The universe is an astounding thing. The more insight we get into it, the more we all marvel. Physics is responsible for our glimpse into the universe, and for our knowledge about natural laws and forces. It is considered the ground of “hard sciences” because the laws and forces uncovered influence systems involved in chemistry, biochemistry, biology, and ecology. The intrigue of physics, then, is its connectedness to data and mathematics…. highly provable and certain discoveries. The sad part, for the Christian, is that despite the groundedness of physics, theorists still find ways to import religious ideas into their research. Especially in origin science and cosmology.
If you go to a popular bookstore today and look at the physics section, you will discover this for yourself. Among the dozen physics textbooks or “Cliffs Notes” type manuals, you will also see about a hundred religious-type titles… Reinventing the Sacred, The Demon-Haunted World, At Home in the Universe, etc. Usually the two perspectives represented among these titles will be 1) ardent atheist, or 2) New Age. While it seems funny that atheists and New Agers could be compatible in such a hard science, in reality they tolerate each other rather well. As long as no-one spouts a monotheistic (organized) religion, everyone gets along. Academic physicists seem to choose either atheist or New Age because they are safe metaphysically, and because their deep study of the natural world prompts them to place responsibility for such magnificence somewhere. If their marveling deems blind chance as the cause, they become an atheist. If their marveling leads to mystical self-organization, they become New Age. Both can deeply revere nature, even worship it. Both accept evolution; both reject a transcendent and personal God. But the atheist camp stops short of any mysticism, telos, or cosmological narrative whereas the New Age camp is free to speculate.
If you survey your university professors, you will probably see this for yourself. One clique within the physics department will be brainy, sort of stodgy, “old school” guys who are the classic atheists, materialists. The other clique will be wild-haired, trendy, perhaps motorcycle-driving “beatnik” types who sense some kind of cosmic harmony when they visit Los Alamos. They are usually the superstring and chaos theorists, and the ones whose books at the bookstore give off a spiritual-type reverence for the earth. Materialists glory too, but they are usually more personally back-biting in the fashion of Carl Sagan. And atheist physicists may have more chemist/engineering colleagues, whereas New Age physicists like the biologists/ecologists better. It’s an oversimplification of course, but not one without merit!
As a Christian physicist, then, your dilemma will be whether to mask your organized, monotheistic belief so you can fit in with the more spiritual guys and continue your work. Or whether you should “spill the beans,” so to speak, and consider yourself marginalized as bait for something like the Discovery Institute to pick up. I suppose it depends on how you envision your life… peacefully working within the Academy while being a sort of undercover, or working from outside the academic mainstream as you defend that you are actually “a real scientist” still. Both are a fight, but one allows you to fit in as long as you keep your private convictions secret, while the other allows your secrets to permeate your work for the cost of job security. Christian scientists sometimes start out in the Academy but find themselves drifting over (or worse, being expelled) into the other, rejected camp because their research or conscience takes them there. It is worth getting to know some travelers who have gone before you, and reading different kinds of books by Christian scientists to decide which path you want to take. Intelligent Design is probably the best camp for the Christian physicist to get into (i.e. in the stream of The Privileged Planet), but is definitely being expelled for political reasons. It’s a risk.
Physics, often considered the “hardest” science, is probably not as difficult to be in as biology, as a Christian, because of the distance from proving inter-species evolution. But it will still entail picking up the cross to follow Him. Physics has yielded data which has been fabulous for apologetics, and has contributed to the tipping of the scales in the Christian’s favor, rather than the secularist’s. This is partly why we see so many physicists turning back to spirituality (even if not Christianity). The important thing to remember, as a scientist, is that science is basically an apologetics field—because God created the world, research will always reveal Him, and always turn up data which ultimately confirms His word (even if not in the short term). So it is not the data which has caused so much trouble for the faith, it is the interpretations. Seeking the truth comes at a cost because there will be pressure to interpret the facts according to an accepted mythology or politics. If you can resist this pressure, then God will be glorified through your study. Trust Him as you study the Creation. And worship Him as you marvel just like the others.