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roundtable:science and faith Watch Show 7:
"What About God?"
on PBS
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Several people have written that they have thoroughly studied both creation and evolution and find that both are forms of faith in that they assume events that occurred before the time of man. They both have an element of trust needed to believe that either are correct or incorrect. Please comment.
Must we take the first several verses of Genesis literally in order to respect the spiritual authority of the rest of the Bible? Conversely, must the literal nature of the Genesis creation story be discounted in order to reconcile religion with evolution, astronomy, physics, and other sciences?
Please tell us specifically how you handle the question of original sin. If God chose to create organisms, specifically mankind, through millions of years of evolution, what happens to the theological underpinnings of original sin and redemption without a real, flesh-and-blood Adam and Eve?
If one accepts Darwinian evolution, how can one truly reconcile that theory with religion as practiced by most Americans? Even if evolution doesnŐt conflict with the existence of a God, it does seem to clearly refute the idea that God plays an active, day-to-day role in the course of earthly events.
Even if many people can reconcile religious and evolutionary world views, it seems that many evolutionary biologists cannot. Biologists seem much more likely to express hostility toward religion than practice it. Several persons have said that a religious person cannot be a true scientist. Does an evolutionary world view gradually drive a person toward atheism?


Q: Even if many people can reconcile religious and evolutionary world views, it seems that many evolutionary biologists cannot. Biologists seem much more likely to express hostility toward religion than practice it. Several persons have said that a religious person cannot be a true scientist. Does an evolutionary world view gradually drive a person toward atheism?
Panelist Responses: < back to intro page
The answer to the question is no, I don't think it does. First, let me challenge from personal experience the statement that most evolutionists are not religious or even anti-religious. There are some evolutionists that are so, but I am by no means persuaded that they are a majority.

There are various statistics concerning these issues. But one problem with many of these statistics is that people who ally themselves with one camp or another, their response depends very much on how the question is formulated. But from personal experience, I know many evolutionists who are religious, and in particular are Christians, and I don't see any contradiction between the two.

Now in addition to that, there are some evolutionists who actually see evolution as the method by which God eventually is to be reached. Let me mention two different versions of that. One will be Dobzhansky, the great evolutionist of the 20th century, who saw evolution as progressive and leading from lower organisms to humans. So in humans, [evolution was] the possibility of continually evolving in directions of higher expressions of spirituality and morality.

Another version of this kind of understanding of evolution is that of Teilhard de Chardin, who did much of his research in China and whose work was published only after he was dead. He also then sees evolution as progressive, and eventually he sees human evolution reaching a high level of expression and reaching God through this natural process.

I do not share these views, and I consider them mistaken in many ways. It is very hard for a scientist to see evolution as a progressive process. In any case, progress is something that involves an evaluation and a judgment of value, something being better than something else. In science, that's not something we can comment on.

I don't see any reason why one should see evolution as other than a natural process like the emergence of the planets or the stars or the different chemical processes happening all the time around us, just part of a natural process. Now, the religious person may see all of these as reflecting the creative act of God and the natural laws created by God. So there is no contradiction between what science achieves and what science tells us about the world and a religious view of the world.

Now, I regret, of course, that some evolutionists and other scientists feel differently. But I have to say that some distinguished evolutionists have said that there is nothing beyond science, that science is all there is to know about the world. I can only reiterate the statement that I made earlier, that in matters of value and purpose, science has nothing to say.

Let me put it differently. Concerning what human nature is, science says everything that can be said except what is most interesting and important, which is the meaning of human life and the value that it can put on human life and individuals and society.
Well, this is, I think, a question about sociology, politics, and competition for public space much more than a question about how religion and science get along with each other. I have seen some of the literature about the beliefs of scientists, and what strikes me always is the push among scientists toward atheism or materialism or the lack of belief always seems to come from outside of their science. So scientists are irritated when non-scientific outsiders try to push an agenda. Scientists are irritated when their work is distorted, in their own view. And I think these provocations do take place.

But there just is nothing intrinsic in a serious examination of the material world that necessarily pushes a person toward atheism. What might push a person toward a materialistic understanding of the world is where every issue, every conclusion from scientific work becomes a matter for extreme polemics, where there is the kind of debate we've seen in the U.S. since the teens and '20s over evolution and "creation science." But these are matters that have very little to do with science.

So it seems to me that scientists should be always encouraged. Believers should encourage scientists to simply get to work, to use their best instruments for observation, to use their best theory formation powers, to use their best hypothetical testing of theories, and simply let the chips fall where they may.

Christian believers have no reason for fearing the legitimate results of legitimate science. And scientists should have the most open minds about the great questions of God in relationship to the world because of their science and not despite their science.

So I do recognize this as an important question. But I think the factors that push practicing scientists and even evolutionary biologists away from God are factors that are much less related to the intrinsic work of science than to the modern climate in which scientific matters are debated.
I think the politics embodied in America by the Constitutional decision to give religions no political power informed that question. We have this enormous gift in America that religion is by definition private. It cannot acquire political power. People here, as people all over the world, who wish somehow to have their religion gain the force of law are frustrated by the American Constitution, and they wish to somehow have that bypassed for their sake.

So far, so good -- the Constitution, the Supreme Court, the Congress, and the President all, no matter what their personal beliefs, understand that religious observance in this country is made stronger by the refusal of the government to allow itself to be given a religious purpose.

That said, I think the same is true in science. There is a separation of church and science as there is a separation of church and state. You have a complete freedom to belong to both. There is no judgment I have ever seen of a person in science except by their data. If I go to pray in the morning, I may be thought of as a fool, but if my data are good, I'm not a fool in science.

And the difference is between who are your friends and who are your colleagues. I consider it absolutely a mistake to imagine that you must have a religious observance of one or another sort, whether a belief in God or a belief in no God, in order to function as a scientist. Science is not a matter of belief. It's a matter of data.

If you like it, there is the religion [or the philosophy] that says everything is knowable through data; therefore there is no God. You may subscribe to that religion as a scientist. Or you may, as a scientist, subscribe to the other religion which says beyond what science can do, there is a world of unknowability in which one finds God. Either way, that's a choice. That's a free will choice that does not determine how good you are as a scientist. Otherwise we couldn't live together as people of 100 different religions. None of it has any relevance to the practice of science any more than it has relevance to the practice of being a policeman or a dentist.

I think what I'd like to highlight in the light of the events since September 11th is that if we are at war, what we are at war to defend, in my eyes, is precisely this Constitutional separation of church and state and this great American invention that religion, true religion, has a thousand forms, all of which should be free to flourish and none of which should become coercive through government power.

That is precisely what these people who hate us want to overthrow in us, and that's what makes us all, I think, loyal at this moment and rallying behind the President at this moment. That, for me, is what I as a scientist wish to defend, because that private practice of my religion doesn't exist in any one of these totalitarian religious states.
There are really two questions here. Can, in general, a scientist be religious? I think they clearly can. There have been many eminent scientists through the history of science who have been believers in God, and they vary from cosmologists right through to psychologists, as well as biologists and chemists.

So science in general is a quest for understanding the natural world. And for many people, their understanding of the natural world involves asking why is it there at all, and why does it have any laws in the way that it does? And that leads them to believe in God as Creator, a being who gives existence to all that is. So with regard to the general point about science, I don't see any problem.

Now there's a particular problem with the history of biology. I think it is true that many biologists, certainly in my own country, grow up feeling, as it were, that if you're going to be a biologist, you must show that you have a prejudice against religion. And this has a particular history in the supposed conflicts between science and religion. I say "supposed" because historically it's more complicated than that.

The supposed conflicts of the 19th century, particularly in England and in America, too, arose when Darwin's ideas seemed to conflict with certain religious thinkers. But there were equally religious thinkers who welcomed this idea. One of them became Archbishop of Canterbury in England, Frederick Temple. And there were also scientists who disagreed with Darwin for many years. So there were people on both sides. It was an idea which took some digesting, both by scientists and by religious thinkers.

But there is a strain of religious thinking which goes back to within the early years when Darwin first gave his ideas, showing that these two can be compatible with Christian ideas and belief in God along the lines I've been mentioning. Within even 20 years or so of Darwin, people were beginning to show a positive interpretation of evolutionary perspectives as believing Christians.

Aubrey Moore wrote in 1891 that "The one absolutely impossible conception of God, in the present day, is that which represents him as an occasional visitor. Science has pushed the deist's God further and further away, and at the moment when it seemed as if he would be thrust out all together Darwinism appeared, and, under the disguise of a foe, did the work of a friend. It has conferred upon philosophy and religion an inestimable benefit, by showing us that we must choose between two alternatives. Either God is everywhere present in nature, or He is nowhere."

But on the other hand, there were biologists like Thomas Henry Huxley, in particular, who was very keen to get biology established as a science in the universities against what he thought was the opposition from, mainly, clergymen. So he polarized it. It was biology versus religion for him. And he was a very good exponent of Darwin's ideas. So the tradition grew up in biology of being anti-religious or semi-anti-religious automatically, because this was a sort of corporate stance which got infected into biology in 19th-century England and parts of America too, for that matter.

But it's a purely historical happenstance. If you go back further in biology, you don't find this. And as your question said, there are many -- more and more, actually -- biologists who don't take this view.
I have taught introductory biology to many hundreds of students every year for many years, and my course is framed as modern biology in the theory of evolution. It's only in the context of evolution that biology makes sense. And the kinds of questions that we have faced today I face in my class every year. Usually the first lecture and the second lecture, questions like these arise. I feel it's important in the minds of our students that they deserve some attention. And I discuss them briefly in class and I show myself to be willing to discuss them in more detail and in greater length outside the classroom. And indeed, many students come to see me to discuss these issues.

Typically, after the second or third lecture, these questions will not arise anymore. Rather, what happens is that the students who have religious beliefs and religious convictions are very relieved by the theme I try to convey to them: that it's possible to be religious and to accept science and accept the theory of evolution.

The fact that we have evolved from non-human animals, organisms change through time, and that new species arise is beyond reasonable doubt. The theory of evolution in that sense is established with the same kind of certainty that we attribute to the Copernican theory that the planets evolve around the Sun or the molecular composition of matter. We in science have to accept the possibility that these, like any other theory, might prove to be wrong some time in the future. But this seems to me and to most scientists most unlikely. The theory is established beyond reasonable doubt.

And again, students can accept and learn these theories and accept their religious beliefs. I see no incompatibility between the two.
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