CommunityFDL Main Blog

Religion and Science, Together?


Folks are sometimes amazed at me and my wife. I’ve got a Ph.D. in religion, and she has one in microbiology. "But . . . but . . . but how is that possible?" Pictures of the Scopes trial fly through their minds, or Bible-thumpers taking over school boards to put "creationism" or "intelligent design" into science classrooms. One must triumph over the other, after all. The fundies fight for religion, the faithless scientists fight for science, and ne’er the twain shall meet. That is a picture of how religion and science intersect, but it is woefully – and thankfully! – incomplete.

It’s only recently that science and religion have come to be seen as polar opposites. In fact, some of the most interesting scientists in history were theologians as well. (Or should I say that some of the most interesting theologians were also scientists?) Just as a person of faith who is filled with a passion for justice might become a lawyer, and a person of faith with a passion for healing might become a doctor, so a person of faith with curiousity for the beauty and mystery of creation might become a scientist. "Look at all these marvels," she or he might say, filled with faith and wonder and awe. A scientist with faith then applies his or her intellect and skills to the world, seeking to discover new and interesting things about it. Religion for scientists like this becomes the inspiration for their work, not an impediment to it.

Back in college, I studied math and economics, including the work of Thomas Bayes. He developed a number of powerful insights into probability theory, which became critical for actuaries, statisticians, and even the programmers of Google! Later I discovered that he was an English clergyman, and a Fellow of the Royal Society in mathematics. His mathematical work most likely came about because Bayes took his mathematical training and used it to examine the then-current religious questions of gambling and insurance. (Yes, insurance was once a question of faith: Can a good, God-fearing person purchase insurance, or is that a sign that one does not trust in God?) Truly, Bayes was a clerical scientist, or a scientific cleric.

The existence of religiously motivated scientists is generally not acknowledged, especially in TheoCon circles, except for the "special case" of the folks pushing "intelligent design" as a religious alternative to secular evolution. But if you want to open a discussion of evolution or global warming, for example, recognizing a kind of healthy relationship between religion and science is a necesary and very helpful first step.

The National Geographic recently took on both these topics with cover stories in the space of four months. In September 2004, they published a three part series on global warming, looking closely at geological changes, ecological changes, and the probable causes of these changes, presenting observations and evidence while using the best current theories to draw appropriate conclusions. In November 2004, they took on evolution, with an issue whose cover boldly asked "Was Darwin Wrong?"

The article’s answer to the question on the cover was a firm "no." This pits the NG against the Creationists who lean on but one of the various scriptural stories of creation, claiming it as the text that describes the process of creation – and the picture isn’t evolution. In Genesis 1, God speaks and calls forth the world and everything in it in the space of six days, with humanity created on the last day.

What the Creationists miss in making their claim is the picture of God this story portrays. That’s why the stories of creation are there, after all. The Hebrew scriptures have other stories, too, which paint different pictures of God and creation, pointing primarily not to the mechanics of the event but to the Creator behind it and our relationship to that creator. In Genesis 2, in contrast to the story above with its distant, exalted, and powerful creator, here we see God bending down to earth, creating a man from the mud, and blowing life into him. Then God creates a garden for the man to live in, as well as a world of creatures for companionship. As nice as they are, though, something’s missing for the man, and so God causes a deep sleep to come over him. While the man sleeps, God removes a rib from the man and creates something new. "Finally!" says the man. This is not a dog or a cat, not a hippo or a camel, but another human being – a partner!  It’s a creation story that emphasizes a loving creator who cares deeply for the people God created, who values human community, and who walks the earth and is not distant from it as in Genesis 1. In Psalm 104, the Psalmist paints a picture of God at creation that could have been inspired by the membership roster of the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce. God planted trees like a landscaper, laid the foundations of the earth like a builder, covered the heavens with light like a tailor spreads cloth, and made the giant crocodile (Leviathan) just for the fun of it. The storyteller of the book of Job does much the same thing in chapters 38-42, using human occupations like farmer, midwife, animal trainer, father, mother, and more to describe God at work.

In his editor’s column on the inside of that November 2004 issue, Bill Allen wrote:

Our magazine aims to explore the world, often by highlighting scientific concepts such as evolution. Is this approach necessarily at odds with faith, which lies beyond the realm of scientific proof? No. Just as religion did not disappear after Galileo demonstrated that the Earth is not at the center of the solar system, evolution does not exclude God from our origins, the "mystery of mysteries" – a 19th-century astronomer’s description borrowed by Darwin himself.

Key to having conversations that deal with evolution is trying to get the person on the fundamentalist side of things to realize that evolution is not necessarily an attack on their faith or their God. It does attack their way of literally reading selective parts of scripture, but not their faith. That’s a nuanced distinction, but without it there is no hope of conversation at all.

Bill Allen is a brave man, and he and his staff recognized that distinction well. I know nothing of their personal religious beliefs, but they were able to use stunning images and carefully crafted prose to translate the precise and technical language of science, making it more easily understood by non-scientists, including people of faith. These four articles, especially the evolution piece, demonstrate respect for both the scientist and non-scientist alike, as well as the religious and non-religious, and show how the conversation between science and religion can indeed take place, to the benefit of all.

But it’s not easy, as we saw with the whole very public debacle around Terri Schaivo, and as it is played out more privately in ordinary ICUs and nursing facilities each and every day. A religious person might ask, Is it playing God to turn off a venilator? Is it playing God to use one? And who gets to decide? A scientist might similarly ask, Is it medically possible and useful to use a ventilator? Does it assist the patient to continue living? Does it merely prevent the body from dying? And who gets to decide? At the other end of life, the same scientific and religious questions arise, when the discussion turns to in vitro fertilization, contraception and birth control, and similar topics. Is it playing God to assist in creating life? Is it playing God to refrain from creating life? And who gets to decide? Is it medically possible and useful to create a pregnancy? Is it medically possible and useful to terminate one? And who gets to decide? All these questions are closely related, though some are phrased more in the language of science and others use the language of religion.

Shortly before the 1978 election of Albino Luciani as Pope John Paul I, the first test tube baby was born in England. In an interview with a Roman newspaper, Luciani noted that while technology like this can be used for evil purposes, so too it can be used for good. "I, too, send my best wishes to the baby. As for her parents, . . . if they acted with good intentions and in good faith, they may even have great merit before God for what they have decided and asked the doctors to do." Wise words, measured and full of humility, from a man who died too soon.

In March 2005, National Geographic printed some letters that the global warming and evolution issues generated. My favorite came from Toby Pitts, who wrote:

I am not surprised that nearly half of all Americans believe "God alone, and not evolution, produced humans." When I look at my three beautiful children, it is hard to believe they are the end result of evolving Eocene pond scum. My father-in-law, on the other hand, may be just the evidence you’ve been looking for.

Humor can be a great leveler, to keep all of us from taking ourselves too seriously (and for the religious among us, one might say it keeps us from trying to take the place of God). Doonesbury this past Sunday brought much laughter to my home, as evolution and religion take on very personal, immediate importance for the gentleman visiting his doctor . . . (If God could laugh at the divine creation of the crocodile, surely we can laugh at the more human creative work of Garry Trudeau.)

So, how do you talk religion and science with those of a more TheoCon mindset?

(One request: let’s hold off on discussing religion, homosexuality and marriage on this thread. I know they are in the news lately, and there are some deeply religious and scientific aspects to the discussion, but they deserve a thread all their own. If I promise to post one, can you all hold back on that? Thanks!)

Previous post

What Does "First" Mean Again?

Next post

The Spin I'm In



I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.