The following is an excerpt from from Why Science and Faith Need Each Other by Elaine Howard Ecklund. The author is a sociologist at Rice University, with a focus on religion and public life. This passage can be found in Chapter 4, “Curiosity.”

You remember some conversations for the rest of your life. When I met Jill, she was already at the top of her field, a biologist leading a successful laboratory at an elite research university. As I walked toward her office, I noticed her door had a sign of the Darwin fish eating the Christian fish (the ichthus symbol). I was conducting my first study on scientists’ attitudes toward faith, and the sign made me nervous. I knocked tentatively. Maybe it would be OK if Jill had forgotten the appointment for our interview, I thought. But she came to the door right away.

Jill did nothing to put me at ease. She did not greet me with a handshake or a smile. Instead, she curtly asked me to come in and directed me to sit on a metal chair across the desk from her. She told me she had nothing to say about science and faith. She was participating in my study only because, as a researcher herself, she wanted to support research. I cannot remember now if the air conditioning in her office was on full blast or if I just felt cold.

Even in that first year of my research, I noticed that scientists were responding to my study in vastly different ways. Sometimes their busy careers meant they had no time to talk about existential things. Others seemed as if they had been waiting all their lives to have a conversation about the big questions and meaning of life. Others were deeply uncomfortable or hostile. Sitting in Jill’s office, I assumed I needed to steel myself for one of those harder conversations.

I told Jill a little about my study; I explained that I was a sociologist who wanted to move beyond anecdotes and stereotypes to study systematically for the first time what scientists think about faith and what people from different religious traditions think about science. Then I asked Jill if she practiced a religion or considered herself a person of faith. “No. I am simply an atheist,” she responded tersely. I then asked whether she had been raised in a faith tradition. It was the type of question that could have been answered yes or no.

I was taken aback when Jill looked away from me and her eyes began to fill with tears. In the years since then, I have interviewed more than a thousand scientists about their views on faith; Jill is one of the only ones who cried. As her tears welled up, my own feelings turned from apprehension to compassion. I also wanted to know more about why the question about her faith background elicited such emotion.

Jill told me that she came from a Christian family and, as a child, had spent a lot of time at church. Raised in a rural community, Jill also spent a lot of time outdoors, and she began to see the beauty in nature and to develop a real love of the natural world. She spent a lot of time on her schoolwork too; she particularly loved her biology and chemistry classes. She was a “total geek,” she said, and her grades were “fantabulous.” She thought she might become a teacher or a doctor.

But as she became more curious about the natural world, Jill also became concerned about aspects of her faith. For instance, while scientists had determined that the earth is billions of years old, her church was part of the community of Christians who read the Bible as teaching that the earth was created by God in its present form just thousands of years ago. She brought questions about the origin and development of life on earth and the role of God in creation to her parents and her pastors. Jill was also curious about whether Christians could be scientists.

At that point, Jill did not know she would go into science and she was not yet considering whether she would remain part of a church. Church and school were both central to her life. She was simply an inquisitive kid, following and feeding her natural curiosity. But “when I asked hard questions, I was told by my pastor just to make a decision to believe … to forget about science,” she said. It was an answer that did not satisfy Jill. She tried several times to talk with her youth group leaders about the questions science brought to mind, but her experiences with them were similar; she was consistently told not to explore so much. “I feel like religion was a mechanism by which judgment was passed on people who were different,” she recounted. “And for me, in my personal history in my childhood, it was judgment. It didn’t work out so well for me.” By the time Jill was in her teens, she had left her church.

Sometimes, even now, she said, she yearns for a sense of what it would mean to have faith. “What is it that keeps people believing? I feel like when religion works you get a sense of community,” she said. “You get a way to teach morality and ethics in the sense of how you teach someone the difference between right and wrong. But when it doesn’t work, it just turns into judgment.”

*

“As a character trait,” the philosopher Elias Baumgarten writes, “curiosity is a disposition to want to know or learn more about a wide variety of things. The more one has this character trait, the more often or the more intensely one will on particular occasions experience a desire or urge to investigate and learn more about something.”

In our current culture, being curious is undervalued. It brings to mind a child wondering what is around the corner before she takes a look. Our culture prefers seemingly stronger roles like being an expert or being a leader. We often want to be next to people who seem like they already know the whole truth. Curiosity is a fundamental value of my own discipline; at its core, sociology is about listening carefully and being curious about other people and their stories. I highly value the ability to ask questions that help us better understand both others and ourselves and that help us lead better lives. I see curiosity — when used wisely — as a show of strength, a yearning to push the boundaries of knowledge.

Scientists like Jill are often known for their curiosity. Albert Einstein said, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” The physicist Mario Livio, in his well-known book Why? What Makes Us Curious, argues that the best scientists are passionately curious, often in several different domains. Fabiola Gianotti, the first woman to serve as director-general of CERN, the famous European Organization for Nuclear Research, told Livio that first she was passionately curious about music and only later did she switch from studying the humanities to studying physics: “I was always a curious child. I always had many questions. At one point I decided that physics will actually allow me to try to answer some of those questions.”

And the most successful scientists report that their curiosity was nurtured from a very young age, often by their families and larger communities. For example, the string theorist Sylvester James Gates, Jr., the first African American to have an endowed chair in physics at a major research university, speaks publicly about the relationship between religion and science. Gates says that he got used to being curious, to asking hard questions at an early age: “I remember once I asked [my dad], ‘Dad, do you remember me as a kid asking all kinds of questions?’ and he said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘You always had answers for everything.’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘How did you do that?’ and he said, ‘What you don’t remember son, is if I didn’t have an answer immediately I would tell you hold off, and I would go and get some resource and in the next day or so I’d come back and answer your question.’” Even though no one in Gates’s family was a scientist, they created an environment that nurtured his curiosity.

For some in the Christian community, curiosity can sometimes seem risky or scary. When Jill brought her questions about faith to her parents and pastors, her curiosity elicited fear. As a parent and member of a church community, I identify to an extent with Jill’s parents and pastors. I think about the kinds of questions about science and faith my own daughter might have some day and how they might impact her relationship with our faith. But as someone who had her own questions about the relationship of science and faith as a child, I can identify with Jill’s curiosity as well. As someone who also left a church when her questions and quest for knowledge were dismissed or discouraged, Jill helped me realize how important it is to nurture curiosity as a virtue in our faith communities.

From Why Science and Faith Need Each Other by Elaine Howard Ecklund, © 2020. Used by permission of Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group.