Pan Conrad on her last Sunday as rector of St. Albans Episcopal Church in Glen Burnie, Maryland. (Julian Lahdelma)

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.

Conrad has worked on the characterization of biosignatures and the habitability of Mars, first at JPL and now at the Earth and Planets Laboratory at the Carnegie Institution of Science. She worked on the science team of the Curiosity rover on Mars and now she works with three instruments on the Perseverance rover at Jezero Crater, Mars. (NASA)

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.… Read more