Science-based Religion Blog

Science and religion are not intrinsic enemies. Science strives for revelation. It is the revelation of the universe as we find it. The current picture of the universe is in perfect harmony with many religious perspectives and in stark contrast to others. This blog intends to explore these harmonies and conflicts of Science and Religion. Keep an open mind and a gentle heart please.

Location: Richmond, Virginia, United States

My family background is third generation German-American. I was the younger of two sons. My father was an English professor who had also served a Protestant minister and missionary to China. My mother was a nurse and social worker. I went to Purdue University, where I earned a B.S. degree in the Honors Physics program. I got a masters degree in Physics from the University of Southern California and also a masters and Ph.D. in Religion and Social Ethics from the USC school of religion. I have worked as a teacher and as an IT professional. I am married, with no children but two cats.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Soft Tissue, Dinosaur Bones, and Faith

I've been catching up on my reading of Discover magazine, which is an excellent resource for keeping up with what science and scientists are doing. In the April 2006 issue, there is an article called Schweitzer's Dangerous Discovery. This article illustrates the proper separation of science and religion, as well as an example of a scientist who is also religious and how science intersects with religion for her.

The scientist is Mary Higby Schweitzer, a paleontologist, and her discovery is what appears to be soft tissue preserved in dinosaur bones. She announced her discovery in the standard scientific way, by submitting articles for publication in scientific journals. Before a science article can be published, it is reviewed for evidence that the ideas are well thought out, that it is supported with evidence, and that the evidence was collected according to scientific standards. The article was published, because she did her science well, even though the idea of soft tissue surviving more than a few tens of thousands of years, not millions of years is widely assumed to be impossible. Science does not censor people whose ideas run counter to conventional wisdom.

Right away the idea was seized on by creationists and intelligent design proponents, who have jumped to the convenient, but as yet unfounded, conclusion that the dinosaur bones cannot be millions of years old, supporting, so they think, their religiously based ideas that the earth was created some six thousand years ago.

On the other side, there are scientists who refuse to believe she really found soft tissue. Schweitzer is quoted as saying, "I had one reviewer tell me that he didn't care what the data said, he knew that what I was finding wasn't possible. I wrote back and said, 'Well, what data would convince you?' And he said, 'None.'" That kind of close-mindedness is not good science. Many things that are commonplace in science today were thought absolutely impossible a generation or two ago.

Some people take the same attitude toward religious ideas, claiming there is no possible evidence for the existence of God or for the assertion that Jesus was God incarnate. The fundamentalists take the same attitude toward evolution and, implicitly, a host of other sciences whose findings fit in with evolution, such as geology, astronomy, and biochemistry. The mark of a true scientific attitude is to be able to imagine how some supposed truth could be disproved. Toward the beginning of the scientific exploration of evolution, one could imagine all sorts of things that could turn up in the earth or in the living animal and plant species, which would invalidate the hypothesis. Over time, nothing of the sort has been found. If one wants to believe God does not exist, he should be able to imagine what might shake his belief in this idea.

Schweitzer's attitude toward these things is admirable. As an evangelical Christian, she has felt pressure from creationists to promote their cause. She rejects this. Barry Yeoman, the article's author, describes it this way. "In her religious life, Schweitzer is no more of an ideologue than she is in her scientific career. In both realms, she operates with a simple but powerful consistency: The best way to understand the glory of the world is to open your eyes and take an honest look at what is out there."

When she talks about her faith, she says, "God is so multidimensional. I see a sense of humor. I see His compassion in the world around me. It makes me curious, because the creator is revealed in the creation." Regarding the idea that the world has evolved over billions of years, she finds this theologically exhilarating: "That makes God a lot bigger than thinking of Him as a magician that pulled everything out in one fell swoop."

Later in the article, Yeoman writes, "To Schweitzer, trying to prove your religious beliefs through empirical evidence is absurd, if not sacrilegious. 'If God is who He says He is, He doesn't need us to twist and contort scientific data,' she says. 'The thing that's most important to God is our faith. Therefore, he's not going to allow Himself to be proven by scientific methodologies.'"

Her discovery has only deepened her faith. She says, "My God has gotten so much bigger since I've been a scientist. He doesn't stay in my boxes."

This is someone who, in her scientific ideas and her religious faith, is willing to adjust her ideas as she learns more. Many scientists and religious leaders would do better to follow her example.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Science and Story-telling

The following quote is from the May 2006 issue of Discover Magazine. It is from an interview with John McCarter, the chief executive officer and president of the Field Museum in Chicago. The questions focus on issues surrounding an exhibit now on display, "called the Evolving Planet, which takes visitors on a 4-billion-year journey that shows life on Earth developing from single-celled organisms to dinosaurs and finally to humans." Asked about the controversy introduced by intelligent design advocates, McCarter points out that the museum has an obligation to educate the public on what science has to say, using the technique of story-telling and placing their popular dinosaur displays in the context of this larger story.

Significant to me is the use of stories as the medium for education about science. Certainly, when trying to teach children, it is more effective to tell an interesting story than to present dry facts and figures. But this is a story not invented purely in human imagination. It is limited by the findings of science. But traditionally, going back into prehistory, stories have also been employed by religions, sometimes called myths. The reason for telling mythical stories by religions is the same as for the museum, people respond better to a good story than to dry metaphysical and theological exposition. (If you don't believe this, just try to read a little Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth.) It is not clear that all listeners of early mythical story-telling believed that the events of the stories actually happened. It is more likely that literal readings of myths came generations later by people who no longer had the intimate connections with the originator of the story.

This is not to say that the Chicago museum exhibit is trying to promote a religious response in the people who attend it. The story is an attempt to accurately interpret the evidence scientists have uncovered, as a way to understand the facts of our world's history and provide a basis for our place in the universe. If religion has a place, it is to take that story and place it into a broader story, one which moves closer to traditional religious myth-making, story-telling that reaches our emotions and motivates us to cooperate with our fellows. Science cannot do that, but it can provide a starting point for religion that is based in the objective rigors of science.

Fundamentalists have difficulty doing this because they are working from stories that were written thousands of years ago, meant to reach people with a very different view of the world. They do not feel free to alter these stories, to update them for our time. They are stuck with the same story, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Science does not tell us about God and the creation of the universe, but it can give a description of the creation of heaven and earth, in the form of the Big Bang, the evolution of stars and planets.

If this were the end of science's story, that might not be a problem for the fundamentalists, but the story goes on to the evolution of life over billions of years, with humans showing up in the latest sliver of geological time. The Genesis myth doesn't describe details, but it does make it clear that only man (sic) is made in the image of God. But biology tells us that the human is a near reflection of apes such as the chimpanzee. If we are the image of God, what does that make chimps? If we include other apes, do we also include monkeys? Where does it stop?

Science is not at heart creative. A good scientist lets the universe speak for itself. Darwin did not know about DNA (the atomic theory was not yet completely free of controversy in his day). He did not need to, however. Once we knew there were atoms, we understood chemistry, not by inventing it, but by looking at chemical reactions and inferring the structure. Once chemistry began to be understood, scientists asked, "What are the chemicals of living organisms?" In the first two decades of the 20th century, there was a strong debate in science about whether or not chemistry could be used to understand life. One group, called the mechanists, insisted that all matter was made of chemicals and that there was no reason to believe that the chemicals in a living organism operated under different laws from non-living matter. The other group, called the vitalists, claimed that something as complex as a living organism could never be explained by the laws of chemistry.

Sound familiar? It is just another version of the intelligent design crowd. Ironically, the current doubter's of sciences ability to explain species diversity, is drawing on the detailed biochemistry of current science. Intelligent design advocates are in effect saying the same thing as the vitalists. They are trying to draw a line in the sand and saying to science, "You can't cross this line." If you look behind the scientists, however, you see a great many lines drawn by previous generations telling scientists they could not cross those lines either. Galileo was told he could not cross the line and use science to understand the movements of the heavens. Others warned that the medicine could not treat illness using scientific method. Diseases were caused by evil spirits and sometimes by God as punishment for sins. Past the line that the vitalists drew, is the line that said human behavior could not be understood by biology, even if we find we can explain animal behavior. The mind cannot be studied by science to reveal anything about creativity, conscience, or the ability to speak. These are all, according to some religious line drawers, gifts from God, part of our nature that is in the image of God and hence fundamentally different from the brains and behaviors of animals.

Then scientists taught chimps how to talk using sign language.

I would like to give McCarter the last word, quoting his response to the following question: "What's the danger in meshing science and religion?"

Where we get in trouble as a society is when people of one persuasion or one capability jump into another field--when theologians come into science and attempt to reinterpret scientific records through supernatural intervention, and alternatively, when scientists go into theology and say "There is not God." It is really not the business of either. There should be a common dialogue, a middle ground where people can discuss issues like this as matters of philosophy as well as matters of theology and matters of science. We've lost a lot of that public discourse as we've moved to the frenetic, fast-paced life, with no time for reflection and discussion and debate.