This is the third post in a series based on Dr. Peter Dodson’s 2016 conference presentation “Fossils and Faith.”
The idea that there is an intrinsic enmity between science and religion is quite absurd, a post-Enlightenment conceit fanned by flames of intolerance in the late 19th century. Science developed because of, not in spite of, Judeo-Christian beliefs, especially the understanding that Creation is separate from the Creator, that Nature is orderly, and that the order reflects the Mind of the Creator. Thus, investigating Nature is an act of worship. Any history of science traces the roots of modern science to churchmen of the 13th century such as Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) was one of the most rational men who ever lived. He saw God acting through “Secondary Causes,” or what we understand to be the laws of nature. Until the middle of the 19th century almost all scientists, or “natural philosophers” as they were called, were persons of faith. If one were to accept Dawkins’ diatribes at face value, it is a wonder that any religiously oriented scientist preoccupied with “a pokey little medieval universe” would produce any contribution of intellectual value.
As counterexamples, I offer three exemplars. Gregor Mendel (1822–1884), the Augustinian monk and abbot, performed his famous experiments on peas in the monastery garden and discovered the gene, the mechanism for hereditary transmission that Darwin lacked. Georges Lemaitre (1894–1966) was a Belgian priest, physicist and astronomer who is described as the Father of the Big Bang, having been the first to propose the expansion of the primordial universe and the first to derive Hubble’s law and Hubble’s constant. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) was a French Jesuit and a distinguished geologist, mammalian paleontologist and evolutionary thinker, who was also the excavator of ‘Peking Man’ at Zhoukoudien near Beijing. He was a great Christian mystic.
Many scientists today continue to believe in God. Among the contemporary scientists who have written of their religious faith in relation to their academic professions are University of Delaware physicist Stephen Barr (Modern Physics and Ancient Faith); Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich (God’s Universe); Brown University evolutionary cell and molecular biologist Kenneth Miller (Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution); Stanford University ecologist Joan Roughgarden (Evolution and Christian Faith); University of California at Irvine evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala (Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion); Cambridge University paleontologist Robert J. Asher (Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist); Oxford University mathematician John C. Lennox (God s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?); and paleontologist Stephen Godfrey (Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology and Biblical Interpretation). Perhaps the most prominent of all such offerings (or the most infamous if you are of another persuasion) is Francis S. Collins’ book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Francis Collins is one of the most respected biomedical scientists in the world, and the former director of the human genome project. He currently directs the National Institutes of Health, with its annual budget of more than $30 billion. Essentially, Christians are everywhere in academia, but most do not make a lot of noise about it.
How is it that religious faith can persist in the Age of Science? A survey published in Nature in 1997 (“Scientists are still keeping the faith”) suggested that roughly 40% of scientists believe in a personal God, a number that was unchanged throughout the 20th century. In fact, according to Harvard University evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson in On Human Nature (1978), “The predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature.” For most of human history, most human beings have believed in the existence of God (or gods). In fact, one might hazard the possibly unpopular view that there is something wrong with a person who does not hold such a belief. Like color blindness, tone deafness or autism, it is not a fatal defect, but a defect nonetheless that may detract from the fullness of human life.
In an evolutionary sense atheism decreases fitness, by which I mean that atheists on average have fewer children than do religious persons, and thus, their genes contribute less to future generations, a view confirmed by the Pew Research Center. Evolutionists and evolutionary psychologists love to “explain” religion, as if to explain something means to deprive it of its legitimacy. Science can explain the trajectory of a speeding bullet or an onrushing train, but that does not make these lethal hazards go away. Science may explain why my mother loved me, but that does not mean she did not love me. Evolutionary biology may “explain” religion as an adaptation that promotes group cohesiveness, or it may assert that the predisposition to believe in things that aren’t there protected our ancestors from unseen predators. Isn’t it nice to know that true religious belief is not maladaptive? But the religious believer is not so obtuse as to conclude that this is all there is to religious belief. As Polkinghorne put it so elegantly in Faith of a Physicist, “One can accept the insights of natural selection and still feel that one has not heard the whole story.” Since we are speaking of beliefs, scientific naturalism is based on the unprovable belief that all legitimate human knowledge is scientific knowledge. This belief is neither scientific, nor is it falsifiable.
What is it that Religion can provide that Science cannot? Science cannot accommodate human experience. As Polkinghorne put it, “Humanity does not live in the lunar landscape of reductionism described by science.” Science banishes the very experiences that make us what we are. Science treats people as objects rather than as subjects. Meaning and purpose have no place in science. Science can describe how thermally-excited molecules of dihydrogen monoxide undergo a phase transition from liquid to vapor, but science cannot detect that water is boiling because I want a cup of tea. In The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning (2011), Rabbi Jonathan Sacks expressed the view that the purpose of science is to take things apart and figure out how they work, while the purpose of religion is to put things back together and figure out what they mean. Science and Religion are both essential perspectives that keep us both human and humane. Said Sacks: “There is absolutely nothing in science—not in cosmology or evolutionary biology or neuroscience—to suggest that the universe is bereft of meaning, nor could there be, since the search for meaning has nothing to do with science and everything to do with religion.” We humans cannot live without meaning in our lives. As Rev. Kenneth Olson pointed out, all scientists are part-time scientists, but full-time human beings (Lens to the Natural World: Reflections on Dinosaurs, Galaxies and God, 2011).
As a Christian and a scientist, I regard the Bible with the utmost seriousness. I do not look to the Bible as a scientific authority. Who uses the Bible as a basis for meteorology or for tomorrow’s weather report? To do so would be to trivialize Scripture. As a scientific source the Bible is incomplete. As Galileo pointed out to Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, only a single planet is mentioned in the Bible, the Morning Star (that is, Venus, e.g. in Revelation 22: 16). “The Bible contains such things as are necessary for our salvation,” explained Galileo. “The rest God leaves for us to discover.” Augustine of Hippo taught that the purpose of the Bible was to show us how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go. Augustine also taught that we do not praise God with our ignorance. God gave us intelligence and expects us to use it. Two verses strike me as giving a mandate to scientists to pursue our quest for understanding God’s Creation. Psalm 33, verse 4 tells us that “the works of the Lord are trustworthy.” The second is Romans 1: 20, “We shall know the Creator through the works of Creation.” What does a scientist do but study the works of Creation, the natural world? If I pursue my science with reverence and humility, I will not be deceived. As a paleontologist, I take special interest in several other verses such as Psalm 90, verse 4: “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” Its more recent counterpart is 2 Peter 3: 8, “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” This tells me that God, who exists outside of time, is not too concerned with time as measured by humans—a year, a thousand years, a million years, a billion years—these periods are vastly different to us, but are they to God? 1 Corinthians 15: 47 says, “The first man was from the Earth, Earthly.” This speaks to me of the fossil record that has yielded up its treasure of fossils: Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo sapiens. Were these all not part of God’s plan?