Breaking the Cease-Fire Between Science and Religion

Opinion

By David Klinghoffer

Published July 08, 2009, issue of July 17, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.