Religion vs. Science: America’s Perilous Fight

The phrase “In God we trust” on US money expresses a near truism. Public opinion polls suggest that over nine out of ten Americans believe in God and, although responses differ widely depending how the question is asked, research also shows that about half believe in evolution. Most of these see God involved in the evolutionary process, at least to the extent of designing the initial laws of nature that make the evolution of life on Earth either possible or inevitable. Many might concede that this is not a scientific proposition, but still maintain that science does not (and perhaps can not) preclude it. Conflict is the inevitable result when proponents of either belief assert that one contradicts or disproves the other.

The danger for science is that, if forced to choose between God or evolution, most Americans will choose God. The reasons are so obvious that they can be stated through rhetorical questions. For most people, which belief is more rooted in their culture and traditions: religion or science? Which do they celebrate: Darwin’s birthday or Christmas? Which are they more likely to think they’ve seen: some sort of miracle or the evolution of a new species? Which offers them greater hope for their future: a spiritual heaven or the material cosmos? And which do they actually accept more on blind faith than on personal experience: the existence of atoms or Adam? That last one may be a close call, but countless Americans do claim to feel a personal relationship with Jesus. How many claim to feel a personal relationship with evolution? For most Americans, God is more real and more important than evolution. Scientists fight religion at their peril.

Religion addresses the great questions. Why are we here? Where did we come from? Why do we love, hate, or believe? To the extent that science addresses these questions, it is treading on what many see as holy ground. More than any other concept in science, the theory of organic evolution (particularly as applied to human origins and behavior) addresses these questions. Yet many others despair over the failure of religion to mitigate suffering and view science, especially evolution, as offering greater hope for progress. Indeed, some see religion itself as both a cause of suffering and an impediment to its relief.

Tension has long existed between religious and scientific ways of understanding the origins of life, individual species, and humanity. From the time of the ancient Greeks, philosophers and scientists asking about origins have recognized two alternatives. Either the various species were specially created in some way or they evolved from preexisting species. The former view tends to stress the importance of a divine creator while the latter deemphasizes or eliminates a creator altogether. Both have religious implications.

With the rise of Christianity, special creation dominated Western thought. For centuries, mainstream science (or “natural history,” as it was called) supported this view of origins. Species appear fixed, early natural historians observed, and breed true to form. They do not evolve. As natural historians came to appreciate the delicate balance in nature and within each living thing, they typically saw it as evidence of divine design.

Beginning in the 1700s, Enlightenment skeptics revived evolutionary thinking. Some deists and atheists argued that species must have evolved from preexisting species, but they failed to propose a plausible means of evolutionary development. Due in part to the tenets of natural history, creationism retained the upper hand in Western thought until the mid-1800s. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection transformed the terms of this debate by supplying a materialistic account of how species evolve. Every offspring differs from its parents and siblings, Darwin argued. With limited resources, only the fittest of these offspring survive to propagate their variations. In this manner, new species gradually evolved from preexisting ones, each delicately fitted for their environment without the intervening hand of God. In the face of Darwin’s work, by 1870, the legendary English theologian John Henry Newman acknowledged, “I believe in design because I believe in God; not in a God because I see design.” Scientists, in contrast, had come to define their discipline as the study of naturalistic explanations for physical phenomena. They rushed to embrace Darwinism. Many Christians, however, clung to some form of creationism.

By 1900, answers on matters of origins turned largely on how the questions were framed. Religion looks for supernatural answers; science looks for natural ones. Virtually all biologists accept the view that current species evolved over time from preexisting species because it is the best naturalistic explanation for the origins of species. In contrast, most religious Americans accept some form of creationism, with many of them opting for special creation over theistic evolution. In a democracy with compulsory education and public schools, this division plays out in biology classes around the country. Parents, students, teachers, and taxpayers informed by the dominant scientific view of origins expect that biology courses stress evolution. Many of those committed to a biblical view want some place for creation in the science classroom.

In the United States, three basic concerns underlie most religious objections to Darwinism. In a narrow sense, any theory of evolution challenges a literal reading of the Bible, which declares that God specially created each kind of living thing. Further, on its face, the Genesis timeline (again, read literally) seemingly conflicts with the findings of physics and geology regarding the origin and age of the earth and universe. In a broader sense, Darwin’s particular theory of evolution by natural selection troubles a wider array of theists. What sort of God would create living things through random change mutations and a fierce struggle for existence? God could use evolutionary processes operating over eons of time to develop the current diversity of life, some of these critics add, but not purely material ones. In the broadest sense, excluding God from any role in the origin of life strikes many religious believers as presumptuous, if not preposterous.

Different concerns lead to differing responses. For example, under the banner of “young-earth creationism,” some biblical literalists look to nature for evidence of a recent creation and worldwide flood as depicted in Genesis. If those biblical events actually took place, they believe, then traces of them should be detectable by scientific tools. Finding those traces could prove the Bible and thus reinforce faith. Religious conversion, not scientific discovery, is their stated goal. Taking the lead on this front, both Henry Morris’ Institute for Creation Research and Ken Ham’s Answer in Genesis supply believers with scientific-sounding arguments supporting the biblical account of a six-day creation within the past 10,000 years followed by a catastrophic flood.

Addressing somewhat different concerns, “Intelligent Design” (or ID) is both less biblical and less scientific than young-earth creationism. This is apparent in the writings of ID guru Phillip Johnson, a retired Berkeley law professor. His target is the working assumption of science that material entities subject to physical laws account for everything in nature. Whether called “naturalism” or “materialism,” such an approach excludes God from science laboratories and classrooms. “The important thing is not whether God created all at once [as young-earth creationism holds] or in stages [as theistic evolution maintains],” Johnson asserts. “Anyone who thinks that the biological world is a product of a pre-existing intelligence…is a creationist in the most important sense of the word. By this broad definition, at least eighty percent of Americans, including me, are creationists.”

Harkening back to a pre-Darwinian era in natural history, Lehigh University biochemistry professor Michael Behe, another popular authority on ID, challenges Darwinist explanations for complex organic processes by reviving arguments for design based on evidence of nature’s irreducible complexity. Like Johnson, Behe does not argue for young-earth creationism, but he does assert that intelligent design is apparent in nature.

Yet the bedrock for anti-evolutionism in the United States remains the biblical literalism of the Protestant fundamentalist church, where there is typically greater concern about the earth’s age (to which the Bible, read literally, speaks) than about such intellectual abstractions as scientific naturalism. In their books and broadcasts, for example, Morris and Ham stress the theological significance of utter fidelity to the entire biblical narrative. Thus, when Genesis says that God created the universe in six days, they maintain, it must mean six twenty-four-hour days; when it says that God created human and all animals on the sixth day, then dinosaurs must have lived alongside early man; and when it gives a genealogy of Noah’s descendants, believers can use it to date the flood to between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago.

Despite judicial rulings against teaching it in the public school biology classes, millions of Americans accept young-earth creationism. Books written by Morris, Ham, and their ilk fill shelves at Christian book stores and are widely used in churches and parochial school. Christian radio and television stations reach the uttermost ends of the earth with creationist programming, such as Ken Ham’s popular “Answers in Genesis,” which is heard on over 500 radio stations in all 50 U.S. states and over 20 different counties. Ham’s ministry also boasts a $30-million museum near Cincinnati featuring life-size exhibits of primitive humans playing amidst dinosaurs. Bible institutes and Christian colleges continue to grow in number and size, with at least some of them offering degrees in biology and science education in creation-friendly environments. Most of this activity occurs within the nation’s conservative Christian subculture largely invisible to those outside it.

When creationists reach beyond the church to challenge the teaching of evolution in public schools—as they have in Kansas, Pennsylvania, and a number of other sites—or when the government imposes religiously inspired limits on stem-cell research or other scientific activities, conflict can ensue. To be sure, most evolutionary biologists either ignore religion or find it compatible with their science, but a few of them—ardent in their scientism and evangelical regarding its social implications—turn their fire on Christians. British science writer Richard Dawkins leads this pack.

In The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins takes aim at what he calls “redneck” creationists and “their disturbingly successful fight to subvert American education and textbook publishing.” Focusing on the philosophical heart of creationism rather than simple biblical literalism, Dawkins challenges the very notion of purposeful design in nature, which he calls “the most influential of the arguments for the existence of God.”

“Thanks to Darwin, it is no longer true to say that nothing that we know looks designed unless it is designed,” Dawkins notes in his recent bestseller, The God Delusion. “Evolution by natural selection produces an excellent simulation of design.” By banishing the argument for design, Dawkins claims: “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Renowned Harvard naturalist E.O. Wilson makes similar assertions. “The inexorable growth of [biology] continues to widen, not to close the tectonic gap between science and faith-based religion,” Wilson wrote in 2005. “The toxic mix of religion and tribalism has become so dangerous as to justify taking seriously the alternative view, that humanism based on science is the effective antidote, the light and the way at last placed before us.”

Taking a more conciliatory approach than these individuals, organized science has sought to defuse the controversy by affirming the compatibility of modern evolutionary naturalism and a personal belief in God. The National Academy of Sciences asserted as much in a glossy brochure sent to schoolteachers during the 1980s in reaction to the rise of young-earth creationism. A decade later, in response to ID, the Academy distributed a new booklet reasserting that while science is committed to methodological naturalism, it does not conflict with religion. “Science,” the booklet states, “is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.”

The 8,000-member National Association of Biology Teachers takes a similar tack. In a formal statement initially adopted during the 1980s in opposition to young-earth creationism and always controversial among theists, the group defined evolution as “an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process of temporal descent with gradual modification.” In 1997, responding to ID challenges, the association deleted the words “unsupervised” and “impersonal” from the statement. Its executive director explained, “To say that evolution is unsupervised is to make a theological statement,” and that exceeds the bounds of science. The New York Times called it, “A startling about face.” To Dawkins, it represented “a cowardly flabbiness of the intellect,” while Johnson dismissed it as rank hypocrisy. If they agree on nothing else, Dawkins and Johnson the ID guru both assert that Darwinism and Christianity are at war and urge Americans to choose sides.

Responding to the rise of young-earth creationism and ID, some prominent evolutionist biologists who believe in God have stepped forward to defend their science. There have always been Christians at the cutting edge of evolutionary biology. Darwin collaborator Asa Gray was an evangelical Christian, for example, and Alfred Russel Wallace, who co-discovered the theory of natural selection, was a spiritualist. R.A. Fisher and Theodosius Dobzhansky, two founders of the modern neo-Darwinian synthesis, were active churchmen and Oxford ornithologist David Lack published his groundbreaking explanation for the evolution of Galapagos finches at the same time as he penned evangelical tracts for a British bible society. Since 2000, both U.S. Human Genome Project chief Francis Collins and Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller have written popular autobiographical accounts explaining how they, as believing Christians, came to terms with Darwinism. In the course of doing so, both of these eminent biologists denounce young-earth creationism and ID as bad science and worse religion.

Miller also volunteered his services as an expert witness in the 2005 case against teaching ID concepts in a Pennsylvania public school. During that trial, the court heard extensive testimony to determine if, without violating the separation of church and state, the school could present ID as an alternative scientific explanation for origins. “After a searching review of the record and applicable case law,” the judge ruled, “we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science.” He gave three reasons. First, unlike science, ID invokes supernatural explanations. Second, it rests on the flawed argument that evidence against the current theory of evolution supports the design alternative. Third, scientists have largely refuted the negative attacks on evolution leveled by ID theorists. ID, the judge stressed, has not been accepted by the scientific community, generated peer-review publications, or been subjected to testing or research: all points that the school district’s own expert witness, ID-advocate Michael Behe, conceded under cross examination. Indeed, after offering an alternative definition for science that ID could fit—“a proposed explanation which focus or point to physical, observable data and logical inferences”—Behe admitted astrology and geo-centrism would also fit. On the witness stand in Pennsylvania, Behe gave away whatever credibility ID still had as science.

The court did not expel ID from the public-school science curriculum because it failed science, however. Under the Constitution, bad science, like bad history, can still be (and too often is) taught. Teaching ID as science violated the Constitution, the court ruled, because ID promotes religion and the Establishment Clause requires that the government remain neutral on religious issues. If Richard Dawkins was right about evolution disproving God, then teaching evolution presumably would also violate the Constitution. He should temper his claims, especially given the limitations inherent in any effort to use science either to prove or to disprove the existence of God. History shows that Darwinists can believe in God. By definition, science seeks naturalistic explanations for physical phenomena. It does not study the supernatural. More modesty is needed all around. Last time I checked, that was a virtue in both science and religion.

Edward J. Larson is the author of six books and over forty articles relating to the history of the theory of evolution and its cultural impact including Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory (Modern Library, 2004) and the Pulitzer Prize winning Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and Americaâ??s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (Basic Books, 2006). He teaches history and law at Pepperdine University and lives in Georgia and California.