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Interview: Stephanie Bryant, project co-ordinator, God and the Big Bang

31 July 2015

‘I spent most of my time outdoors, asking questions, poking things with sticks’

God and the Big Bang is a full-day event in schools across the UK. It provides GCSE, AS, and A level students with a unique opportunity to debate the compatibility of science and faith with knowledgeable scientists who are Christians. It’s funded for three years by a grant of £500,000 from the Templeton Foundation. It’s run under the auspices of the diocese of Manchester.

 

A few years ago, the LASAR [Learning About Science And Religion] project found that young people rarely had the opportunity to explore matters of science and faith. Science teachers often feel uncomfortable about addressing questions relating to religion; RE teachers often feel they don’t have enough knowledge to respond authoritatively to questions about science.

 

LASAR found that many young people view science and religion in conflict. They feel obliged to make a straight choice between their own personal beliefs and being a good scientist. We aim to equip young people with tools to engage in rational and thought-provoking discussion about science and faith, and form their own opinions.

 

We encourage them to ask questions they wouldn’t feel comfortable asking in science or RE lessons. We want to see a generation of young people passionate and confident in their faith, and well-respected as scientists in schools, universities, and labs.

 

We’ve just run ten events, mainly for Year-10 and -12 students, in schools from Aberdeen to Devon. We’ve got an impressive range of speakers, from an astrophysicist and theologian, the Revd Professor David Wilkinson, to a geneticist and bioethicist, Professor John Bryant.

 

We got a lot of good feedback, and every school is different, which keeps things fresh and unpredictable. We look for a voluntary contribution to help cover the speakers’ expenses and accommodation, based on what the school feels able to give. We really like to include the science students as well as the RE students. It’s often the RE departments who approach us, but it’s invaluable for students to see the departments working together.

 

I’m always surprised by the quality of their questions — quite deep and philosophical questions. They’re wanting to move beyond some of the basics and get to grips with this area. Where’s heaven? What’s outside the universe? Is that where God is? A lot of questions about suffering in the news: earthquakes, wars, avalanches. That’s a challenging question to answer, because there’s a lot of emotion behind it. We admit straight off that we don’t have all the answers.

 

I’m going to New Wine to promote the project, and then I’ll have a whole week off, which will be wonderful; but then we’re planning our events beginning in September.

 

My parents have a real passion for being outdoors, and that’s rubbed off on me. My childhood was split — a little bizarrely — between Manchester and Oklahoma, and I spent most of my time outdoors, asking questions, poking things with sticks, trying to work out how the world works. It didn’t surprise anyone when I went on to read Natural Sciences at Cambridge.

 

I was brought up knowing the Bible stories, but faith wasn’t something personal to me. As a teenager, I was torn between admiration and incredulity for people who could live their lives based on something I couldn’t see.

 

The more I talked with wholehearted Christians at university, and explored evidence for claims in the Bible, the more I realised this world-view made sense of my life. Everything clicked into place: my experiences, my passions, the joy and awe I found in learning about the world through scientific research. Faith had been interesting but abstract. Now it was real and personal.

 

I met Christians of my own age who didn’t leave their brains behind when they went to church, or leave God behind when they were in science lectures. I was also influenced by seminars at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.

 

I’ve been involved in a number of wildlife conservation projects, from studying wolves in Bulgaria to frogs and salmon in Canada. I reached a point where I felt I needed to spend time working more in communicating science to the public. For me, science and faith fit together beautifully, but the perceived conflict between the two was something I encountered increasingly. Along came a chance to neatly fit together a lot of what I enjoy.

 

Science teachers trying to answer questions about faith could remember that that there are many different viewpoints, even within the Christian faith. Love and grace are as important in engaging in discussion as the truth is. Next, try not to dismiss God as unrelated to the subject you teach, and don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know the answer. It’s great if you can go away and find out, or think over the possible answers and then get back to your students.

 

When the issue of science comes up, RE teachers can similarly be aware of different viewpoints, and avoid unhelpful and sweeping generalisations. Be willing to admit that the world is full of things we don’t yet understand properly, if at all, and that that is more than OK: it’s exciting.

 

My first experience of God was through the love of people and the wonder of nature around me.

 

I’ve grown a lot in my knowledge of God through reading and studying the Bible. I’ve also spent time with Christians from lots of different parts of the world with very different backgrounds and cultures.

 

I grew up with my mum and dad and twin brother. For most of the time, we lived in south Manchester, although we both did the first two years of school out in Oklahoma — quite an experience for four-year-olds. I’m currently living back with my parents in Manchester, though I’m about to move to Cambridge. My brother is out in Missouri for a Ph.D.; so we’re a bit more scattered now, but still close.

 

I like cold places. I love snow and rain. I lived in Canada during 2013-14, and that was wonderful. I’d love to live in a snowier country.

 

I can’t predict where God wants me to go, but I’m particularly passionate about conservation science, and communication; so perhaps I will work with people to help them learn to care for their environment, and to protect themselves against the effects of natural disasters and climate chaos.

 

Being on top of the hills in a wild place gives me a great sense of peace and closeness with God.

 

I find it easier to sleep if I can hear wind blowing in the trees, or running water. But I also love music, especially film soundtracks.

 

I’m quite an impatient person; so I’m often a little exasperated. But one of the things that I feel deeply angered by is when I see the natural world, or people, suffering because they haven’t been shown the love and respect they deserve as part of God’s creation.

 

Probably I’m happiest when I’m singing, or painting, or reading a good book — especially if these things are happening outside, and with a cup of tea involved.

 

My teachers at school encouraged me to take pleasure in my work rather than work for exam results, to not hold back on what I’m passionate about, and to not be afraid to speak up.

 

I pray most for help, guidance, direction, and the small details.

 

I’d probably choose Gerald Durrell as my companion if I was locked in a church. He dedicated his life to wildlife conservation, set up the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, and got an OBE; so that’s all pretty cool, in my opinion. But, more importantly, he tells a good story. We ought to be able to keep ourselves entertained.

 

Stephanie Bryant was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

For more details, email contact@gatbb.co.uk.

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