Can we reconcile science and religion?
The host of American Public Media’s Speaking of Faith, Krista Tippett, believes we can. She calls them both “pursuits of cohesive knowledge and underlying truths” and does not believe they are necessarily in opposition.
(Clearly, a view everyone reading this shares…)
In her new book, Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit, Tippett speaks to a number of scientists, theologians, Templeton prize winners (what category are they in?), and artists about these issues and shows how (as one blogger put it) “scientists and theologians are asking the same questions of and feeling the same wonder at the world they inhabit, without conflict, and with great humility and respect for the truth.”
I’m sure some of you are offended by that very notion — that science is placed on the same mantle as religion. Hell, I’m sure some religious people are offended by that idea, too. Massimo Pigliucci doesn’t hide his distaste for the book.
Before discussing whether this is intellectually honest or not — is it just a big fluff piece? — below is an extended excerpt from Tippett’s book in which she speaks with Charles Darwin‘s biographer James Moore.
Judge for yourself.
Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859. We’ve come to imagine him as a godless naturalist and to see the publication of his book as a dramatic moment in history, one that has created an instantaneous rift between science and religion. These assumptions fuel some of our most intractable cultural debates.
In my conversation with the biographer James Moore, we reject those debates. We explore the world in which Darwin formulated his ideas. We read from his varied writings. We ask what Darwin himself believed. Did he find his observations of the natural world a rejection of God and of creation? How might he speak to our present struggles over his legacy?
As it turns out, Darwin was grounded in the distinctly reverent Judeo-Christian philosophy of Western science up to that point in history, a view of the world encapsulated in a quote of Francis Bacon that he put opposite the title page of The Origin of Species:
Let no man… think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works… but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both.
Darwin, as we learn from James Moore, was agonizingly aware of the fixed worldview that his theory of transmutation — the original term for evolution — would unsettle. The people of Darwin’s time believed that every condition of plant, animal, and man was static and eternal, brought into being all at once at the beginning of time.
They estimated that to have been six thousand years earlier. But The Origin of Species was not the first classic scientific text to break from such beliefs. It was, rather, the last to fully engage them. Darwin waited two decades before he published. His observations and conclusions were painstakingly belabored. He anticipated religious questions and objections at every turn and responded carefully to them. Darwin’s theory of natural selection was born, James Moore asserts, of “theological humility.” This insight alone would place our culture’s contentious battles over Darwin on a different footing.
My own suppositions have been radically changed by this discussion. I’m reminded of the conversations I had on Albert Einstein. Einstein did not reject the idea of a force or “mind” behind the universe. But he saw that expressed in natural laws that could be discerned and described.
In a similar way, Darwin saw creation as an unfolding reality. Once set in motion, as he saw it, the laws of nature sustained a self-organizing progression driven by the needs and struggles of every aspect of creation itself. The word “reverence” would not be too strong to describe the attitude with which Darwin approached all he saw in the natural world. There is a great intellectual and spiritual passion and a touching sense of wonder evident in his writings, from his private notebooks and correspondence to the Beagle diary and The Origin of Species. For me, this view from within Darwin’s life and times opens up fascinating new ways to ponder not the rift but the possibilities for exchange between science and theology. He used the biblically evocative analogy of a “tree of life” to illustrate his theory of species sprouting as branches from the same trunk, some flourishing and others withering and falling to nourish the ground in which the whole is sustained. His vision of all of life netted together is profoundly consonant with what we are learning now in environmental sciences as well as in genetics.
In describing a creation that organized itself, incorporating chaos and change into survival and progress, Darwin did not challenge the idea of God as the source of all being. But he did reject the idea of a God minutely implicated in every flaw and injustice and catastrophe.
As James Moore puts it, Darwin forced human beings to look at the inherent struggle of natural life head-on, not as we wish it to be, but as it is in all its complexity and brutality and mystery. This is the most difficult for human beings, perhaps, in times of great change and turmoil such as ours. Indeed Moore and I trace the fact that the greatest resistance to Darwin’s ideas has appeared in other cultural moments of flux and global danger. But Moore tells his students who believe they must choose between belief in a creator and the science of Darwin simply to read The Origin of Species. There is much in Darwin’s thought that would ennoble as well as ground a religious view of life and of God. I’ll end with that book’s final lines, which are rich with wonder:
[F]rom the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals directly follows. There is grandeur in the view of life with it several powers, having been originally breathed by the creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit
Copyright © Krista Tippett, 2010