Perspective | Great Lakes Spirituality Project: Science and religion ask different questions, but both are needed

A regional look at how Wisconsin’s famed bodies of water connect people to a higher power

By Dan Robinson

A sunrise over Lake Michigan. Dan Robinson photo

Some people see science and religion as incompatible, but for research scientist Dr. Dan Weber, they fit naturally together.

“We have to understand,” Weber said, “that science and religion are asking very different questions. Religion is asking, ‘Why am I here? What is my purpose? How do I behave? And how do I relate to others?’ Science is not so much concerned with that information. Science is concerned with how things work. How did it become the way it is? What are the processes in nature and in the universe in general that explain the kinds of things that we see now?”

Now semi-retired, Weber’s served for many years as the senior scientist for the Children’s Environmental Health Sciences Core Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His research focused on the effects of lead on children, but the connection of science and religion started much earlier.

After his freshman year in college in the 1970s, Weber attended summer school in Israel, where he found himself overlooking the Yarqon River near Tel Aviv. Close by the river was a power plant “that was just belching out smoke. And I had this revelation that here in Israel, this land that I loved,” Weber said, “(was) a collision with what I believed Judaism to be, a religion of life. And here was a river and air being polluted. And it affected me greatly.”

Webster said science and spirituality had to be brought together.

“That I as a Jew, (understood) that life is important, because God created it, and God doesn’t make trash,” he said. “We know that from the story of creation, because except for humans, every stage of creation is, ‘and it was good.’ So creation is good. It is inherently good.”
Webster said he remembered thinking of how his religion deals with science at a young age.

“That point is where I began walking on the path to try and understand how does my religion deal with this,” Webster said. “And how do I then act upon that understanding, to do something to connect what the science is saying that we’re doing and what religion says we must do as moral human beings?”

Dr. Weber grew up near Estabrook Park in Shorewood along the Milwaukee River, which empties into Lake Michigan. The river was very polluted then, and “sometimes, Lake Michigan smelled really bad because of the die-off at that time of the alewives. The beach would just be covered with millions of alewives. But, you know, that kind of seeped into my consciousness as well,” Weber said.
“What did we do to these pristine bodies of water,” Webster said, “that now we have these dead alewives, and we have this stinky river that I can’t go in to swim?”

These experiences guided Weber to his career as a research scientist, and where his work has complemented his Jewish faith.

“In science,” he said, “what we look at is, how do things connect with one another? Life is very complex, right? And so by sorting out these complexities, we see all these various kinds of interrelationships. Well, religion talks about that. It talks about it from a different perspective, not from the mechanics of these relationships, but how do we as people build relationships, not only with ourselves but of course with nature as well.”

“I can put these things together,” Weber said, “and find that I don’t see a contradiction between science and religion, but rather an amplification of each by being involved with both.”

The Great Lakes Spirituality Project works to further develop a spirituality of the Lakes that values and protects the Great Lakes Basin and the life that depends on these waters. Started by Dan Robinson, the Project’s goals are: to share stories, conversations and reflection around a spirituality of the Great Lakes Basin; to add another spiritual voice to the work of protecting the Lakes and to serve as a connecting point for spiritual and religious communities and individuals caring for the Lakes and the waters that feed them. A complete version of this article, along with other posts, interviews and videos can be found at the Great Lakes Spirituality Project’s website.

Robinson is a writer, educator, musician, and community organizer. You can contact him at [email protected]

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