Constructing a Foundation to Defend the Harmony of Religion and Science

This is the second post in a series by Dr. Peter Dodson based on the talk “Fossils and Faith” that he gave to the Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania in 1988. In the first post, he described his educational and scientific background, and he then shared how a 1988 talk by Will Provine challenged him to defend how a scientist could also be a believing Christian.


For many years after hearing Provine’s talk, I devoured as much literature on the topic of science and faith as I could. I soon discovered the writings of John Polkinghorne, FRS. This distinguished British mathematical physicist left the physics laboratory at Cambridge University in 1979 at age 49 and studied for Anglican holy orders. He was ordained in 1982, and he co-founded the Society of Ordained Scientists, along with Arthur Peacock of Oxford University. Polkinghorne was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1974 for his contributions to physics. Later he served as president of Queens College, Cambridge University. Although his scientific contributions are substantial, he has been a most prolific and accessible writer on the topic of religion and science. He delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 1993–1994, and he published these as Science and Christian Belief (in the United States, Faith of a Physicist: Confessions of a Bottom-Up Thinker). In this book and many others, he espoused a very orthodox Christianity.

A second author I encountered was astronomer and historian of science Owen Gingerich, of Harvard University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Gingerich, an expert on Copernicus and Galileo, is a devout Christian and author of several books, notably God ’s Universe (2006) and God’s Planet (2014), and many essays and articles on science and religion.

A third early influence on me was Ian Barbour (1923–2013). A Christian with a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago (1950), Barbour later earned a divinity degree from Yale Divinity School. He enjoyed a lengthy teaching career at Carleton College in Northfield, MN, where he taught both science and religion and wrote a number of books on the harmony of the two. His 1966 book, Issues in Science and Religion, has been credited with founding the modern field of religion and science. Barbour presented the Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen (1989–1991), which formed the basis for his book, Religion in an Age of Science (1990). In this book he developed a useful fourfold taxonomy of the relationship between religion and science. His four categories were: Conflict, Independence, Dialogue, and Integration.

The fourth influence on me during this critical time in my life was John Haught, a theologian at Georgetown University. Beginning in 1970, Haught taught a course in religion and science at Georgetown, and his lectures coalesced in 1995 into the splendid book Science and Religion: from Conflict to Conversation. I cannot imagine a better text to introduce the topic than this book. Like Barbour, Haught described the relationship between the two fields by employing a fourfold classification, which he alliteratively labeled Conflict, Contrast, Contact and Confirmation. In 1998 Haught coined the provocative idea that evolution was Darwin’s gift to theology, inferring an evolutionary dynamism in an unfinished Creation. Haught has written prolifically and creatively, including such titles as God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (2000, 2008); Deeper Than Darwin: The Prospect for Religion in the Age of Evolution (2003); and Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God and the Drama of Life (2010). There is evidently a large and growing body of literature by scientifically and philosophically-astute theologians and theologically-knowledgeable scientists; I hope I may count among the latter.

Tutored by such powerful Christian intellects who were knowledgeable about science as well as philosophy and theology, I finally constructed the long-overdue foundation I needed to evaluate the atheist attacks on religious belief by some members of the academy. It was clear that Provine was only the current articulator of an old view. The disappearance of religion in western society has been predicted since the time of the Enlightenment, a prediction that has repeatedly failed to be borne out by fact. Theologian Langdon Gilkey labeled this prediction the “Walt Disney theory of cultural evolution.”

One of the most lucid and succinct statements of scientific naturalism or scientism came from Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), the distinguished British mathematician, logician and philosopher. His dictum, expressed in Science and Ethics (1961), was: “Whatever knowledge is attainable must be obtained by scientific methods; what science cannot discover mankind cannot know.” Is that not an impoverished view of reality? A contrary view was expressed by John Polkinghorne: “Science purchases its great success by the modesty of its ambitions” (Faith of a Physicist, 1994). Not all of reality is accessible to science, whose proper domain is physical reality, that subset of reality that can be measured, weighed or timed. Wisdom, beauty, truth, goodness, faithfulness – in short, all of the things that make life worth living – are inaccessible to science. Nobelist Richard Feynman was even more emphatic about the limits of science: “Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty, some of them most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain”(What Do You
Care What Other People Think? 1988). Where then does the overweening confidence of atheism come from?

Richard Dawkins, the reigning bête noir of evolutionary biology and scientific naturalism, has claimed that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually satisfied atheist. That may be true, but it is also true that Darwin himself was never an atheist. Entering medical school in Edinburgh, Darwin failed to follow in his father’s footsteps and enter the profession of medicine, finding surgery in those days before anesthesia to be barbaric and repulsive. Instead he matriculated as a divinity student at Cambridge University in order to prepare for a life in the Anglican ministry, his tepid religious convictions to the contrary notwithstanding. Initially Darwin was a great admirer of William Paley’s 1802 Bridgewater Treatise, Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, published in 1802. In this important book, Paley drew on the complexities of the biological and astronomical systems as “proof” of the existence of God, arguing that such complex systems could not possibly have been achieved without Divine Intelligence.

But when Darwin discovered the mechanism by which the complex contrivances in the natural world could have arisen by natural means, his tepid Christian faith was undermined. He eventually lost his faith, not because of his studies of evolution, but because of the death of his beloved daughter, ten-year-old Annie, in 1851. Nonetheless, Darwin was a warden of the village church in Down that his devout wife Emma attended with their children. He participated actively in the charitable works of the church, and was a close friend of the vicar, Rev. John Brodie Innes, with whom he maintained a lifelong correspondence after Innes left Down and returned to Scotland. Brodie wrote of Darwin, “He is a man of the most perfect moral character, and his scrupulous regard for the strictest truth is above that of almost all men I know. … I never saw a word in his writings which was an attack on Religion. He follows his own course as a Naturalist and leaves Moses to take care of himself.” Darwin himself wrote, “I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally … an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.”

Although Darwin effectively scuttled Paley’s “proof” of the existence of God, it is fallacious to argue that Darwin’s achievements constitute proof of the non-existence of God. Indeed, John Henry Newman in 1852 discredited Paley’s argument, arguing cogently that Paley’s argument did not lead to the God of Christianity and the Bible. It was certainly not the case that religious thinkers uniformly rejected Darwin’s views. Rev. Charles Kingsley, for example, wrote to Darwin that in his view “it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that he created primal forms capable of self development into all forms needful pro tempore and pro loco, as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which He Himself had made. I question whether the former be not the loftier thought.”

Although at Harvard University geologist Louis Agassiz, the founder of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, rejected the idea of evolution altogether, his colleague, botanist Asa Gray, was an ardent Darwinian, but also an ardent Christian, subscribing to theistic evolution. He argued that it was God who was the source of evolutionary change. A grateful Darwin wrote, “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent theist & an evolutionist.” This view is strongly endorsed by historian of science Michael Ruse in his 2000 book, Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?

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