Top Ten Religion & Science Stories of 2009

Bookended by Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday in February and the 150th anniversary of his seminal work, The Origin of Species, in November, the year-long celebration of the great naturalist’s work demonstrated that the intersection of religion and science continues to draw headlines.

In some cases, the year’s events beautifully illustrated ways in which faith and reason may be embraced. On February 15, (three days after Darwin’s birthday) more than 11,000 church leaders around the country and the world participated in what is now known as Evolution Sunday, in which pastors delivered sermons celebrating evolution’s role as part of the awesome diversity of life, and Darwin’s theory of natural selection as part of God’s overall plan.

But other examples highlight the continued disconnect biblical literalists have regarding the subject of not only evolution, but of scientific thought in general. By the time the November 24 anniversary of Origin rolled around nine months after Darwin’s birthday, Young Earth creationist Ray Comfort was grabbing the religion headlines. Comfort’s best-known argument against evolution is the cultivated banana because it comes in a biodegradable package and is designed for easy gripping by the human hand.

Accompanied by former child actor Kirk Cameron, Comfort led a crusade at college campuses across the country to distribute altered copies of Origin. Comfort penned an introduction for the new version in which he quotes from Mein Kampf in order to link Darwin to Adolf Hitler, accuses Darwin of being sexist, and argues falsely that there are no transitional fossils in the fossil record.

So, in the assessment of the top stories that intersect religion and science, there was some good news, some not-so-good news and some downright depressing news.

Of course, no list of the top science/religion stories can be done without first acknowledging the obvious political agenda some religious conservatives have in fostering this divide, and sadly, Rick Santorum is still at it.

The former Pennsylvania senator, who has long led efforts to combat the teaching of evolution in public schools, continues to rehash his failed attempt to insert intelligent design language into the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

In his December 17 column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Santorum complained that scientists are trying to foist their viewpoints on people, and (reality be damned) “Americans don’t like being told what to believe.”

Maybe because we have learned to be skeptical of ‘scientific’ claims, particularly those at war with our common sense—like the Darwinists’ telling us for decades that we are just a slightly higher form of life than a bacterium that is here purely by chance, or the Environmental Protection Agency’s informing us last week that man-made carbon dioxide—a gas that humans exhale and plants need to live, a gas that represents less than 0.1 percent of the atmosphere—is a dangerous pollutant threatening to overheat the world.

(While the newsroom at the Philadelphia Inquirer has been gutted, Santorum gets paid $1,750 per column to foist such misinformation on a poorly informed public.)

In all fairness, Santorum makes one good point: many Americans don’t like being told what to believe.

The latest Harris poll released last week reveals that despite efforts in the past year to educate the public about evolution, Americans have not changed their views much since Harris’ 2007 poll. Forty-five percent of respondents indicated that they believe in evolution, 33 percent indicated that they don’t believe in it, and 22 percent said they weren’t sure. Meanwhile, 40 percent said they believe in creationism, 30 percent indicated that they don’t, and 30 percent said they were not sure.

At times, the stories of 2009 revealed a clash between those defending science and those who would impose their religious views on others. Sometimes, the stories revealed a connection, a joining together of two ways of looking at the world. Other times the stories were about science explaining our religious notions; still others sought to use religion to deny science.

So, in a decidedly unscientific assessment, here are the top religion-meets-science stories from the Year of Darwin:

1. “Junk Science” in Texas Classrooms

In April, fundamentalist Christian members of the Texas Board of Education inserted intelligent design code words into its science education requirements. The wording includes directing students to analyze and evaluate “sudden appearance” in the fossil record and analyze the “complexity of the cell.” The language prompted creationist and pro-intelligent design organizations like the Seattle-based Discovery Institute to claim victory “for science education,” but science educators say it actually opens the door to junk science.

2. How Do You Solve a Problem Like Religion (In The Scientific Community)?

One of the most heated debates to take place this year didn’t get much attention from the mainstream media, but boiled over on the science blogs. (And creationists say the scientific community is a monolith.) The debate, which continues, is over how to reach out to people of religious faith.

At issue is what some have come to refer to as accommodationism, the idea among some scientists that the best way to encourage the acceptance of evolution specifically and science in general is to accommodate the beliefs of those of non-fundamentalist religious faith. Many of the prominent voices embracing this idea are non-believers themselves, but they stress that one can hold both a belief in God and acceptance of science.

John Wilkins, a science blogger, pointed out the need for pragmatism in a June post on his blog Evolving Thoughts:

This is not just about strategy, but it is in part about strategy… Making science the enemy of religion is going to have a single outcome, one that we can all predict. It won’t be the death of religion.

Other scientists, such as PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins, say that belief in God is irrational, and accommodating religious faith is compromising science. Responding to Wilkins’ post, Myers wrote on his blog Pharyngula that, quite simply, its dishonest as a scientist to say that religion and science are compatible:

Religion is an archaic, failed mode of thinking that continues to demand greater respect than it deserves, and exploits tradition, fear, and emotion to maintain its undeserved position. Wilkins tries to compare it to two dancers jostling for space on a dance floor, I prefer to think of it as one dancer, humanity, afflicted with lice, religion, and twitching and squirming unpleasantly while struggling with a persistent parasite.

3. Just Say No… To Louisiana

The Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB), one of the nation’s leading scientific societies, took the unusual step in February to boycott Louisiana due to the state’s new anti-science law.

In 2008, lawmakers voted to pass the Science Education Act, which was signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal. The law, based largely on wording from the pro-intelligent design Discovery Institute’s sample academic freedom bill, explicitly says that teachers are permitted to use supplemental materials to teach critiques of evolution and opens the door to teaching creationism and intelligent design.

In response, SICB chose to hold its annual conference in Utah, whose state Board of Education recently passed a resolution recognizing that “the Theory of Evolution is a major unifying concept in science.”

4. Ms. Evolutionary Dead End 2009

When the 47-million-year-old fossil Ida was first revealed in May, she was originally touted as a direct link from all primates to earlier life forms—in other words, a transitional fossil link of humans to our earlier ancestors.

But now it appears that Darwinius maxillae, as she’s formally known, may have sat on a divergent branch of the primate family tree and that we are not her direct descendant after all.

Unveiled at a May press conference to much fanfare, Ida was supposed to be, as the media misleadingly referred to her, the “missing link.” But a paper published in the October edition of Nature described her more of an evolutionary dead end.

Religious fundamentalists were quick to celebrate, saying it proves that there is little evidence to support evolution. But scientists had been skeptical about Ida’s significance from the beginning and while she may not be a direct ancestor, she does reveal important information about our origins.

Which leads us directly to…

5. Lucy’s Older Sister

…Ardi. Ida wasn’t the only dramatic fossil unveiled this year. Formally known as Ardipithecus ramidus, the 4.4 million-year-old Ardi (for short) was described in September in a series of papers in Science.

The Ardi find is significant because she likely predates by one million years Lucy, (Australopithecus afarensis) the previous fossil contender for earliest human lineage.

Within days, intelligent design supporters and creationists such as the Discovery Institute and the Institute for Creation Research expressed doubt about Ardi’s significance due to the decomposition of her bones and some disagreement among scientists over whether she was bipedal.

While there is some scientific debate over whether Ardi may have walked upright, what most interests scientists is that she is believed to be more human-like and less chimp-like than expected. This means that our closest cousins may have evolved or changed more in the past 4.4 million years than us and that our earlier ancestors were more like us than we imagined.

6. Climate-gate, Copenhagen, and the Two Christianities

It goes without saying that the November brouhaha over the hacking of some controversial emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) couldn’t have come at a worse time for the scientific community. But it doesn’t mean that the scientific consensus on man-made climate change is anything but clear.

While global climate-change talks were taking place in Copenhagen earlier this month, conservatives and right-wing media outlets crowed that the emails raise doubts about the validity of the science. And just as fundamentalist Christians deny evolution, many of them also deny climate change.

Matt Frei of BBC World News America provides an interesting assessment of the division among evangelical Christians in a December 10 article:

The evangelical movement is split between those conservative Christians who suspect that climate change is an evil secular plot, concocted by the devil, Al Gore and “the global government crowd”—in the words of Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher—and those who passionately believe that good Christians need to be good custodians of the planet.

Two years ago I went to Liberty University in Virginia, the home of the late Jerry Falwell and asked a lecture room full of students if they believed in the threat of global warming. Not a single hand went up. I travelled up the road to the Eastern Mennonite College at Harrisonburg and asked a similar number of Christian students the same question. Almost every hand shot up.

7. An Evangelical to Restore Scientific Integrity in DC?

In August, much to the chagrin of new atheist Sam Harris, Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian who headed the Human Genome Project, was appointed director of the National Institutes of Health. 

As a prominent scientist, Collins speaks often of his ability to embrace both his evangelical faith and the reality of evolution. His book, The Language of God, expounds on his beliefs and explains how he came to them.

Collins has received criticism from some in the scientific community who say his religious ideas are irreconcilable with being a thinking scientist. But others celebrated his appointment because of his solid science credentials, saying that after eight years of the Bush administration misusing science to serve its agenda, Collins’ appointment, with his background as a geneticist in biomedical research, illustrates that Obama will honor his commitment to restoring scientific integrity to Washington.

8. Stem Sold

Less than four months after his appointment, Collins announced the approval of stem-cell line funding.

On December 2, he said 13 new human embryonic stem-cell lines were approved for use in federally funded research. President Obama issued the executive order approving the use of the lines in research.

President Bush had killed federal funding for such research, instead limiting research dollars to cell lines created before August 2001. Many conservative Christians oppose stem-cell research because they are harvested from embryos left over from fertility treatments. Because the process destroys the embryo, they argue that it’s akin to abortion.

In signing the executive order, Obama disagreed:

“In recent years, when it comes to stem-cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values,” Obama said at the White House. “In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent. As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research—and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.”

9. God, Head

Early this year scientists determined which section of the brain is used for prayer and thoughts of God.

In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in February, cognitive neuroscientists at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to determine what happens to our brains when we think of God. The scans showed that thoughts activated particular neural pathways, including those in the anterior prefrontal cortex. This is the same portion of the brain that is used for empathy and understanding one’s fellow human beings.

10. Darwin Tours Egypt

In November, the British Council hosted the first Darwin conference in Egypt. The event was more significant for where it was held (in a conservative Muslim country where there is little teaching of evolutionary theory) than for what was discussed: Darwin and his legacy.

Many of the 150 academics and college students who participated in the conference had little knowledge of evolutionary theory and thought incorrectly that Darwin put forth the idea that man came from monkeys, according to the New York Times. (In fact, he said we share a common ancestor.)

According to the Times, “the British Council framed the conference to seek middle ground, more than to promote confrontation. While challenging a religious society to think seriously about evolution, it emphasized the possibility of reconciling a belief in divine creation with Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection.”

Read more Darwin/Religion stories here.