still had the nourishing “ethos” that she remembered and found so attractive.
Over the next several years the pull of the religious life grew stronger and evolved into a desire to take her spiritual feelings of connection further and to share them with others by becoming a minister. She also wanted to work for racial justice and social change.
“I was hungry to go to seminary because I wanted to know more theology, biblical interpretation and ethics. It was time to do the work of deep learning,” she said.
“I tend to do things ‘all in,’ and I needed to know where it would lead me: closer to a religious life or more distant from it. I felt excited and energized and I still do.”
And why not? Conrad’s relationship to her religious calling is, to her, not that different than her scientific work. And as for the inevitable pressures of delivering sermons, she already had decades of practice standing in front of an audience and explaining her scientific work.
“For me, my religious texts lead to spiritual insight — rather than to literal interpretation — and are an endless source of theological and self reflection. I can read these stories to teach myself.
“That’s what I do when I look at data from Mars. The question is: What are the lessons here?”
“I have all these tools to go learn things. Why not use all of them? And you know, there’s a long tradition of this, of scientists with active religious lives.”