Breaking the Cease-Fire Between Science and Religion

David Klinghoffer
The Forward
July 8, 2009
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What is portrayed as the debate between religion and science feels increasingly like watching the very bitter dissolution of a doomed marriage. The relationship started out all roses and kisses, proceeded to doubts and regrets, then fights and silences, a mutually agreed separation, and finally to curses and maledictions: “I wish you were dead!”

In a recent Wall Street Journal opinion article, cosmologist Lawrence Krauss declared “the inconsistency of belief in an activist god with modern science.” Krauss’s essay was the latest eruption of a vituperative argument going on in the scientific community over “accommodationism.”

Accommodationists hold that even atheists should present science to the public as an intellectual activity compatible with religion. Critics of this position include those like University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne, who lashes out at the accommodationists because, as he wrote in an essay in The New Republic, “a true harmony between science and religion requires either doing away with most people’s religion and replacing it with a watered-down deism, or polluting science with unnecessary, untestable, and unreasonable spiritual claims.”

On the accommodationist side, there are forlorn figures like science journalist Chris Mooney. In a new book, “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future” (Basic Books), Mooney chides popular blogger and University of Minnesota biologist P.Z. Myers, an ebullient atheist, for publicly desecrating a Catholic communion wafer — an “incredibly destructive and unnecessary” act, Mooney complains, “exacerbating tension between the scientific community and many American Christians.”

Anti-accommodationists like bestselling atheist biologist Richard Dawkins, meanwhile, charge the accommodationists with hypocrisy. Says Dawkins in a recent documentary, “They are mostly atheists, but they are wanting to — desperately wanting to — be friendly to mainstream, sensible religious people. And the way you do that is to tell them that there’s no incompatibility between science and religion.” The debate seems to come down to whether religious people are potentially useful idiots, or simply idiots.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this. The origins of modern science, from about 1300 onward, were overwhelmingly religious. Isaac Newton regarded the universe “as a cryptogram set by the Almighty,” in John Maynard Keynes’s phrase. Scientists from Copernicus to Kepler, Boyle, Linnaeus, Faraday, Kelvin and Rutherford all sought to understand God through His creation. Because nature was the product of a mind acting freely, it made sense to them to try to understand that mind through its actions.

In his new book “Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design” (HarperOne), my Discovery Institute colleague Stephen Meyer writes about his days as a Ph.D student at Cambridge University, contemplating the entrance to the great Cavendish Laboratory where Watson and Crick elucidated the structure of DNA’s double helix. In 1871, Christian physicist James Clark Maxwell had instructed that the great door be ennobled by an inscription in Latin from the book of Psalms: “Great are the works of the Lord, sought out by all who take pleasure therein.”

On a crash course with this tradition, however, was the Enlightenment narrative, with its insistence that science is destined to push religion to the margins of intellectual life. A turning point came with the triumph of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, purposefully excluding God, over the evolutionary thinking of Darwin’s contemporaries, including such scientific allies as Charles Lyell, Asa Gray and Alfred Russel Wallace, who saw a role for divine creativity in life’s history. In another new book, “The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin” (Regnery), Benjamin Wiker tells this story well. With Darwin’s victory, envisioning a universe without design or purpose, God seemed on the way to being banished from scientific thought.

Over the ensuing century and a half, tension built as the logical consequences for religion became harder to deny. Yet a détente was generally upheld. In 1999, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould summed up its terms as a kind of truce under the acronym NOMA, or “Non-overlapping magisteria.”

In this view, science and religion occupy totally separate realms of inquiry. Science is about facts, about reality, while religion is about values. Religion should be respected if it makes no claim to describe anything real and agrees not to challenge any idea accepted by most scientists.

Yet even the terms of NOMA are now being withdrawn. Today in academia, a believer like Evangelical Christian genome scientist Francis Collins, or like Catholic biologist Kenneth Miller at Brown University, can count on being ridiculed by the anti-accommodationists. In academia, where reputation is everything, you would not want to be an ambitious young scientist in their mold.

This is despite the fact that both men strenuously deny that there can be any empirical evidence of God’s creativity in nature. Still faithful to NOMA, they affirm that the history of life could have produced intelligent creatures very different from human beings for God to enter into a relationship with. Perhaps “a big-brained dinosaur, or… a mollusk with exceptional mental capabilities,” as Miller has speculated, surrendering the basic Judeo-Christian belief that the human face and body mysteriously reflect the image of a non-corporeal God.

That may sound as if we’ve come to a final parting of the ways between science and religion. However, it all depends on what you have in mind when you speak of “science.”

Must religion indeed accommodate any scientific idea — even if the idea is wrong, even if it’s bad science, ideologically motivated in its origins, intended to explain nature specifically with the view of keeping God out? If that’s what science requires, then of course there can be no reconciliation.

But remember — alongside the secular Enlightenment view of science, there runs a parallel tradition, seeking to explain nature without preconceptions, secular or otherwise. That way of thinking still exists among individual scientists, though it is in need of a good revival. With that tradition — older, grander, more open-minded, even more enlightened, you could say — there is no need for a truce with faith, no need for a separation, no need for a divorce.

David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, writes the Kingdom of Priests blog at Beliefnet.