A miracle, or a scientific feat? Vaccines can be both

Science and faith don’t need to present a perennial conflict.

On Tuesday, I received my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Six months ago, I would’ve said having a safe, effective vaccine in my arm by April would be near impossible — even miraculous. Most of us thought so. 

But here we are, all beneficiaries of a modern medical miracle. It took only 12 months from the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen being identified to a vaccine being approved, the fastest vaccine ever developed. The brilliant researchers, extensive resources and modern technology are all homages to the wonders of science. 

Even so, I think there’s more. A year ago this week, I participated in a worldwide fast with members of my faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and many others. We prayed for strength and relief from the pandemic’s “physical, emotional and economic effects,” as church President Russell M. Nelson, invited us to do. By my measure, the vaccines brought us all three — effective immunity from serious illness and transmission, a great deal of emotional relief and an economic rebound in the works. Vaccines are both a result of advanced science and a miracle.

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But saying so isn’t always popular. I’ve been dismayed, but not surprised, to see others expecting us to stick to one side, as if being thankful for the vaccines’ miraculous development somehow downplays science, or that acknowledging science degrades the miracle they are. 

Even people of faith are feeding that false choice. Ralph Mecklenburger, a rabbi emeritus in the Dallas area, recently wrote for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “These drugs are the latest fruits of the study of our immune systems, genetics, and pharmaceutical testing and manufacturing. Medical research and our technological culture, not God, came to the rescue.”

Our understanding of medicine and our modern technology birthed the vaccines, and of course it was mortal humans — much brighter than I — that created them. But could those humans not have been inspired, even aided, by deity? Is our collective knowledge of science and medicine, built upon centuries of research and thought, completely divorced from God’s influence?

Can we not believe in both?

The miracle of medicine

When Jonas Salk developed a polio vaccine in 1955, he was praised as a “miracle worker.” Salk deflected the praise. To him, his vaccine was a discovery, not a creation; he was simply tapping into the universe’s evolutionary process, or “life force.” When a journalist asked him in 1955 who owned the patent on his vaccine, he balked. “There is no patent,” he said. “Could you patent the sun?”

What some call God, Salk called “cosmic consciousness” or dynamism. “Since the Big Bang, he believe(d), the universe has been kaleidoscopically unfolding according to certain deeply ingrained principles,” a New York Times story said of Salk. His polio vaccine was the result of that process, harnessed and directed.

In this Oct. 7, 1954, file photo, Dr. Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, holds a rack of test tubes in his lab in Pittsburgh. | Associated Press

For believers, that “cosmic consciousness” has a creator and a purpose. The universe is expanding and unfolding according to divine law, and the developments in science and medicine — unraveled by brilliant human minds — likewise increase our understanding of God. A miraculous vaccine, be it for polio or SARS-CoV-2, is not antithetical to the presence or purpose of God; it is congruent with it.

If we constrain God to the realms of only what we cannot explain by science, and make miracles only those things that science, at present, cannot explain, we’ll eventually run out of things to call “miracles,” and in turn, relinquish any need to pursue faith while exploring science. Increasing understanding of God’s creations should draw us closer to the Creator, not distance us from Him.

“For me, there has been no serious difficulty in reconciling the principles of true science with the principles of true religion, for both are concerned with the eternal verities of the Universe,” wrote Henry Eyring, a world-renowned chemist, in his book “The Faith of a Scientist.”

“Here is the spirit of true religion,” he continued, “an honest seeking after knowledge of all things of heaven and earth.”

A God of miracles

Those who believe in a higher power, a God of miracles — myself included — should be careful when prescribing which miracles can and cannot come from the divine.

Attaching a scientific explanation to Moses parting the Red Sea, like “wind setdown,” makes the event no less miraculous for the Israelites who witnessed it. A modern understanding of seagull feeding patterns would not have dampened pioneer settlers’ thanks to God for the “miracle of the gulls.” And knowing that science and technology made our present vaccine miracle possible hardly negates the possibility that God, the author of natural laws, played a role, too.

Some scientists recognize this, but it often takes a question that can’t fully be explained by science to even consider it. Alan Lightman, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently wrote about the “multiverse” — the possibility that other universes exist besides ours. It’s called a possibility, not a theory, as no true theorizing is being done. There’s no way to disprove it or prove it. As such, it continues to be an idea interesting to scientists but completely out of reach from science. (For now.)

Increasing understanding of God’s creations should draw us closer to the Creator, not distance us from Him.

That should unite people of faith and people of no faith, Lightman writes. “In a sense, the miracle believers and the miracle nonbelievers have found a bit of common ground,” he explained in The Atlantic. “… Both believers and nonbelievers have sworn allegiance to concepts that cannot be proved.”

Belief in the unprovable is the hallmark of religion. Faith itself is a belief in what we cannot fully understand or know. Our limited comprehension of God requires a great deal of faith. But that faith can be an asset, not a hindrance, in understanding the world around us. 

Salk, and many scientists, draw their understanding of the universe from their understanding of its creation. Since then, the universe has followed a specific trajectory of continued life and death, creation and destruction, expansion and evolution. Some think adding God to that equation makes things more murky. 

Don Page, an expert on cosmology and a devout theist, counters that logic. “One might think that adding the hypothesis that the world (all that exists) includes God would make the theory for the entire world more complex, but it is not obvious that is the case, since it might be that God is even simpler than the universe, so that one would get a simpler explanation starting with God than starting with just the universe,” he wrote.

Where science and miracles meet

Ugur Sahin, left, with his wife Ozlem Tureci, founders of the coronavirus vaccine developer BioNTech, pose for a photo at an Axel Springer Award ceremony for the research couple broadcast on the Internet, Thursday, March 18, 2021. | Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa via Associated Press

No two people deserve credit for the production of COVID-19 vaccines more than Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci. The husband and wife, co-founders of German company BioNTech, are pioneers of mRNA technology, and alongside Pfizer, they helped create the first COVID-19 vaccine approved for public use.

Türeci said their motivation to develop a vaccine did not come from money or competition, but “a moral imperative to help the world.” As Muslims, Şahin and Türeci see science as a way to lift all of humanity. Şahin, in an acceptance speech after winning the Mustafa Prize in 2019 (given to top Muslim scientists), described his purpose as “bringing the knowledge and technology of the whole planet for the sake of saving a single individual patient,” in line with his religious belief that “saving one life is like saving the whole humanity.”

In developing lifesaving science, Türeci and Şahin are saving lives. Is it possible that a life-giving God would play a role in producing a life-saving treatment? If life comes from Deity, as many believers believe — if physicist Max Planck is correct in stating that “He and His omnipotent Will are the fountainhead of all life and all happenings” — that assumption hardly seems heretical.

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Can we prove God’s role in the miracle of the COVID-19 vaccines? Not any more than we can prove his existence. But as we near the end of this pandemic, both believers and non-believers should seek common ground. Those of faith would do well to recognize the wonders of modern science, and all their merits, as credible. And for all the clarity science brings, we should admit the influence of the divine can be present without being proved.

This Easter week, perhaps more than any, the scientific brilliance God has gifted many of his children astounds me. And a year, to the week, after fasting for relief from this pandemic, President Nelson’s words appear prophetic: “I have great admiration for medical professionals, scientists and all who are working around the clock to curb the spread of COVID-19,” he said a year ago. “I am also a man of faith, and I know that during these challenging times, we can be strengthened and lifted as we call upon God and his Son, Jesus Christ — the Master Healer.”

I give thanks to modern medicine and science — and all of its brilliant disciples — for creating a cure. And in the same breath, I give thanks to God. The two need not be mutually exclusive.