Reprinted from "The Cavalier Daily", University of Virginia, Friday, April 29, 2005

Wilsdorf reconciles science and religion
Wilsdorf, the first female professor at the University, retires at the end of semester

Maithili Chitnavis, Cavalier Daily Staff Writer

Albert Einstein once said, "After religious teachers accomplish the refining process indicated, they will surely recognize with joy that true religion has been ennobled and made more profound by scientific knowledge." The age-old question of whether science and religion are compatible is one on which scientists, philosophers and theologians often have been divided.

But is there evidence that all religions share commonalities that can be justified in purely mathematical and scientific terms? Doris Wilsdorf, the University Professor of Applied Science and the first female professor at the University, has studied the subject in depth for over 40 years. For several years, Wilsdorf has integrated her personal experiences into a course for first-year students designed to enhance critical thinking skills. This semester, she is teaching her University Seminar on Science and Religion for the last time.

College student Galina Boyarinova was one of the hundreds of students over the decades who came in contact with Wilsdorf through the seminar. Boyarinova said she was especially impressed by how Wilsdorf incorporated scientific theories and concepts into the basic tenets of all major world religions.

When Professor Wilsdorf first arrived at the male-dominated University, she was made to feel unwelcome. Even through the many struggles, however, Wilsdorf stood firm. "When I came here in 1963, having already served some time as tenured full professor in the Engineering School of the University of Pennsylvania, U.Va. was strictly a men's school and students attended class in coats and ties. I then was the only female full Professor anywhere except perhaps in the School of Nursing, and I was subjected to gross gender discrimination in the College and from the higher Administration," she said.

On one emotionally difficult day during her early years at the University, Wilsdorf decided to make a change in her life.

"I realized that the unceasing undeserved enmity and harassment had to have a reason and I resolved to search for it by learning more deeply about philosophy and in particular about religion. I started with reading the Bhagavad Gita, Hinduism's holiest book. As I concentrated on it, it suddenly fell like scales from my eyes that the essence of the Bhagavad Gita is also the essence of Jesus' teachings, and I finally understood what the Kingdom of God is," she said.

Her interest in religion and philosophy developed, as did her personal experiences in scientific thought with regard to religion.

"It did not take long that I felt greatly benefited by my new understanding of life's meaning and what we as humans are meant to do with our lives. Also, increasingly over the years I came to see that science and religion are the two basic components of our earthly lives that are complementary, not contradictory," she said.

The realization prompted Wilsdorf to go beyond what was expected of a Materials Science professor for undergraduates and graduate students.

"I concluded that I should share my better insight with students and began to seize opportunities to teach science and religion," she said.

Among the topics she has studied and taught are the major religions, the creation of the universe, philosophical materialism, consciousness, the existence of a soul, creationism, evolution, human free will, near-death experiences and reincarnation. In explaining these in the realm of science, Wilsdorf seeks to foster appreciation and understanding of the world's major religions. In addition, she looks for the commonalities among all religions and focuses on what unites us all. Guest lecturers who have expertise in some of these have sparked debates among students. The parallels of Nirvana, The Kingdom of God, Enlightenment, Paradise and Moksha are evident as different names for higher states of consciousness, Wilsdorf said. Even though these are all concepts from different religions, they are all paths leading to truth that require "giving up self will and developing selflessness," she said. In this way, Wilsdorf establishes the grounds for unifying science and religion.

Using the mathematical "Theory of Theories," Wilsdorf has shown that reincarnation can indeed exist by multiplying the probabilities of the unusual aspects of particular cases together, convincing her students that there is a point when "coincidence" cannot describe thousands of scientific cases and studies. Using the Schrödinger equation, she explains the existence of nature in terms of "wave functions" and how the nature of the universe as we see it is not how it exists in its true form. And according to quantum mechanics, she said, there are always any number of possible outcomes to a situation.

"Even though these commonly differ only minutely, cumulatively they leave ample scope for God to govern the universe without resorting to miracles," Wilsdorf said. Boyarinova, who was in Professor Wilsdorf's class last fall, has formed an opinion of her own based on what she learned in the course.

"Concepts in physics at the atomic level have given room for science and religion to coexist," Boyarinova said.

She pointed out the theories of physics, especially the Quantum Theory, which have led to her conclusion.

By studying the ideas from the DNA of earth's earliest organism to the laws that govern our universe and planetary movement, Wilsdorf has questioned the materialist's views on "chance," as have her students. Rather than taking religious texts word for word, she said, by looking at the religions in the grand scheme of things, science and religion are truly compatible.

"Seemingly, 'creationism' simply derives from the conviction that the Bible is 'God's word' and therefore must be literally true and infallible. However, critical thinking also tells us that this conviction emerges not from logical arguments but from strong cultural, political and historical 'conditioning' that lacks a logical basis," she said. The attitude of looking beyond the literal meaning of religious texts has been the backbone of Wilsdorf's argument to unify both science and religion using critical thinking. Beyond the literal readings of various holy texts, she said, is where the major world religions share fundamental beliefs.

In the class, Wilsdorf presents such evidence from physics, biology, geology and other areas in science to either support or reject both religious and scientific notions. "Based on critical thinking, the typical biologist's view that evolution happened simply by 'chance' without the activity of a creative spirit, does not fare much better than creationism.While it is in fine agreement with the evidence, in fact critical thinking reveals it to be a specific belief that is no more backed by logic than is creationism," she said.

While not taking sides in any argument, she leaves the ultimate decision of what to believe in the hands of her students, hoping to strengthen their religious convictions no matter what religion they belong to.

As new scientific discoveries have been made in the past few decades and continue to be made, people are forced to take a stance on the subject of whether science and religion can be used to explain one another.

Professor Wilsdorf -- who plans to continue her successful scientific career after retirement in a service to the Navy using her invention of a newer, more efficient electric motor -- stressed the importance of critical thinking as an aspect of everyday life.

"Don't believe something because your grandmother told you so," she always said to her students.

Although she began her career at U.Va. amidst many struggles, Wilsdorf ends her academic career successfully. Her inventions, merits and reputation speak for themselves.

"I have always enjoyed teaching and the opportunity to interact with eager, talented students with whom I shared a deep devotion to Mr. Jefferson's University, no matter whether the pre-conceived notions of some led them to try and rid U.Va. of a stray woman professor," she said. She inspires her students to think for themselves as she shares her stories of world travels and her life experiences over the years. But for many of them, these teachings are a gift that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Boyarinova is one such student.

"Professor Wilsdorf has made an effort to conquer the last frontier and incorporate religion into the Jeffersonian ideals of enlightenment," she said. "Although Professor Wilsdorf is leaving the University, her legacy and her ideas will continue to influence not only her own Physics Department, but the University as a whole."