Though Nobel prizewinning molecular biology professor Eric Wieschaus is an atheist, he sees no reason why religion and science cannot coexist.
At a dinner last night in Murray-Dodge Hall, Wieschaus told a crowd of 80 that keeping a "balance" between religious beliefs and modern science is challenging for a scientist. Wieschaus, who won the 1995 Nobel in physiology or medicine for his explanation of the genetic controls of embryonic development, was invited by the Religious Life Council to speak about what mattered most to him.
Once a devout Roman Catholic, Wieschaus has since left the Catholic Church and formulated his own philosophy on faith.
Born in 1947, Wieschaus grew up in Birmingham, Ala. Though his parents were raised as Catholics, his father left the Church because he disagreed with the Vatican's ban on birth control. Wieschaus' mother had almost died while in childbirth, and his father wanted to avoid putting her in a dangerous position again.
Hoping to avoid excessive detail, Wieschaus' father told his children that Voltaire was to blame for his leaving the Church.
"We were raised to believe that my father was going to hell," Wieschaus said.
Wieschaus and his siblings often argued with their father to convince him to return to the Church. "He took every one of our arguments seriously, as though he was hearing it for the first time," Wieschaus said. The idea of taking "into consideration other people's views came very heavily from that time."
He recalled rising at 6 a.m. to catch a bus that would allow him to arrive on time at the only Catholic school in the area.
In college, Wieschaus left the Church when he found that many of his beliefs did not conform to Catholic doctrine. He no longer believes in the existence of a personal god.
But, Wieschaus said, it would be incorrect to say that he replaced religion with science. Though he could have felt like he was missing something in his life without religion, he "didn't feel the void because something exciting was coming into my life," he said. "Things I had seen in textbooks, I saw it in my eyes. I could see things the book didn't describe."
"I see my job in the world as finding the truth. There is truth out there because there's reality out there," he said. "If we look at it enough, we can gradually know what is out there. What angers me is the distortion of truth."
But, Wieschaus added, while he no longer believes in a personal god or religion, "I continue to believe in goodness and virtue."
"I believe that my desire is to be a good person," he said. "I know intuitively what that means, [but] it's not something I can justify or define. I can't put it into a model, and yet I know that ... that is the most important [thing] to me."