The Delicate Dance of Religion and Science

The Rev. Alison Cornish and John Andrews

Feb 10, 2008 – 

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

– Albert Einstein

Opening Words (Robert Terry Weston)

Out of the stars in their flight, out of the dust of eternity, here have we come, stardust and sunlight, mingling through time and through space …

Earth warmed by the sun, lit by the sunlight: this is our home; out of the stars we have come.

Alison: Today’s service has its origins back a few months ago, when I received an e-mail notice that declared February 8-10 “Evolution Weekend.” That sounded interesting, but I felt I would really be wandering far from my field of expertise to stand up here, with so many of you out there who know far more about science than I, and try to talk with you about this subject. So I invited John Andrews to join me this morning, to help speak to the science of this subject, while I will try to speak to religion. In every sense, this has been a collaborative effort, including the books we brought to one another for background reading – I offered Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in and Age of Disbelief to John, and he loaned me Lawrence Principe’s Science an Religion.

So John, let’s begin with a couple of definitions to get started … if you had to tell everyone here what is science (in 25 words or less), what would you say?

John: To answer the question “what is science” in a way that would satisfy all scientists and philosophers of science would be impossible in 25,000 words, let alone 25.   So let me try instead to say what science does. Science seeks concise, natural explanations for observed phenomena and refines those explanations by testing them against new observations.

To that succinct, 18-word definition, let me add a few helpful footnotes:

  1. Science seeks brevity, usually via mathematics.
  2. Science deals in the natural, i.e., the regular, law-abiding, and predictable.
  3. Science deals in explanations, i.e., logical connections between observed phenomena using unambiguous principles.
  4. Science holds its theories and explanations provisionally, subject to testing against new observations.

Turnabout is fair play – what, to you, is religion?

Alison: I could start the same way as you – there’s no way to define religion in less than, oh, 50,000 words! But let’s start with this – religion and spirituality are inextricably woven together. By spirituality, I mean the human understanding and experience of the ineffable, or the ultimate, or some would say the divine. This understanding and experience has been present, it seems, as long as there have been ways to describe it – and that’s what religion is. It tries to put into words, expressions, what that felt sense is, and from that, flow rituals, ethics and beliefs.

Religion does this in different ways. Sometimes it’s encoded in scripture; other times, in traditions that are handed down, one generation to another. Of course, our own personal experience informs our religious thoughts and beliefs, and, as part of that experience, reason comes into play as well.

John: So I’d summarize your answer by saying that when people “do religion,” they gather together to encounter the sacred. (The word religion is rooted in the Latin word “ligare,” which means “to bind.” Religion binds us together.) Of course, the rub is what words like ineffable, ultimate, divine, and sacred mean. To me, they represent aspects of reality that are beyond perception and understanding, which is to say, beyond the reach of science.

Alison: I’d agree with that. Even though religion includes the use of reason, it certainly doesn’t stop there. That’s the realm of, for example, religious mysticism.

John, there are lots of people who will say that religion and science are two separate ways of looking at the world, not necessarily in conflict (though some would say conflict is inevitable), but not sharing much, either. What are your thoughts about that?

John: Now, if “the sacred” means whatever is beyond the reach of science, then, strictly speaking, science has nothing to offer religion. On the other hand, if religion says anything about aspects of reality that are within science’s grasp, it either agrees with science or it is wrong.

Nevertheless, I believe there are areas where creative and useful interaction is possible. Science can deflate truth claims about the physical world made by some forms of religion, such as the literal interpretation of the Bible. It may also make some metaphysical ideas less plausible even when it can’t disprove them. On a more positive note, new findings of science can capture the religious imagination, enhancing feelings of reverence and awe.

In the other direction, religion can provide an awareness of significance that science, in and of itself, cannot deliver. Most scientists would not be motivated to do what they do without something of this kind, whether they get it as members of a congregation or from solitary meditation.

Alison: Agreed! And, I might add, science can explain phenomena, but it doesn’t tell us either how to act, or what meaning to make. A good example would be DNA testing that allows an individual to know whether or not they carry a specific marker for a known disease. Science may say, “yes, everything we know says you are a candidate for this,” but it doesn’t tell you how to respond, or what, necessarily, to do. That’s the work of ethics and theology.

John, we could cover lots of ground here this morning, and, by going around and around in circles, get nowhere. But we’ve talked, a bit, and agreed we should talk about one specific encounter between science and religion, and we’ve taken the suggestion of evolution. This is still a vast subject, but at least one with which most everyone here has some familiarity. It also seems to be a subject that simply won’t go away. Let’s start with the science of evolution, back when Charles Darwin first published his thoughts on the subject in 1859.

John: Darwin did not discover evolution, which was freely discussed by, among others, his grandfather Erasmus. Before Darwin, evolution was accepted by many scientists on the basis of geological evidence, and also by religious thinkers in the context of a divine plan. Darwin’s contribution was to identify the main cause of evolution – random variation followed by natural selection. Darwin was very conflicted about this during his own lifetime, not least because his wife, whom he loved dearly and who loved him back, was afraid he would go to hell because of it. He delayed publishing for two decades, only deciding to do so when he found out that Alfred Russell Wallace had recently come up with the same idea. Probably the two aspects of Darwin’s theory that most troubled theologians were the ideas of common ancestry and of random variation. Common ancestry of all living things – including humans – implies a family relationship between us and nonhuman animals. It was unsettling to many to be told that their pet dog was really their millionth-or-so cousin, and even more unsettling to those theologians who based their concept of human dignity on our supposed place “a little below the angels” – and far above the beasts – in a Great Chain of Being. Random variation – the idea that evolution was produced by chance differences between individual members of a species, and not by any supernatural intervention – was equally problematic to those whose belief in God was based on the argument from design.

Still, some religious thinkers did find ways to fit evolution into their worldviews. I remember my mother explaining to me, when I was still a small child, that God decided – when the apelike creature had developed sufficiently noble characteristics – to endow it with a soul, which conferred free will and immortality. This was orthodox Catholic theology. Still, even if some form of evolution was accommodated by many religious thinkers, it certainly wasn’t universally accepted, was it Alison?

Alison: Not in the least – and you raise a good point here. Right from the beginning, we need to let history remind us of the diversity of beliefs, even within the Christian faith, about almost any subject – but particularly evolution.

For some theologians, evolution was completely incompatible with their understanding of the creation of the world as described in Genesis I – but for others, there was plenty of room to accommodate both evolution, and a divine creator with a design. Still others were offended – nay, horrified – that the human species, supposedly made in God’s image, may have been the result of natural processes, including random variations. What did this say about the nature, or even the role, of God? And still other theologians read evolution as the case against God, and drew a singular conclusion – atheism. It’s interesting to note that, from the beginning, the Catholic Church was generally comfortable with evolution as long as it somehow included a divine creator that created the universe and its laws. Catholic theologians were clear: evolution may have produced the human body, but it did not produce the soul.

But it’s important to know, too, that, in the mid- to late-19th century, theologians read, respected, and were in relationship with scientists, and many who considered themselves scientists were also deeply religious. Darwin himself, in fact, had two very religiously free-thinking grandfathers – that grandfather of his, Erasmus, was a doctor and a member of the philosophical Lunar Society (yes, they called themselves “lunatics”), and his grandfather Josiah was a Unitarian, and a friend and colleague of the theologian and scientist, Joseph Priestly. Darwin himself almost became an Anglican cleric, and questions of religion were always important to him.

Although it is a great abbreviation of history, let’s leave the 19th century, and Darwin and his colleagues, and leap ahead to that seminal event in American history, the Scopes Trial. John, what exactly was that all about?

John: Starting in the 1920’s, several states passed laws that forbade the teaching of evolution. Why? Well, once again, the answer is more complex than we have time for, but it has something to do with folks, particularly in the south, feeling like the textbooks their children were using in schools contained ideas just plain antithetical to anything they knew or believed. So, initially, the Scopes trial was a strategy by the American Civil Liberties Union to challenge the law Tennessee had passed, forbidding the teaching of evolution. John Scopes (who was not even a regular biology teacher) volunteered to be the guinea pig. The intent was to have a trial, assuming that the defendant would be convicted, so as to start an appeals process. In fact, this was theatre from the beginning. Several Tennessee towns competed for the right to be the venue of the trial, knowing the national attention that would come to them. The event really got national coverage when two heavy-hitters, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow (a Unitarian), showed up to argue the opposite sides of the case, and H, L. Mencken covered the trial for the Baltimore Sun.

Alison: There’s another part of the story, that’s the religion bit. By this time in American history, there was a lot more religious fundamentalism afoot, especially in the south, where breakaway Christian sects were common, and poverty and hopelessness left people searching for something that promised a better tomorrow – even if it wasn’t during this lifetime. But once again, we have to remind ourselves that “Christian” is an umbrella term, and that those in Dayton, Tennessee, especially as portrayed in Inherit the Wind, were not representative of the whole tradition.

The other – I would say intended – consequence of the Scopes trial, again, as portrayed through somewhat fictionalized media, is the presumed irreconcilable rift between religion and science, with science the progressive, intelligent winner, and religion portrayed as an irrelevant artifact of the past. That’s something, I think, that the media continues to play up, even today.

John, what about today? Have the positions about “Darwinism” changed?

John: As you might have gathered from the news, present-day conflict in America continues to center on the teaching of evolution in high schools. Proponents of “Intelligent Design” (ID) claim that their ideas are more sophisticated than the old-style “creation science,” and deserve to be taught alongside Darwinian evolution in science classes. Their claim is that they are finding cases where a specific organism, for example, a certain type of bacterium with a rotating flagellum, could not have evolved according to Darwinian principles. That means that science must logically force us to the conclusion that an Intelligent Designer is at work. The proponents of intelligent design are careful not to identify this being as the God of any particular religion, but rather insist that it is merely a necessary consequence of their scientific work.

Intelligent Design is rejected by most working scientists as a thinly-veiled attempt to inject religion into the field of science. If practitioners of ID went only as far as to say “I’ve discovered a problem with current understandings of Darwinism” and left it to the scientific process to sort out how big a problem it really is, that would, or should be, acceptable science. Mainstream scientists do that sort of thing all the time. Of course, that wouldn’t further the hidden agenda of those who fund ID work, so that’s not what they do.

Alison: It’s interesting, I’ve read a bit about Intelligent Design, and I have to say, it reminds me of the old “gap theory” that some talked about in the 19th century, when Darwin first published. Whenever there was a gap in understanding how something could have come to be, some theologians said that God intervened in the gap. Maybe, maybe not. But be that as it may, it’s still religion, and it doesn’t belong in a science curriculum.

John: My take on this is that the advocates of Intelligent Design and the proponents of what we have been calling materialism or scientism make the same mistake. They expect things from science that it can’t deliver without help from philosophy. As we’ve already seen, science deals in natural causes and theories that make specific, testable predictions. To go from a statement such as “Darwinism can’t explain the existence of organism X,” to “this implies the existence of an Intelligent Designer” is a philosophical leap that might or might not be justified, but it isn’t science. Similarly, to go from the statement that “science has successfully explained an amazingly diverse set of phenomena” to “science will ultimately explain everything” is also a philosophical move, not a scientific one. That’s why neither of these sets of ideas belongs in science classes.

One other point. If I were speaking to a group of evangelical Christians, it’s likely that someone might say, “I accept the evidence for evolution as far as it goes, but I also believe that God has intervened to guide it in certain preplanned directions.” My response would be that although such interference is not part of my belief system, I must admit that science cannot rule it out as long as it was subtle and infrequent enough to elude science’s ability to detect it. What science can say is that there is no observational evidence for any of that.

Since this is a house of worship and not a scientific meeting, I think it’s appropriate that you have the last word. Alison?

Alison: Through our dialogue leading up to today, I’ve been thinking about Unitarian Universalism and evolution, and how compatible our faith tradition is with the science of evolution. It’s tempting to point fingers at those of other religious persuasions and say they are the ones with the problems. And yet, this conversation about religion and science, and particularly evolution, still offers UUs some important challenges.

First, and foremost, is something that John pointed out earlier – “new findings of science can capture the religious imagination, enhancing feelings of reverence and awe.” I do believe the truth of this. But it’s not a perspective we hear articulated very often. What we hear about are the miracles of science, not the complex, tantalizing universe that grows more awesome with each new revelation. The dangers of materialism – of reducing the world as we know it to its known components – or scientism – allowing science to be the sole interpreter of the world around us – is a formidable challenge for any faith tradition, including ours. This is where I think we have some common ground with other religious traditions, if we let ourselves.

And second, as evolutionary science continues to teach us more, for example, by using DNA, we’re adding to our learning about the common ancestry of all living things. The complexity of DNA suggests that all living creatures have been kin at least since DNA came into being. DNA now secures the kinship among animals, fungi, plants and algae.

If we take this science seriously, it has profound implications for our understanding of the true interdependence of the full web of life – of which we are a part. If we take this “ancestry” seriously, could this, for example, challenge our ethics as to how we treat other living things?

So you see, religion and science still have a lot of dancing to do – together!

Closing Words (Isaiah 55)

For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace;

the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song,

and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

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