By Justin Turner
The small sanctuary of Franklin Presbyterian Church comes alive with music and chatter in the time between Sunday school and the start of the service. Two young girls twirl their dresses as they skip up and down the aisles, winding between the adults who mingle with cheerful greetings. A teenager sits at the piano, carefully sounding out the drifting melody of “Silent Night” on the ivory keys.
Margaret Crowder, a 44-year-old geologist employed by Western Kentucky University, zips in and out of the two doors found behind the pulpit, disappearing through one and reappearing in the other, helping to prepare for the service.
Light filters through the eight stained-glass windows that line the sanctuary, warming the room from the November chill waiting just outside. Just before the start of the service, she settles herself in an empty pew.
Crowder, a member of the church, is both a scientist and a religious person, a combination some assume to be incompatible.
“We are so divisive as a society, you know, everything has to be black and white,” Crowder said. “For me, it’s never been a battle.”
From an early age, Crowder had both good and bad experiences with religion. She remembers visiting a Southern Baptist church with her grandparents when she was six years old, and being terrified of the message of wrath that was preached.
“I cried, just bawled my eyes out because I felt like I was a horrible sinner and there was no place for me in the world,” Crowder said. “I remember talking to the preacher after the service, saying ‘I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry’.”
It was also at this age, however, that Crowder also remembers having spiritual experiences. She recalls having occurrences that she now explains as feeling her soul within her.
“I remember, I could close my eyes and I could sometimes feel myself separate from my body, like I was inside my body,” Crowder said. “Reflecting on that, I think that I was feeling my soul within me.”
As a young teenager, Crowder began sporadically attending Franklin Presbyterian Church after her mother, Patricia Chai, began singing in the choir. She was struck by the Biblical idea of the Holy Spirit, realizing that she had experienced this as well.
“[The Holy Spirit] is part of God, that love that you feel in your darkest moments, that you’re not alone,” Crowder said.
Crowder said she never gave much thought to the debates between scientists and people of religion. For her, science and religion were just two facets of her life.
In a study conducted by Rice University’s Elaine Howard Ecklund, statistics showed that 27 percent of Americans perceive religion and science to be conflicting ideas. However, Ecklund’s surveys also reported that nearly 50 percent of scientists were religious.
However, there are some scientists who think there is no place for religion in science. Carl Dick, an associate professor of biology at Western Kentucky University, is among them.
“I think that most serious scientists would tell you that the two are largely incompatible,” Dick said.
Dick said he believes that science and religion are two separate “ways of knowing” and that each has its own limits to what it can explain. Science is limited to observable evidence and natural phenomena, while religion relies upon neither.
“My own view is that they are compatible to the degree that people realize the limitations of both and can keep them separated in their mind,” Dick said.
Crowder said many of the typical points of debate concerning science and religion don’t pose a problem in her life. When it comes to the creation of Earth and the universe, she has little trouble fitting that into her faith.
Crowder said she recognizes the scientific fact that the universe exploded into existence 13.7 billion years ago with the earth forming 4.6 billion years ago, yet she simultaneously believes this was performed by God. She explained that she believes God revealed this to humans in ways that they could understand, similar to how Jesus Christ used parables to teach in biblical texts.
“Why is it such a stretch to say God would speak in a parable of sorts, because the concept of time to God is meaningless in reality?” Crowder said. “If God is an infinite being, and I believe that to be true, then 13.7 billion years or a week is the same.”
While some aspects of her Christian faith seem to blend easily with her knowledge and love for science, there are a few concepts which are contradictory to scientific fact. Crowder struggles with Biblical ideas such as the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“Those are really tough ones, but I’ve had a friend say to me, ‘if you can believe in other miracles, why can’t you believe in that’,” Crowder said.
After earning her MST in geology at the University of Florida, Crowder worked in public radio, which was a hobby of hers in high school. She began to realize that she felt she wasn’t making a positive impact on people, so she turned to teaching.
Crowder earned her doctorate in educational leadership at Western Kentucky University, where she took a job teaching introductory geology courses. She brings up the topic of science and religion in nearly all of her classes. Crowder said she thinks it is an important discussion to start in order to dispel the notion that the two ideas are so distinctly opposite or hostile.
“Me divulging my beliefs is just an effort to have people who may struggle with this in some way, see that there’s another way to approach the subject,” Crowder said.
Crowder, as a member of both scientific and religious communities, said she feels too many people are afraid to discuss their beliefs, questions, or concerns regarding science and religion because they feel they might be attacked by either side. She wishes to change this way of thinking by initiating the discussion.
“If we get afraid to speak out about these things, then we lose the ability to converse as a society about difficult topics,” Crowder said. “We need to be able to have these conversations, and I’m certainly open to that.”
Crowder is now a member of Franklin Presbyterian Church, where her mother serves as a deacon.
Last year, Crowder taught a two week course for members of the church on climate change. Curry Davis, the church administrator, said he was pleased with both her willingness to share and the church’s involvement.
“You know, not everybody cares about hearing a lecture on the shape of the Earth and the effects of human impact on our Earth, but she had about 20 people each time,” Davis said. “She is willing and able to serve whenever she can.”