Science and faith discussion evolving to a place of harmony
Can faith, scientific progress coexist? They can
PROVO — As a young boy, Dixon Woodbury remembers catching giant bugs in the Seattle woods with his friends, eagerly bringing them home so his mother could tell him what they were, what they ate and what ate them. Growing up with an entomologist mother and a physiologist father, Woodbury peppered them with questions at the dinner table, always curious about the world around him.
When the topic of evolution came up, Woodbury remembers his father scratching his head then saying, "I believe that is how God did it."
"It made a lot of sense to me and I never really needed to ask again," said Woodbury who now teaches physiology and developmental biology at Brigham Young University. "I didn't understand the details of it, but that idea fit right into other things I was learning at church and school."
Over the years, Woodbury's beliefs in religion and science have remained harmonious, helping to break the stereotype that scientists are hardened atheists or anti-religion advocates.
In fact, researchers at Rice University and Baylor recently released a study that showed 85 percent of the 275 scientists they interviewed believe that science and religion never or only occasionally conflict, and that spirituality is personally important to them.
"They cover different things," Woodbury said of faith and science. "I have no trouble believing in a God, a benevolent being who takes care of us ... and expects us to learn what in the world he's doing here and how the Earth works. He's given us senses to do that."
The warfare mentality
Centuries ago, men sucha as Johannes Kepler, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton studied the movement of the planets, geometry and laws of motion as natural philosophers — what we would now call scientists, said Charles Carrigan, a geology professor at Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois.
"Science was, and still is, a branch of philosophy that focuses on what can be learned from the study of the natural world," said Carrigan, who is also the president of the Affiliation of Christian Geologists.
For these natural philosophers, studying nature was one way to understand God, and studying scripture was the other way. Both were important for different reasons, and the two were compatible because they were both created by God.
Yet, two books published in the late 1800s — the "History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science," and "History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom" — were instrumental in pushing the idea that the Bible and biology could never be compatible.
People began to take sides, and today, far too many scientists, politicians and average Americans wield their position like a battle ax.
"If there is a war between science and religion, it's gone on long enough and for what purpose?" asked religious scholar and BYU law professor John Welch during a recent lecture discussing faith and science.
"The purpose of this certainly cannot be to annihilate the opponent. They both have need of the other," Welch said.
Yet for some, that symbiosis is unsettling, even threatening to their way of thinking.
During a recent Republican primary debate, presidential hopeful Texas Gov. Rick Perry expressed skepticism for manmade climate change — "the science is not settled on this" — and for evolution, calling it a "theory out there."
Anti-science comments from conservative, religious individuals such as Perry do little to help heal the perceived rift or win support, pointed out Jon M. Huntsman Jr., who is also running for president.
"In order for the Republican Party to win," he told his fellow candidates, "we can't run from science."
Ideas about evolution
For some, faith and science don't conflict until it comes to evolution, which may explain the large number of theories that range from complete rejection to absolute acceptance.
One theory among Christians and Jews is that Genesis should be read literally, meaning the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, and man was created by God, not evolved from a common ancestor.
This position is usually referred to as young-earth creationism and often represents a misunderstanding of scripture, says the Rev. Dr. Rodney Holder, course director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund's College, Cambridge, U.K.
"The early chapters of Genesis are telling us theological truths about the relationship of God to the world, not giving us a scientific account rivaling the Big Bang theory and the theory of evolution," he told the Deseret News.
"This was realized by the theologians of the early church ... who knew that you couldn't literally have three 24-hour days before there was a sun."
Holder added that if the creation account was taken literally, young-earth creationists — about 40 percent of Americans, according to a Gallup poll from December — would believe there was a metal dome over the Earth, because of how the word "firmament" is translated in Hebrew.
Instead, the account conveys that there is one God, God's creations are good and the sun and moon are intended to give light, not to be worshipped as pagan deities.
"Once one realizes all this," Holder says, "then it seems to me that it ceases to be a problem to recognize evolution as God's means of creating the living creatures and ultimately ourselves who are uniquely 'made in God's image.' "
Others agree with an allegorical creation story and accept geological and astronomical conclusions that the Earth is more than 4.5 billion years old; however, they discard evolutionary theory and common descent and assert that God created life progressively, a position called old-earth or progressive creationism, explained Jonathan Baker, a graduate of Weber State University who is working on a Ph.D. in Geology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
A lesser-known but heavily supported position among scientists is one of theistic evolution — that God exists and he created the universe and all life in that universe using evolution as a tool.
Christian scientists can take theistic evolution one step further to evolutionary creationism, which holds that God is a personal god with a grand purpose to his work, not just an uninterested observer in the evolutionary process, said Baker, a Presbyterian who writes a blog on the science/faith dialogue.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are atheists such as theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who assert that science has proved God is not necessary and that those who believe in God are delusional, respectively.
Rejecting ideas like Dawkins', proponents of Intelligent Design believe that some things in nature, those that are "irreducibly complex," cannot be explained by natural evolution processes and thus require an intelligent designer (God) to fill in the gaps.
Theistic evolutionists differ from Intelligent Design supporters in that they believe God used evolution and natural selection to create things, and that God continues to work among his creations by the laws of science which he put in place, Holder said.
Intelligent Design has its own movement, fueled by individuals who want it taught in classrooms instead of evolution, even promoting a "Teach the Controversy" campaign, to point out perceived flaws in evolutionary theory.
However, a majority of scientists reject Intelligent Design as a non-scientific theory.
"ID doesn't make predictions nor does it publish its 'results' in scientific journals, so if it is science then it is bad science," Holder said in an interview with the BBC in June. "If it is theology then it's bad theology because orthodox theology sees God involved in the whole process of the world, upholding and sustaining the laws he has ordained and bringing about his purposes through those laws. God is not to be confined to ever narrower gaps in scientific knowledge. Quite the opposite: God is to be found in what we know from science, not from what we don't know."
There's a profound message in the title of Francis Collins' foundation: "BioLogos."
The combination of the Greek words, "Bios" for life, and "Logos" for the Word, reflects a conviction that "the universe, and the life within it, can be understood as a manifestation of God's creative purpose," wrote Collins, a physician, geneticist, Christian, and former director of the Human Genome Project, a 13-year project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health to identify the nearly 25,000 genes in human DNA and make them accessible for further study.
"We're heavily invested in seeing that public understanding of science improves," said Kathryn Applegate, program director for BioLogos. "And certainly to show that there's no reason to think you can't have a vibrant Christian faith and at the same time, accept conclusions of mainstream science like evolution. It's less about telling people what to believe than it is about really helping people to see that we need to have this conversation."
And the conversation only progresses when individuals are well-versed about the current scientific research, plus understand what their scriptures really do and do not say.
"Like a good scientist, all readers, all people must take stock of what we really know, assess how well we know what we know, why we know what we know, quantify our margin of error and formulate tactics to move our knowledge ahead," Welch said. "This is good scientific procedure and it applies just as well in the area of religion."
For those who are afraid to dive into the science, for fear it will shake their faith, Holder assures them they'll be fine.
"If God is the Creator of the Universe, then learning more about science is learning more about God," says Holder. "How can anything we discover threaten our faith?"
It's that promise of new discoveries that keeps Woodbury excitedly glued to his job.
"As a scientist, I have the enviable job of working every day trying to figure out how God did cool things," he said. "I consider myself a lucky person. I don't suspend my faith, I'm in awe as it unfolds before me."
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