Paleontologist Peter Dodson on science and faith

These reflections on science and faith were offered by Dr. Peter Dodson, a vertebrate paleontologist who is one of the world’s leading experts on dinosaurs, at the June 2017 Cosmos and Creation conference at Loyola University Maryland. His comments are shared here with his permission and have been edited slightly for length. They include a brief description of how our book Paradigms on Pilgrimage has been an encouragement to him.


What most interests me is the intersection of science and faith. Faith was as natural to me as breathing. I grew up in a Catholic household, attended Catholic high school and Catholic university. At Yale during my Ph.D. program my friends were for the most part Catholic. To be candid, I led a sheltered existence and was never seriously challenged in my faith. I never went through a period of doubt.

My bubble was burst in 1988 when I attended a seminar at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. The topic was “The Evolution of Human Morality” and the speaker was the late Wil Provine, an evolutionary biologist and evangelical atheist from Cornell University. His message was that we should face up to the consequences of what evolutionary biology teaches: “There is no God; there is no soul; there is no life after death; there is no such thing as free will. A scientist who professes to believe in God is a hypocrite. You MUST check your brains at the back of the church. Not more than a handful of evolutionary biologists believe in God.”

As I sensed the tacit or vocal approval of this message by the assembled scientists, I slouched deep into my seat, feeling most decidedly alone. I had never before heard such a crude expression of scientific naturalism, the gratuitous philosophy of materialism that science does not require. I of course knew that there are atheists in science but nobody before had tried to tell me I could not believe.

Father Hermann Behrens once said to me, “Peter, we should thank God for our enemies.” So true! Provine set me on a path that I am still following today, even this very morning. I became depressingly familiar with the village atheists—the Sagan, Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris, Coyne, etc. crowd. But who could speak for the scientist as believer? My first task was finding those role models. Initially it was an effort. But they were there—first I found Polkinghorne, then Ian Barbour, Owen Gingerich and above all Gerogetown theologian Jack Haught.

But happily the literature has blossomed since and there are many titles we can turn to. Two of the highest profile books are The Language of God by Francis Collins and Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion by Francisco Ayala. I am a huge admirer of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning. To this list I may add paleontologist Stephen Godfrey’s Paradigms on Pilgrimage, which documents his personal journey from Fundamentalism to acceptance of evolution while retaining his Christian faith.

For a number of years I thought my mission was to combat the errors and calumnies perpetrated by Dawkins and his legions. I no longer think that. Rather I believe it is much more important to make the case for our views and not against his. And here is the important part. We discuss our beliefs in the compatibility of science and faith because of the faith that we hold dear and cherish. We must be firm and bold in this faith. We must be willing to confess our faith and trust in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Harvard astrochemist and Catholic convert Karin Oberg stated that she expected “a little martyrdom” when she arrived at Harvard. I find her courageous witness inspiring and worthy of emulation. Dare I say that we must be evangelical? By this I mean that we must encounter Jesus in the Scriptures and share what we learn.

St. Jerome states: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ, who is the living center of the Word of God.” Luther thought of the Gospel as sacrament—here we encounter Christ and his saving grace. We may read a familiar passage in Scripture 99 times, and the hundredth time it erupts “with an explosion of dazzling flashes” to use a Teilhardian phrase (via Tom King).

Such was my experience with Psalm 33, when I read in verse 4, “the works of the Lord are trustworthy”; and when I read this paraphrase of Romans 1: 20, “We shall know the Creator through the works of Creation.” Do these and a hundred other verses not give scientists like ourselves warrant to study the natural world as an act of praise to God? I do not regard the Bible as a scientific account of the natural world, but that in no way undermines my appreciation for the majestic words of Genesis 1 that we have just heard, concluding with its affirmation of the goodness of Creation.

I happily affirm that I am a Creationist—or more specifically a theistic evolutionist. The dialogue on science and faith that brings us together is enormously important, but it is not itself worship. It is incumbent on each of us to continue to grow in faith, in friendship with Jesus, and in knowledge of the Bible. As scientists we enjoy a certain status in society, and the more successful our science, the greater our potential for spreading the Good News—to our students, in our parishes, in our professional societies, on our web pages, in society at large. Be the best scientist you can be, and be the best Christian you can be. Who else is there to spread the message?

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