The Common Good
March-April 2001

Dear Darwin…Love, God

by Joseph Wakelee-Lynch | March-April 2001

When science meets religion, who wins?

The subject of science and religion is its own rapidly expanding universe, with innumerable academic conferences, centers, and books. This intellectual eruption is fueled, aver some skeptical scientists, partly by the bang of big bucks being emitted from the John Templeton Foundation in the form of awards, grants, and prizes. But the field also is spurred by the hope of reclaiming for religion the intellectual position it lost as the Scientific Revolution dispersed like clouds many religious explanations of the world and its ways.

Today, the intellectual compatibility between science and religion, not to mention the eternal question of the nature of God, is being explored so broadly-in cosmology, genetics, and the nature of atomic forces, to name a few areas-that an annotated roster is essential. Ian G. Barbour, professor emeritus of physics and religion at Carleton College, provides just that in When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? (In 1999, Barbour himself won $1.24 million when he was granted the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.)

Barbour's typology is not the first, but its brevity and thoroughness should be commended. Barbour reviews just about all the players, both religious and not, and he positions them in a framework that delineates four primary streams of thought. First, conflict: Science and religion inevitably conflict. This stream encompasses both creationists and atheistic scientists ("true believers" of either stripe, in the view of Chet Raymo, author of Skeptics and True Believers). Second, independence: Science and religion offer answers to different, non-overlapping questions, provided they remain in their areas of expertise (paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, author of Rocks of Ages, holds this view).

Third, dialogue: The fields compare notions on questions or phenomena that can shed light, or at least useful metaphors, in the realm of each (Barbour places John Polkinghorne in this category). Fourth, integration: Concepts of one discipline are woven into the fabric of belief or perception of the other (Arthur Peacocke's work is one example; process philosophy, another).

A GREAT DEAL of this conversation takes place at lofty intellectual levels, and it pays for a layperson to have at least a passing interest in astrophysics or molecular biology. But even if one grasps many of the atom's intricacies (or, perhaps, especially so), the science-religion dialogue-confrontation can leave one with tremendous ambivalence.

On one hand, these musings can veer far from a practical theology or ethics. It's not hard to lose sight of a theology of the cross. On the other hand, anyone who has mulled the infinite, and infinitely mysterious, nature of God must find at least some of it fascinating because, at least to some Christians, science continually gives us better tools for understanding who God is, or who God might be. John Haught's God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution is one example of how theological thought about God and how God acts in the world may benefit from the challenge of Darwin.

This celebrated growth of knowledge has been truly astounding. Postmodern science has taken the place of religion: It explains, and most of us expect it to, how the world works, and scientists resemble a postmodern priesthood. This introduces the moral problem of hubris, the sin of pride or arrogance, the subject of two correctives by David F. Noble, historian and activist, and Wendell Berry, writer and farmer.

In The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention, Noble points out that a persistent stream in Christian thought has championed the notion that humanity's ability to exercise power over the natural world is the golden path to a pre-Fall state of equality with God. This Christian technological triumphalism, says Noble, has been a justification for grand promises among scientists from Newton to Francis Crick. Today, we are promised perfection, indeed salvation, through artificial intelligence, genetic research, and bioengineering.

In Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, Wendell Berry unites a theological concept of hubris to the contemporary practice of science, and he offers the outline of a practical ethic. Berry attacks E.O.Wilson's belief, expressed in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, in the ultimate power of the empirical sciences to explain everything through identifiable laws of physics. Wilson suggests that religion is no more than an adaptive behavior, a useful illusion that improved humanity's chances of survival in its early history. Like a superstition, its power over people will fade. Berry, with Barbour and others, points out Wilson's limited knowledge of religion. Even more alarming, says Berry, is that Wilson's empirical faith, so to speak, blinds him to the incomplete nature of science.

"The only science we have, or can have," writes Berry, "is human science; it has human limits and it is involved always with human ignorance and human error." The record of humanity's scientific endeavors, Berry suggests, is decidedly mixed, and often harmful (i.e. nuclear waste, pollution). It is the ultimate in hubris, given the historical record, to believe that humanity is on the brink of knowing all there is to know about our universe.

But perhaps equally important is Berry's criticism of the practice of science today. Science, he argues, is an adjunct to the technology marketplace. Scientific process is financed by corporations, organized for the development of products, and divorced from the needs of local communities. Complicit in the venture are universities desperate for corporate funds that openly hire out both professors and students for corporate research programs and merge their scientific research skills to corporate needs of product development.

Both Berry and Noble identify transcendentalist streams of scientific thought, and not all scientists share them. But it seems ironic that such a strong ideology of species self-improvement undergirds our most hard-headed of intellectual disciplines. We humans play God not simply because we can manipulate a cell to clone a sheep, but because we believe that with the tools of technology, the graces of science, we can transcend ourselves. n

Joseph Wakelee-Lynch, a former Sojourners assistant editor, is a free-lance writer and editor living in Berkeley, California.

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