Faith, Science & Action

rachel carson with microscopeFaith, Science & Action

Rachel Carson was a trained Johns Hopkins scientist who studied with the most prominent biologists, geneticists, and evolutionists of the early twentieth century. Her work, especially her great ocean trilogy, Under Sea-Wind, The Edge of the Sea, and The Sea around Us, is a lyrical testimony to evolution and to the development of life from the oceans.

But Carson also believed that science without humility, a respect for all life, and a sense of awe, wonder, and deep feeling for the universe would not be sufficient to solve the fearsome environmental problems created by human hubris. She believed that humankind’s arrogance and unconstrained faith in technology, unless checked by spiritual values and a deep ecological ethic, would ultimately lead to disaster.

Rachel Carson was raised by a devout Presbyterian mother, Rachel McLean Carson, whose father, the Rev. Daniel M.B. McLean, had been a learned, leading minister. Although she did not attend a particular church in her adult life, Carson read widely in modern theology and ethics including such writers as Paul Tillich, Erich Fromm, and the leading Protestant leader of modernism and social action, the Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick of the Riverside Church in New York City. Carson was also heavily influenced by the leading humanitarian of her time, the Biblical scholar, theologian, Bach scholar, and organist, Dr. Albert Schweitzer.

Like other great scientists and writers of our time, like Carl Sagan or E.O. Wilson, Rachel Carson would have welcomed efforts to reach out to and work alongside those whose religious faith leads them to care deeply about creation and to take action to protect it through active stewardship.

“I am not afraid of being thought a sentimentalist when I stand here tonight and tell you that I believe natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of any individual or any society. I believe that whenever we destroy beauty, or whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of man’s spiritual growth.”

—Rachel Carson, “The Real World Around Us,” Speech to the sorority of women journalists, Theta Sigma Phi, 1954. In Linda Lear, ed., Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, Beacon Press, 1998.