Category: Religion

I should have posted this a month ago when our first episode came out, but now that the second one is now available, why not now?  Our plans earlier this year to develop a podcast within The Christian Humanist Network ( have finally come to fruition, and I’m truly excited about where things are heading.Galileo_facing_the_Roman_Inquisition

Our first episode sets the stage, explaining our backgrounds, how we got into this project, and what we see as our vision for the podcast.  You can listen to it here: Book of Nature 1: Opening the Book

Our second episode gets into some real meat about the differences between science and scientism: Book of Nature 2: Science vs. Scientism

So, please subscribe to us on iTunes, leave a review there if you are so inclined, and send feedback to  Or, if you prefer, head over to the show notes page and leave a comment there!

We plan to set up a Facebook page in the very near future, as well.

The good folks at The Christian Humanist have interviewed me again, this time about meteorology. View the show notes here, and find their feed on iTunes to listen to it! We had a far-ranging discussion about Aristotle, storms in the Bible, the long and cold winter in the eastern U.S., the Polar Vortex, and the supposed dichotomy between scientific and teleological/theological descriptions of weather events. These guys (all three are Ph.D. English professors) are great podcasters (is that a word?) and talk about a lot of interesting stuff that scientists like myself otherwise would rarely think about, and I highly recommend subscribing to their podcast on iTunes.

I had a great time in this interview, but I was a little nervous. This had the effect of causing me to lapse into inanity and general inarticulation from time to time. I obviously need more practice. Specifically, regarding the discussion of the dichotomy between scientific and theological descriptions, I didn’t feel that I explained my point of view very well. When describing the formation of hail from a scientific perspective, and then pointing out that this didn’t preclude the use of hail as punishment on God’s part, I didn’t mean to imply that God used hail for punishment all the time, or that bad weather in general is always punishment by God (I actually don’t think that this is the case). My point was rather that a thoroughgoing scientific explanation does not preclude such a possibility, as these different types of descriptions are looking at the same problem from a different angle. In my view, God is just as much responsible for the everyday natural happenings of the Universe–those very things that are amenable to scientific investigation–as he is for any sort of “true supernatural” miracle. Clearly there is lots more to say on this latter point, which brings me to my big announcement.

The Christian Humanists are enlarging their project, having recently added a new podcast to their repertoire, The Christian Feminist Podcast. Recently, they approached me and two other scientists who are long-time listeners if we would be interested in hosting our own separate podcast discussing all manner of issues of science as it pertains to the Christian faith. We all enthusiastically accepted. The podcast will be called “The Book of Nature“, and will debut sometime this fall. My hope is that being in verbal conversation with other Christian scientists (no, not those kind), will help crystallize my own thinking on this area of inquiry and my writing about such things on this blog. So, stay tuned! I’ll have more information as the debut date nears.

My area of expertise in science, namely the field of Meteorology, is a rather specialized field. It can be viewed as a subset of fluid mechanics, which itself is a subset of classical (or Newtonian) mechanics (or physics). In other words, a meteorologist is a specialized classical physicist, who barely rubs shoulders with that other realm of physics: quantum and particle physics. Indeed, to be perfectly honest, quantum physics is more general, but just because one is a quantum physicist doesn’t mean that one automatically understands all the vagaries of classical physics. What I mean is, classical physics is itself a subset of quantum physics, in that it is an approximation to quantum physics on macroscopic scales, that is the familiar scales of everyday life. But, it is far from obvious how the myriad interactions between particles and forces result in the overwhelming complexity of physical phenomena on macroscopic scales. (It is sometimes said that macroscopic physics “emerges” out of quantum physics). The scales are just so different that it is, at least at the present time, practically (if not theoretically) impossible to fully understand the deep connections between scales, even though we know they are there. It so happens that classical mechanics is an excellent approximation to quantum mechanics (and is rather easier to handle) at macroscopic scales, which is why the exploration of classical physics, without recourse to quantum effects, is still a fruitful scientific enterprise and is likely to be for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, I have always been interested in quantum and particle physics out of pure scientific curiosity, and have always meant to educate myself on it as a side pursuit. I just needed a catalyst. A colleague of mine sent me an email a few months ago regarding a potential discovery of a new particle at the Tevatron particle accelerator at Fermilab. I looked into it, and before I knew it, I was immersed in a Wikipedia link-fest, learning about the fascinating world of particle physics. I stumbled upon several blogs maintained by both experimental and theoretical particle physicists, and frustrated that I didn’t understand the jargon and the various graphical plots they were discussing, I decided to pick up an introductory book on particle physics.

I learned about the elegant beauty of the so-called “Standard Model” of particle physics (see here), how much of it is based on rather simple physical principles which collectively are called “symmetries” of nature, and how the different particles interact with each other through the four fundamental forces of the natural world that have so far been discovered: electromagnetism, gravity, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. I learned about unsolved puzzles, such as why the photon, the particle that “carries” the electromagnetic force, has no mass, but the W and Z bosons, the particles that “carry” the weak nuclear force, are quite massive.

Then I learned more about the Higgs boson, that one missing piece of the Standard Model, the one that would explain why all the other particles have the masses they do (or, in the case of the photon, why they do not). All other particles that are predicted by the Standard Model have been discovered just as it predicted they should be, except for the Higgs boson (see here). Without getting into too much detail, this particle interacts with it’s own corresponding “field”, the so-called Higgs field, and with all the other particles in the Standard Model, and in doing so, “endows” them with the masses they have. As we speak, there is an ongoing effort at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe to find the Higgs boson, for while the Standard Model predicts that it should exist, it doesn’t tell us what mass it has. So far, the search has been able to rule out the Higgs boson over a wide range of masses, and it is running out of places to hide, so to speak. If the Higgs boson is *not* found, or if it is found within a particular range of masses, it would mean that the Standard Model of particle physics is not the whole story, and that there is far more to discover about the inner workings of nature. Even if it is found just like the Standard Model says it should be, there is still much more work to do, and there are other areas of physics where we still have many mysteries to solve.

This particle has been dubbed the “God Particle” by the media, probably in no small part due to its elusive status, and yet its central importance to at least one unsolved question in physics, namely, why do the different particles have the masses they do? Why are some more massive than others? For example, the proton is much more massive than its oppositely charged counterpart, the electron. Why do some particles have no mass at all (like the photon)? Why do any of them have any mass at all? What *is* the nature of mass anyway? You get the idea. It’s an important particle. While the name “God Particle” sounds provocative and mysterious, I don’t think the motivation behind naming it that was anything but flippant.

As far as subatomic particles in general are concerned, I think they are all fascinating and display a profound beauty and elegance, and even simplicity (in a sense), in their interactions (as do the mathematical equations that describe them). To me, this underlying symmetry and order is suggestive of a deeper beauty, elegance, and even simplicity (again, in a sense) in the God behind them. So, I propose that they should all be called “God Particles”.

I awoke Sunday morning, April 24th, to the sound of thunder and rain, something that had not been heard in Norman since January.  Indeed, we had had no precipitation of any consequence since a snowstorm in February, only a few fitful sprinkles and a couple passing showers that barely wet the ground.  But this!  This was a real deluge!  For practically the entire day, several thunderstorms with torrential downpours trained over the town, dumping over 2 inches of sorely needed rain (I had never seen the grass and trees look so anemic in the Spring since I moved down here in 2002, and the sense of patient anticipation on their part was almost palpable).  When the rain finally came,  I could practically feel the stressed and dormant vegetation rejoicing in the life-giving deluge, and I felt like laughing and singing.  I drove to church with a huge smile on my face.  The confluence of the promise of new and awakening life that came with the rain, and the connection to the significance of Easter was not lost on me.

About halfway through the service, I received the news: my paternal grandmother, Jytte Dawson, had passed away, aged 70 years.  She was survived by her husband of 53 years, Thomas; her sister Irene Gillespie; her son Daniel Thomas Dawson (my father), her daughter Jayne “Tuffy” Meyer, and two grandsons: myself, and my brother Grant.  Even though I knew it was coming, the news still struck me like the lightning in the thunderstorm outside.  My father choked up as he told me that she had passed away with the rising of the sun.  Again, the significance of this was not lost on me.  Even as her old life ebbed away, the sun rose with the promise of a new day, and in my belief, a new life to come at the end of days, when all is finally made new — of which the life of the land awakened by the rain drumming outside, as beautiful and glorious as it was, is a mere shadow.  For several moments, I stood and watched the rain pour down outside, listening to the sound of thunder, a similar cacaphony of emotions warring inside me: grief, anger, joy, hope.

She hailed from Denmark, a fact which I always found enormously cool growing up.  My brother and I affectionately called her “farmor” after the Danish word for “father’s mother”.  My parent’s relationship with her wasn’t always the best, for various reasons which I won’t get into, but suffice it to say that in the last decade or so of her life, both parties made great strides to patch up the hurts.   Watching this happen has implanted me with an unflagging optimism for the power of love and forgiveness, which I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

For at least a year, she had been dealing with the horrible mental decline that is dementia.  I won’t get into the details, but it was a very trying time for all of us, most especially my grandfather, who patiently stood by her side during all her episodes of delusional anger and paranoia wrought by her condition.  My grandfather is one who took the “in sickness and in health” part of his marriage vows completely to heart, for which I deeply respect and look up to him for.  Partly due to his example, I am emboldened to show the very same level of devotion in my own marriage, no matter what the cost or what trials may come.  So, I guess that this post is partly a tribute to him as well.

A couple weeks ago, after a routine checkup on her knee, the doctors discovered something else was very wrong.  It turned out she had late stage cancer, which had spread from her lungs throughout her body, and had completely ravaged her liver.  There was no possibility of treatment.  My wife and I rushed out to visit her on Tuesday.  The cancer was so fast acting that by the time we arrived,  she was so far gone she barely recognized me. But before we left, I gave her a kiss and a hug.  I’ll never forget her kissing me back, and saying my name: “Danny”, which was all the energy and mental coherence she could muster.  It was enough.  I loved her, and I knew that she loved me, and knew it at that moment.

I finally went back inside the church sanctuary.  The pastor finished up his sermon, and we ended with a song that lanced me to my soul like few songs have.  I felt the Holy Spirit upon me like few other times in my life, speaking through the song and comforting me, and I’m not afraid to share it.  Some folks may scoff, or claim that I was emotionally vulnerable due to the news I had just heard.  Nevertheless, I had just encountered three events, juxtaposed with the Easter holiday, that each hammered home a different aspect of this day’s significance that had never before come together so powerfully for me in my 18 years of following Christ: the harsh reality of death, the hope of new and eternal life, and the empowering of the Spirit to begin to act out that new life, here and now on this planet.  Not just in some future state; we can only hope for that now, since we do not yet have it, to paraphrase the apostle Paul.  But I can choose right now, at this moment, to live out heaven on Earth in my relationships, my career, and my personal life.  It’s not as if I didn’t know or believe these things before: I did!  But never have they so powerfully come together in one moment in time, in a manner that I simply cannot deny, but only bow my head in reverence.  This is the stuff of the ineffable and transcendent, and I came away from it changed.  Time will tell if I can remain faithful to it.  For those who are inclined to, pray that I do so!

I do not claim to completely understand why my grandmother had to suffer the way she did, or why a good and loving God would allow her to do so.  I have become increasingly convinced that such a matter is so weighty as to resist any attempt at explaining it (or rebutting it) in mere words, which theologians and skeptics alike have debated and wrestled with for so many centuries.  I do not mean to imply that such discussion cannot be fruitful, but my Christian faith, however, tells me that God provided a very different and surprising answer: not one of mere words or formulas, but his very essence!  That is the significance of Easter to me, at least in this context.  God himself suffered and died, and in so doing, identified forever and inextricably with his finite and mortal creation, and in that lies the essence of goodness and love that we are seeking.  That is something that my mind and heart can both rest in, and is ultimately (to me at least) more satisfying than any theological argument.

On Easter, he rose again from the grave, leading the way for us. Even now I believe that my grandmother awaits that day when the dead will hear the sound of his voice, and awaken from the grave to a life beyond imagining.  I want to be there to greet her.

Thank you, Farmor, for your love and devotion to my brother and I, your loving grandchildren.  I will never forget you, nor what God has taught me through both your life and death.

Below is a video of the song (by Matt Maher) we sang at the end of Easter service.  My prayer is that it will edify you as it did me:


“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.” ? — Carl Sagan

Sagan was one of my favorite public figures when I was younger.  I remember watching his science TV episodes on PBS with rapt attention.  In particular, I loved the scene where he took an apple and cut it in half to show how thin the skin really was, and then compared that to the thickness of Earth’s crust.  I was also entranced by his vision of what life in the atmosphere of Jupiter might look like (big floating gas bags, with no solid surface to ever rest on).

I’ll be honest, I miss Carl Sagan.  He was one of the best science communicators of the modern age, and while he often had rather harsh criticisms of religious beliefs and institutions, some of which I think were justified, others not so much, he did so in a mostly civil and respectful manner.  Contrast this with the angry, spiteful, ugly, and sometimes hate-filled rhetoric of certain prominent scientific atheists today.

Speaking of atheists, I recognize that Sagan could be considered an atheist of sorts (he himself shirked the label, and called himself an agnostic), and I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon among many of my atheist friends: like Sagan, they share an almost transcendent sense of awe and wonder of the natural world that amounts to, for all practical purposes, a religious one.  I find that as I grow as a scientist, I increasingly share this impulse, but from the perspective of a Christian theist.  It’s this remarkable point of confluence that I wish to elaborate on in this post.

I chose the above quote because I think it highlights one of the biggest points of disconnect that many theists have with the natural world (and thus that which falls under the purview of science).  The thing that sticks out at me most is that Sagan, an avowed nontheist, in my view has captured a profound truth about God that escapes too many Christians (not to mention other theists) today.  Namely, that he cannot be limited, boxed in, or ever completely fathomed by anything we think about him, or any theology we come up with.  (Note, this does not mean that we cannot know *anything* about God, or that there are no proper responses to God, but that’s for another post).  One needn’t go far to find Scriptural support for this: consider Isaiah 55:9 as a starting point.  The Psalmist, I think, understood that the unbelievable grandeur of the natural world pointed in turn to the ineffable grandeur of the Creator: see Psalm 8:3-4.  As far as I’m concerned, the new vistas we are opening up in science, in which so many wonders are being uncovered day by day, is about as powerful a testimony as I can think of for a faith in an even more awesome Creator God.

Now, before I give Sagan too much credit, I want to point out that I actually disagree with his assessment of modern religion, particularly when it comes to Christianity.  Christianity, at various times and places through the ages, has in fact looked at science in exactly the manner that Sagan laments that it hasn’t.  One only needs to look at any list of historic figures in science, and one will find numerous devout Christians among them: Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, Blaise Pascal, and Michael Faraday are only a few that come immediately to mind.  These and other figures, to varying degrees, all shared the conviction that God’s nature was reflected in the wonders of the natural world, and indeed, that scientific discovery was in a very real sense, a way of revealing an even grander God than the prophets revealed, to paraphrase Sagan.

Unfortunately, these times, places, and people are fewer and farther between these days.  I will elaborate on this state of affairs in future posts, but for now, suffice it to say that I think that many modern Western Christians (of whom I am naturally most familiar with, being one myself) are at the very least missing a huge opportunity to grow deeper in their knowledge and relationship with God by meditating on the wonders of nature as revealed by science, and at worst, are actively spurning such endeavors.  Let me be clear, not everyone has to be a scientist; not everyone is called by God to serve him in such a regard.  But all members of the body of Christ should rejoice together when one part rejoices, and I’d like to see a bit more of that when it comes to the “science parts”.  Some of the reason for this, I believe, is a latent Gnosticism that the Church has seemingly never shaken completely in its 2000 years of existence, but I digress.

I’ll be frank: I have become increasingly convinced that in this particular area many atheists or other nontheists (at least those of the scientific persuasion, again of whom I am most familiar) actually have a better visceral understanding of the immanence of God in Creation than many theists, because of their willingness to be open to what our ever-increasing knowledge of nature has to offer.

For my part, when I stumble across something new during the course of my own research, I sometimes am overcome with a sense of awe.  Here I am, privileged to see something that perhaps no one else has noticed before, and yet, I get the feeling that it was here all along, and I just happened across it.  I indeed imagine that I feel like Johannes Kepler when he declared that he was merely “thinking God’s thought’s after him”.

And then I imagine I perceive a voice, saying “There’s more where that came from.  Keep going, keep looking, keep digging!”

NOMA or not?

It’s been a few years since I’ve read Stephen Jay Gould’s “Rocks of Ages”, but ever since then, the underlying premise of the book has stuck with me.  By “stuck with me”, I mean more in the manner of a popcorn kernel that gets stuck in your teeth and refuses to be dislodged, rather than in the manner of how a memorable vacation or good movie gets stuck in your mind, if you catch my drift.

This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, or even that I think that Gould was completely off base with his idea of NOMA.  For those that might be unfamiliar, NOMA stands for “Non-Overlapping MAgisteria”, which in turn refers to the idea that the intellectual realms of religion on one hand, and science, on the other, are either in fact, or ought to be in principle, completely separate without any sort of overlap in their respective spheres of influence.  At the same time, however, they are each presumably legitimate pursuits of knowledge in their own respective spheres of influence. Sounds reasonable — on the face of it at least — right?

The problem is, during my reading of Gould’s book where he lays out this premise of NOMA, it became clear (to me at least) that, in fact, Gould had little sympathy for the idea of religion as being anywhere near the same level as science on the scale of intellectual legitimacy.  In brief, it almost seemed to me that he came up with the idea of NOMA as a means to “throw a bone” to theologians and other religious thinkers while still maintaining his view of the modern supremacy of science as the ultimate expression of human intellect.  What I mean is that Gould came at the problem with the idea that science was the de facto standard for getting at “truth” and was trying to see if there was still a way that religion could fit in to the picture, given its obvious importance in human history and current state.  It never seemed to occur to him that his whole starting point might be a little off balance, and in this way, he merely came across as condescending toward those who didn’t share his fundamental epistemology.

This starting point, it seems to me, is this implicit assumption that the explanations for reality alternately proffered by science and religion are part of a zero-sum game: that is, this idea there can be only one explanation for any given phenomenon.  On this view, if science comes along and explains something in physical terms that used to be explained by some sort of appeal to supernatural entities, then that is an example of science gaining ground on religion.  Looked at this way, it seems that religion has been losing ground for quite some time.

But not so fast.  While it is certainly true that different explanations for a given phenomenon can compete with each other, it’s not obvious that they logically are required to.  I’m perfectly fine with the idea that religion attempts to focus on the “why” questions for phenomena, or questions of purpose, while science mainly focuses on the “what” and “how” questions, as a basic starting point for trying to find demarcations between science and religion.  But it seems to me that NOMA takes this to extremes when it declares that there can be in fact no overlap.  As a quick aside, many atheists also reject NOMA, but they do so from the standpoint that religion is not a legitimate means to knowledge or truth, and thus it doesn’t even have a “magisterium” to begin with.  While I stand with these atheists in rejecting NOMA, my reasons for doing so are quite different.

As an example of what I mean, science surely has something to say about what it means to be human, by revealing our evolutionary history, and the biological underpinnings of any number of human behaviors.  At the same time, to take an example from Christian theism, religion may talk about humans being made “in the image of God”.  My point is, who’s to say that the biological explanations for our behaviors, our intelligence, and so on aren’t in fact part of this “image of God”.  In such a way, we see that there could be layered explanations for phenomena, instead competing ones, coming from science and religion.  I’m not trying here to argue necessarily for the legitimacy of particular religious explanations, but rather to argue that at least some of them can and do overlap with scientific ones, without any obvious conflict.  But, if this is true, NOMA fails almost by definition.

I doubtless will have more to say about this in future posts, but hopefully this will get things started.