Christina Lu September 14 2017

Science v. Religion: Genesis to Genetics


The argument between science and religion is boring. It is circular, outdated, and, frankly, a waste of everyone’s time. The song “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” comes to mind as a moderately interesting vantage point from which to survey the battle, if it’s even appropriate to call it that, though many have failed in that attempt. The infamous 2014 debate between science-celebrity Bill Nye and young-Earth creationist Ken Ham, for example, propositioned under the guise of facilitating discourse between both parties, only succeeded in annoying the millions of viewers who found the whole spectacle to be single-minded, dogmatic, and completely missing the point. As one viewer said, “My faith does not require me to believe in the age of the Earth as outlined in the Bible. Christ commanded me to love and that is where all Christians need to focus. Discussing how many fairies can dance on the head of a pin is a distraction.”

For most who subscribe to faith, scripture has less to do with providing the answers than it does with providing meaning, or at least a spectrum of ethics with which to calibrate what goes on around us. Isn’t it natural, then, that a hybrid of science and religion would work as a holistic approach to understanding human existence?

Recently the hype around the solar eclipse has eclipsed the departments of our daily lives. All around, glasses have flown off digital store shelves, and media outlets have leapt willingly into the frenzy. Talk of the wonder of totality, the feeling of smallness and the dread, the omen, the release of being united in existential collapse and submission, has fanned the flames of writers’ imaginations, many of whom have taken it upon themselves to capture and share the magic of those few dark minutes. Spiritualism is pervasive in these attempts to articulate the experience, and it only makes sense to ascribe this to the necessity of mysticism in our lives. The divine directs our reverie, humbling us. At times it manifests in an arbitrary field of ethics, but even those who have rejected various churches for the sake of opening their minds may supplement a firm confidence in science with a secret belief in karmic retribution, destiny, and the existence of the soul. For in the absence of religion—here defined as a belief in something greater than Man who has divined multiple aspects of Man’s existence—there is only knowledge. Is that enough?

In Focus on Infinity, filmmaker Joerg Burger takes the viewer on a cinematic journey to the “places, people, and machines that are involved in exploring the origin of our cosmos and of our existence.” Along the way, Burger interviews George V. Coyne, S.J., Emeritus Director at the Vatican Observatory. He’s an old Anglo academic, the kind you would expect to have a seat close to the epicenter of Catholicism, and you wonder what, as Vernalda Grant later asks on behalf of the Apaches, a religious man is looking for out There. “What was happening before the Universe? There was no before. What does that say to me as a religious believer?” Coyne, S.J. pauses. “Is there more than scientific truth? Is there meaning behind this? There is more than just the facts and the best scientific explanation of the facts. At this stage you can stop and say there’s no meaning, it’s just science. It’s just what we know. In my mind, that is the denial of the totality of human experience. I’m not just made to know. I’m made to try to seek meaning beyond the knowledge.”

For some, that meaning comes by way of organized faith. Somewhere outlined in those leather bound books is the history of humankind, and somewhere in that history, there is the first decision, our purpose for being here. Perhaps any uncertainty can begin and end in those lines of text.

But for others, the quest for meaning is part of life’s fun. Michele Lemieux, illustrator and animator, contemplates the beauty of the unknown through a series of four meditations in her second animated short, Here and the Great Elsewhere. “Lost in a reverie, a man reels with sudden, piercing awareness of his own state of being. He ponders the world in which he lives—from the evolution of life and the atomic particles that constitute matter, to the mystery of memory and the enigma of death.”

It’s a wonderful example of the questions in which we lose ourselves, and demonstrates a bridge between science and religion. Where does the knowable end and the abstract begin? Are they ever entirely disparate? Once awarded the Gemeinschaftswerk der Publizistik, a prize honoring ecumenical contributions, Lemieux plays both God and scientist in Here and the Great Elsewhere, dictating how—via total mastery of the Alexeieff-Parker pinscreen—each pin comes in contact with another to reconstitute every form in the film, serving as a metaphor for the atom. For fourteen gorgeous minutes, these atoms coalesce and break apart to depict the philosophical conundrums of a man, an “everyman”, as he searches in vain for the key to the great beyond. Lemieux is the Control Deck, the Architect, and the pins are her pawns—but only most of the time.

Lemieux: “The pinscreen is interesting because it resists. You don’t manipulate it; you interact with it. It’s a partner in a conversation and it doesn’t always agree. It doesn’t just do whatever I say. Let me explain: I want to create something on the pinscreen, but I don’t know if it’s possible. I give it a try. Once it’s on the screen, the result is often entirely different—and usually better—than what I had initially imagined. So you really start feeling that you’re not alone. All the months I was working on my film, the pinscreen gave me everything I needed. It’s almost like it’s a system, a mechanism, with its own laws. When you run into a problem, the solution is there in the pinscreen itself. You have to let yourself go along with the system, which is like nothing else that exists.”

Erin Shea created Ampersand, a scientific visualization of the unity and awe of nature, with similar presets, designing the film intuitively and describing animation as “the perfect medium to take people on a journey from the subatomic to the galactic.” Unlike Lemieux, Shea’s film deals primarily with scientific certainties (wave particle duality, evolution, pollination), but induces the same sense of wonder inspired by Here and the Great Elsewhere. Accompanied by a trippy score that sounds like a walk through Tokyo on ecstasy, Ampersand overwhelms with both the infinitesimal and the infinite. If religion can be a humbling experience, Ampersand proves that science can be, too. In that way they are, like America's political system, two sides of the same coin…and suppose that is why they are sometimes fraught with tension. Just how small must we be made to feel? And why is it inhumane to just want the answers?

Of Biblical Proportions plays out a morally bankrupt scenario similar to one described by novelist, human rights activist, and former physicist, Asli Erdogan, in her interview for Focus on Infinity. Sitting at a kitchen table littered with books, Erdogan remembers a time during a stint at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, when some scientists would destroy others’ equipment to gain a competitive edge. “The game is big—big money is involved, big prestige is involved,” She says. “We cannot stop…it can’t be saturated to modern man’s soul. It has to be more. Science is a perfect way—behind each door is another door, just the right thing for modern man.” By her account, the quest for answers can be cruel and immoral. Filmmaker Patrik Eklund, with Of Biblical Proportions, imagines what might happen when scientific ambition manipulates religion as bait. After an accolade-starved archaeologist finds a skull preserved in a thousands-of-years-old block of ice, he gathers a committee of scholars to prove what could be the most lucrative—and ludicrous—hypothesis of his career: that the skull belongs to the one, Jesus Christ.

Yet, what happens when we have unlocked all the answers? A more popular debate between science and religion now lies in the field of eugenics. Are germ-line edits by tools like CRISPR sacrilegious? In Alexis Gambis’ The Fly Room, we are introduced to Calvin Bridges, lothario-atheist who contributed largely to the field of genetics. Bridges’ daughter, Betsy, acts as our gateway to her father, and while it’s hard to beat back our anger when Bridges is womanizing or otherwise being a complete tool, those cuts make his moments of humanity all the more startling (and help some of us feel less salty about not matching his genius).

In one scene, we are taken inside his lab, a small, dimly lit room crammed with heavy wooden desks, microscopes, and milk bottles teeming with fruit flies. Pasted on one wall is a vertical chart marked with chromosomes and their corresponding genetic data; among them: “The God gene,” jokes Bridges after a god-fearing reporter turns his back. Years later, the God gene seems far too near to be taken so lightheartedly. As more money is thrown into gene-editing, the possibility of eliminating “less desirable” alleles from our chromosomes has become closer to a fact of reality.

But just as it seems like science has gained an edge, religion will no doubt reemerge from the shadows as an equally essential elixir in life. “We find things in nature that are really counterintuitive” (Focus on Infinity). In these spaces of contradiction, and in these spaces absent of knowledge, religion, the sense of the Unknowable, and the feeling of a Greater Than Us, slaps us cleanly across the face. Who are we to know? “There’s no particular reason that all aspects of reality should be matched to the capacity of human brains,” claims celebrated physicist Steven Weinberg (Focus on Infinity). “Why is the universe comprehensible? The fact that we’re in the universe doesn’t mean the universe needs to be comprehensible…I can understand it to a limited extent, but I always come across, in my science, that which leads me further and further into the incomprehensible.”

In Tools (Les Outils), filmmaker Simon Laganiere provides an endearing portrait of the incomprehensible. When modern medicine fails to help a wheelchair-ridden man combat his disease, an old scientist engineers a visit from the Virgin Mary, with miraculous consequences. Set to the poem “Les Outils” by Gilles Vigneault, Tools proves that faith is sometimes stronger than science, reminding of the mystery of the world and the marvel of sheer will.

The closing scene of Focus on Infinity captures cold white and blue. Ice caps groan as they shift glacially past one another to the gorgeous sound arrangements of composer Georg Misch. Watching them, one wonders if someone drilled deep enough they would find Jesus’ head.