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Q&A: What role do religion and spirituality play in scientific pursuits?

Stanford Earth transitioned the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) into its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative in 2020. As part of an effort to celebrate and discuss identity, five Stanford Earth community members talk about how their spiritual and religious identities have informed and impacted their careers.

Mark Zoback & Fatemeg Rassouli in the lab
Fatemeh Rassouli, MS 15 PhD 17, completed a postdoc under advisement of Professor Mark Zoback in 2020.In this photo, they are pictured with a triaxial loading system, which Rassouli uses to study shale samples from all around the United States

In 2015, over 6 billion, or close to 84%, of the world’s then 7.3 billion population were people of faith, belonging to either Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, or other faith-based views, including Indigenous and Native belief systems.

Identity includes both visible and invisible aspects, and religious or spiritual identities can fall under both. While scientists and academics certainly belong to faith-based communities and vice versa, the relationship between science and religion varies widely depending on the specific religion and the individual.

Religion and science: Overlap or conflict?

Although the First Amendment mandates the separation of church and state in American politics, science and religion have long been related within academia. Up until the 19th and early 20th century, the pursuit of knowledge by scientists and other academics was frequently steered by religious beliefs. In fact, the 17th-century English philosopher Francis Bacon, a devout Anglican, is credited as one of the developers of the scientific method. He argued that the natural world and philosophy should be studied to find proof of the existence of God.

Although Italian astronomer Galileo was charged with heresy in 1633 for his theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun, the idea that religion and science are in conflict is a relatively modern one, inflamed at the end of the 19th century when Charles Darwin published the idea that humans were descended from apes. What resulted was an ongoing series of highly visible debates between scientists and some religious fundamentalists who have conceptualized separate and, for some, conflicting ideas of evolution and creation that continue to this day.

While Christians were the largest religious group in 2015, making up nearly a third of the Earth’s then 7.3 billion people, babies born to Muslims are predicted to outnumber Christian births by 2035. There are hundreds of religions and while about 31% of religious practitioners are Christian, more than 5 billion people identify with other religions or spiritualities, so it’s important to broaden the view beyond Christianity.

A 2012 Pew Research Center study engaged a number of Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist individuals in discussion around science and religion. Muslim respondents tended to acknowledge both the overlap and tension between their religious views and science, noting that the two explain the same things from different perspectives. Hindu interviewees described the two things as compatibly overlapping, consistently offering the sentiment that their religion has long contained ancient insights that have become known to modern science over time. By contrast, Buddhists in the study said science and religion are parallel domains, with connections being made between Buddhist practices like meditation and mindfulness that have bolstered scientific research.

In some cases, the supposed conflict between science and religion is not as widely-held as it has been previously thought. According to a Pew Research Center survey, nearly 60% of American adults said science and religion often conflict, but new studies show that this conflict is less about one’s own religious beliefs and often reflects respondents’ perceptions of other people’s beliefs. Less than one-third of Americans polled said their personal religious beliefs conflicted with science, whereas 76% of adults who have no religious affiliations felt that the two were at odds, more than any other group. It’s evident perceptions of how religion informs science are widely varied.

Bridging the gap

Why do we need to improve conversation between religion and science? About 20% of American adults reject the basic idea of evolution and about half of U.S. adults accept the evolutionary theory, but only as an instrument of God’s will. Views about climate change by religious affiliation further vary based on other identity factors, with 77% of Hispanic Catholics and 56% of Black Protestants saying climate change is mostly due to human activity, whereas only 28% of white evangelical Protestants hold the same view. If 84% of the world’s population considers itself to be religious, then it’s essential to find ways to bring people of all religious backgrounds into discussion about climate solutions.

Fortunately, the importance of bridging any gaps between scientific and spiritual communities has been widely noted on all sides. Representatives from many of the world’s major religions have joined together to make their stance on climate change known with the Interfaith Summit on Climate Change and Interfaith Power & Light’s Faith Climate Action Week. From Pope Francis to the Dalai Lama, from the Islamic Declaration on Climate to the Hindu Declaration on Climate Change, to the New Rabbinic Statement on the Climate Crisis that was signed by over 500 Jewish leaders and beyond, religious world leaders are making official statements regarding climate change.

On the academic side, organizations like the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) facilitate communication between scientific and religious communities, including the workshops they held in conjunction with Stanford Earth in 2019. One of the takeaways from the event? Workshop facilitator Rob O’Malley, a DoSER project director and primate behavioral ecologist, noted the importance of finding common ground and reminded attendees that debates, including ones driven by data, don’t often change minds or make allies.

Stanford Earth transitioned the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) into its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative in 2020. As part of an effort to celebrate and discuss identity, five Stanford Earth community members talk about how their spiritual and religious identities have informed and impacted their careers. Former Stanford Earth postdoc Fatemeh Rassouli, MS ’15, PhD ’17; Stanford Earth administrative dean Amy Balsom; PhD student Rayan Kanfar; Eric Lebel, PhD ’20; and Stanford University Dean for Religious and Spiritual Life the Rev. Dr. T.L. Steinwert discuss their hopes for the future of diversity and inclusion in the geosciences.

How would you describe your identity?

Profile image for Amy Balsom
Amy Balsom is the senior associate dean for finance and administration for Stanford Earth. She served as a board member at Stanford Hillel for six years, and is a member of her local synagogue, Etz Chayim.

BALSOM: I am Jewish but I often call myself a “Jew-Bu” – a Jewish Buddhist. My cultural identity is strongly Jewish, but as a daily practice I try very much to live mindfully, in the present, with compassion, kindness, and humor.

RASSOULI: I am a Muslim woman.

KANFAR: I don’t identify with one specific teaching. My spiritual practice has been mainly influenced by Sufism, Yoga, Taoism, and Buddhism.

STEINWERT: I am a Christian clergywoman, ordained in the United Methodist tradition. While I am rooted and grounded in my Protestant tradition, my spirituality is informed by and draws on wisdom from diverse traditions.

LEBEL: I am a Roman Catholic.

Share a formative experience related to your spiritual or religious identity.

Fatemeh Rassouli
Fatemeh Rassouli, MS ’15, PhD ’17, completed a postdoc under advisement of Professor Mark Zoback in 2020. Her work explored the formation of unconventional reservoir rocks, like shale. She was also a board and community member for the Muslim Student Union at Stanford.

RASSOULI: For the last 15 years, I’ve often been one of few women in my workplaces, not to mention a hijabi woman, and I still manage to work with and be respected by male colleagues, but sometimes people are still surprised by me. I remember I attended a conference 10 years ago, and while I was in line to register, a man came up to me to ask if my husband was presenting. When I told him that I was presenting, he said he was surprised because he’d never seen a Muslim woman in a setting like that.

BALSOM: At 14 years old, I was very much questioning what it meant to be a “good Jew.” My family did very little in the way of observance – we didn’t keep kosher or observe Shabbat. The holidays we observed were only the biggest ones – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, and Hanukkah – and we celebrated them minimally. At that time, I remember talking to one of my religious school teachers about how I didn’t feel very Jewish because I wasn’t observant, didn’t speak Hebrew, and didn’t keep kosher. His response was to ask me, “Do you feel awed by a sunset? When you are in nature, do you feel amazed? If so, then you are a very good Jew.” Obviously, he was a very liberal Jew, but his answer allowed me to see my Judaism as a reflection of my values, rather than prescribed set of beliefs and actions.

STEINWERT: For me, I often experience the divine most closely in nature. On weekends in college, I would wander through the woods, hiking to a small peak on which you could see the whole of town and survey the fields sprawling through the purple expanse of the mountains. About two-thirds of the way to the summit, three trees have grown together in the middle of the trail. In the space of their joining is a tiny pool. I call it my faerie pool, for it seems utterly magical. Each time I climbed that mountain, I would stop and offer thanks, a prayer of gratitude of sorts. By that time on the hike, I was always a bit winded and the pool was a gift reminding me that getting to the top was not the point of my sojourn. There was beauty all along the way. Pausing to notice this pool was always a sacred moment for me. Throughout the years, I have cultivated this practice of noticing in nature. It offers me a way to nurture both my sense of connection to the world around me and my gratitude for it. It reminds me the divine is in all things.

KANFAR: During my undergraduate studies, I fell into a spiral of depression because my mind was convinced of the pointlessness of everything. At some point I decided to let go of whatever my mind was saying and performed my daily spiritual practices with the intention of seeking a subjective sign from the divine. After a few days with this intention at heart, I felt an overwhelming and distinct feeling of joy, like my heart was closed for the longest time and now it was open. I did not know it then, but this was my first experience with “presence” and “becoming the awareness.” It later became evident to me that spirituality is not a concept or a goal; it’s a daily experience. Whether it’s research, cooking, being with friends, or simply walking, the divine is always feeding us with joyful energy.

Do you feel like you see representations of people like yourself in your field?

Eric Lebel
Eric Lebel, PhD ’20, is now a research scientist at PSE Healthy Energy. At Stanford, he studied methane emissions from fugitive sources in California alongside Professor Rob Jackson. He was also a member of the Graduate Catholic Student Association, the Stanford Chamber Chorale, and the Stanford Alpine Club.

LEBEL: Yes! One of my favorite religious scholars who advocates for the Earth sciences is none other than the leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. He wrote the encyclical “Laudato Si’” – On Care For Our Common Home – in 2015, and it is a fantastic summary of the spirituality and importance of protecting the planet from a Christian perspective. It also loops in an extremely important and, in my opinion, a highly understudied aspect of climate change: its impact on the poor and vulnerable in our world.

BALSOM: No – not at all. I've been at Stanford University since 1984, at Stanford Earth since 1998, and was on the board of Hillel for six years. It seems that most scientists don’t talk about their spirituality – at least not from what I've seen at Stanford!

RASSOULI: There are actually quite a lot of Muslim Earth scientists, especially studying oil and gas. Stanford is one of the first places where I’ve been able to find halal meat in pretty much every dining hall. There is a place where I can pray every day on campus. It makes me feel welcome on this campus to know that someone has thought to make that possible. All of my needs are provided on campus and I’m really thankful for that. Some of that has to do with the fact that the Muslim Student Union has advocated for those needs with the university.

KANFAR: None. I haven’t encountered a single person who was public about their religious or spiritual practice.

How does your spiritual identity intersect with science?

Profile image for Rayan Kanfar
Rayan Kanfar is a second-year PhD student studying energy resources engineering. He studies Earth model building for the purpose of addressing the uncertainty of subsurface problems such as groundwater, sinkhole prediction, and oil and gas exploration.

KANFAR: Spirituality enables me to do my best in everything I do and with everyone I meet. In practice, this may mean letting go of the self whenever it chooses to complain or letting go of the ego whenever it may want to make a conversation about itself.

BALSOM: A strong tenet in Judaism is “tikkun olam,” which means to repair the world. As a Jew, my purpose on this planet, in this life, is to make the world a better place – whether that is through helping a stranger or helping save the planet. So, to me, Judaism and the Earth sciences and environmental concerns go hand-in-hand.

LEBEL: From my perspective, Christianity is not at odds with science, although others may think differently. Certain biblical stories, such as the Creation stories, were not written to be literal accounts of world history, but rather stories of the nature of God and how He reveals himself to us. By studying science, I am making a small contribution to better understanding God’s creations, and in the case of my research, I am doing my part to protect creation and life. Religion/spirituality gives me motivation and meaning to my work, beyond any earthly motivation. I look to the tenets of Catholic social teaching, which explains that we need to care for the poor and vulnerable in our society, who are disproportionately affected by climate change.

RASSOULI: There’s this idea that you can’t be religious and believe in science, but actually my work as a scientist is motivated by my religion. We are taught that we should try to learn and study from when we are born to when we die. My grandfather really lived like that – he had this huge library and he was reading until the last day of his life. So by being a scientist, I’m following in his footsteps and in the guidelines set by my religion. It’s also been very beneficial to be Muslim while trying to make it through school on a logistical level – I wake up early every day to pray and my prayer schedule has helped to keep me on track while I work.

STEINWERT: As a liberation theologian and as dean for religious and spiritual life in the Stanford Office for Religious & Spiritual Life, I am interested in nurturing the connections between climate justice and faith to help students see the ways in which their spiritual convictions foster a deeper connection to and advocacy for Earth. Ecotheology is a form of constructive theology that, at its heart, asserts an inextricable connection between the spirit, humanity, and the Earth/creation/natural world. It sees the divine moving in and among all three, tying them together into one whole. Ecotheology is part of many diverse world religions. It shows up in Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, and Pagan traditions, to name just a few. Native and Indigenous traditions are also often rooted in an understanding of the fundamental interconnection between all living things.

Why do we need to make space to discuss spiritual and religious identities in the workplace?

Tiffany Steinwert
The Rev. Dr. T.L. Steinwert is the dean for religious and spiritual life in Stanford’s Office for Religious & Spiritual Life. Steinwert’s work seeks to help students, staff, and faculty think deeply about who they are and want to become for the sake of the world. (Photo: Alex Gale Photography)

STEINWERT: Our spirituality and faith practices are what nurtures our values and shapes our actions in the world. Our religious, moral, and ethical convictions ought to form the foundation of all we do and infuse our work and life with a sense of meaning and purpose. There is an interconnectedness of our lives with that of the whole world, and when we remember that, we bring to the fore the importance of eco-centered research, practices, and strategies for a more sustainable future.

LEBEL: I wish religion came up more in our workplace. Global issues such as climate change cannot be solved or discussed in isolation, as they affect all of humanity, and therefore we all need to listen and work together toward a solution.

BALSOM: I have a hard time seeing a conflict between one’s religious or spiritual identity and science. It’s an absolute miracle that our world works the way it does, and that we have the capacity to explore, learn, and understand it. The fact that we’ve learned what we have about the human body and the planet is absolutely awe-inspiring – or at least it should be!

RASSOULI: People will surprise you, so leave room for them to. I just met my new neighbors and they were really surprised I have a PhD from Stanford and I’m also a hijabi mother. Your background shouldn’t be a barrier to education, and I think if Stanford Earth makes sure to keep writing stories like this, or hosting tea times to chat about ourselves, that will continue to spread that message that science is for everyone.

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This story is part of the #StanfordEarthCelebrates series hosted by Stanford Earth Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Continue to read the rest of the collection here. 

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