An Interview with Robert Horner: Science and Religion

Dr. Robert D. Horner is a senior lecturer in the biology department at Johns Hopkins University, where he regularly teaches biochemistry and cell biology. He has been teaching at the University since 1989.

THD: How have you seen the relationship between science and religion shift during your career?

RH: I have not seen it shift. The relationship between science and religion was set in the early 1800s. There have always been political and social movements that want to take charge, and other such movements that want to maintain their power; the 1800s was defined as a time when science was trying to remove the moral and political authority of an established church. Huxley was one of the fellows that did it; he was not a scientist himself but a very good speaker. The first man to synthesize urea was a kick in the teeth to the vitalists; Darwin published the Origin of Species; since these times, there has always been an attack on religion by science. The Christian faith says that there is a God that created us, but we rejected a relationship with him. Jesus was sent to restore this relationship. The prime human problem is, “I don’t want anyone telling me what to do.” Having God tell you what to do, especially if you can’t see that God…people have enjoyed adopting science because of this. I do not believe that science and religion have anything to fight over, but there are people that believe in science when science has no “belief”—there’s nothing to “believe” in science—and want nothing to do with religion. There are also religious people who want their religious faith to answer every question that there is, and religious faith never has done that. But no, the relationship has not shifted. There are some very humble who are scientists, humble people that are ministers that aren’t working scientists; these people know that science has a role and a set of rules. Religion has a set of rules. They do not mix. Back when science was the hobby of rich Englishmen, there was a phrase called “quod est demonstrandum”—“therefore, it is demonstrated”—and there was a culture of demonstration and proving what you claimed. However, faith is the evidence of things not seen, so they do not come near each other at all. Yet, in our day and time, we have people saying that they do, that they must. One group of psychologists with a grant actually set out to find what structure in the human mind allows a human being to believe in God. The assumption is that this is some structure in our mind that causes nearly every culture in history to believe in a god. What structure can allow this craziness? How can we explain it in physical terms? So no, the relationship has not changed.

THD: So would you say that science and religion, for you personally, have been two separate lives?

RH: They have to. They operate on different principles. This guy named Wittgenstein was talking about how a Hindu and a Christian could both believe, and there was this term called “valid”—a person’s religious faith was “valid” if they could believe in it. How do you disprove this faith? You cannot disprove a belief because it is evidence not seen. Well this Wittgenstein was walking when he passed a rugby match, then a cricket match, then asked himself, “Well, are those both games? Yes. Human play them, yet they have different rules, different teams, goals, and played differently.” Here was science with a set of rules on how to operate, and here was religion, with a set of rules on how to operate. You can object, saying, “It’s not a game!” Well, in the analogy of your life, you choose rules to live by. You also choose rules when you have a profession. So, these are two things that you can do. To be a Christian does not mean you cannot be a physicist. A guy in our church, his wife was Dutch and he was Spanish. He was talking about a paper he had just written in his physics department dealing with cosmology: the galaxies in our universe are not distributed uniformly, but as a set of soap bubbles, concentrated in certain areas and very few in other areas. Our galaxy was in a very open space, far away from other galaxies. Certain things were 13.5 billion light years away. Then somebody asked him, “Where’d you get that 13.5 light years number?” He responded, “That’s as far as we can see with our current telescopes and radioscopes.” He is an honest man, because physics is an observational science. You can be a farmer and be a Christian, and you can work for an insurance agency and be a Christian. Each of those professions operates on a different set of rules, but then your religious faith undergirds it all. Curiously enough, the people who say that science should have no part in religion also say that science should be “ethical.” There is no ethical system that does not refer to some higher authority. Some people are willing to let societal norms be an authority, and I only have to refer you back to Germany in 1936, or Turkey in 1917, when certain groups were massacred because public opinion thought they were inferior. These are different rules, and some people might say, “They conflict!” Well, no, I believe that God created the world. But if I adopt the rules of science and don’t take anybody’s word for it, I can’t take Moses’ word for it when he writes Genesis. So what do I have to do? I have to create my own theory. There is another assumption in science: natural effect has a natural cause. You cannot assume a transcendent being reaching into nature, yet faith deals with the Creator God. When you adopt science’s rules, you basically say, “I’m going to play by this set of rules to come to a conclusion.” However, this doesn’t mean I believe that conclusion. I can use those rules, but belief is something else. I believe that God sent Jesus, and no scientist can disprove it.

THD: Has your study and research encourage your faith or speak into it at all?

RH: Every time I do something, like setting up a lab, I have a set of rules that I operate by. I offer a course, and students choose to come to it; if you don’t come to it, you have to accept the consequences of that. I have to abide by my rules; I can’t change them for people or play favorites. I’m challenged continually to behave as my Master wants me to behave. Hopkins employs me, but I do a good job because I really work for somebody else.  If somebody comes to me and wants me to do something, I have to behave ethically. That right there, I think it is a challenge to faith but it also strengthens faith to do that. Our graduate students have to take a course in ethics because you have to be your own best critic, being honest with your results. Honesty is actually not part of science, although it is inherited from the fact that human societies cannot exist with it. Being a researcher, I knew the limits of science, and also being a person of faith, I knew the limits of faith. I’ve never prayed that an experiment would go well or would have a certain outcome; I have prayed for my integrity, though. Like when you study, what do you study for? Ultimately, it’s God. It’s an interesting model: God saves you, and He becomes your King.

THD: How can you reconcile evolution driven by natural selection with a divine creator?

RH: If you say it must be demonstrated, taking the rules of science, and if you assume natural effect has a natural cause, you can come up with evolution. You are limited to this physical universe to find the causes. Now, the divine creator: if you say that God came into this world and created it and that He sent his son to die, those are statements beyond scientific proof, and I can believe that. They are outside the physical universe. I can work with evolution, but I can believe something else. Evolution does not teach me to be kind, to help the weak, to stand up for minorities, and the like. But I don’t want to be part of a society that involves evolutionary principles. Evolution is a model of how species came to be, but I don’t see any difficulty in reconciling the two. What would science be without honesty and respect? I think one operates within the other, but I think scientists are too proud to say.

THD: What are some common misconceptions you’ve come across regarding Christian scientists?

RH: Here in this job, as an employee of Johns Hopkins University, the policy of this company is that we do not favor a single religion, one race over another, etc. On company time, I treat all people equally. I do not take my religious faith as a guide to doing this company job. I’ll do it honestly; I’ll do it as if I’m working for God. Very few people here treat me poorly because I am a Christian. Most folks in this department respect each other; if several faculty members are Jewish, they’re not slammed for being Jewish. In the news, you’ll see other things. In the fight for getting money from the government and other private sources, there are fights there too. Science people knock religious people, and vice versa. Now, when I was in high school, there was a representative from CalTech who came by. He was talking me, and most of the way through the interview he asks me, “This here is the Bible Belt. We found at CalTech that some people don’t do too well at CalTech from here. You wouldn’t be one of those people, would you?” He didn’t say the word “Christian,” but that’s what he meant. I should’ve walked out of that interview, because he was an insulting bigot. But it’s a good thing I didn’t go there.

THD: Was your faith challenged as you went through college?

RH: While I was in college at MIT, I tried to behave, and when I came to graduate school at Hopkins, I thought I was doing fine until I found out what I really was. I did something I never thought I’d do. I was so ashamed of what I had become that I nearly lost it, nearly went down the tubes. However, I had some very gentle, kind people who basically enfolded me in love and supported me until I could forgive myself and ask God’s forgiveness as well. But I found out what I was deep inside; I was not a nice person. Ever since that time, I have been on my guard. Only by the grace of God do I sit here. Now I have a family, a wife that loves me, and that never would have been possible without those people enfolding me in love and bringing me back. My faith has gone through some things, but thank God.

THD: Would you say that you’ve grown as a believer because of your work?

RH: I doubt that. I have grown as a believer because I’ve tried and failed, and because God loved me and those people at church that loved me. I can’t think of being a believer without that fellowship. If you count the fact that I know science has limits, which informs my faith. I can be intellectually honest and work in the scientific field that way. ​

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