Wednesday, August 24, 2005

A Match Made in Heaven?

I was planning to post on this yesterday but never got around to it. The NYTs has a series of articles investigating the uneasy relationship between religion and science. The third piece in the series addresses the increasingly vocal population of scientists who proudly proclaim their religious faith.

Although they embrace religious faith, these scientists also embrace science as it has been defined for centuries. That is, they look to the natural world for explanations of what happens in the natural world and they recognize that scientific ideas must be provisional - capable of being overturned by evidence from experimentation and observation. This belief in science sets them apart from those who endorse creationism or its doctrinal cousin, intelligent design, both of which depend on the existence of a supernatural force.
On a practical level, I have no problem with this position. If a scientist privately believes in God, but understands that natural phenomenon, and not magic, explain the processes of the natural world, I wouldn’t suggest curbing his/her right to his faith. Sacrificing the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause to preserve the Establishment Clause is no victory for civil liberties.

At least one scientist interviewed for the article, a man working on the human genome project, acknowledges that faith doesn’t trump the evidence for evolution.

[H]e acknowledged that as head of the American government's efforts to decipher the human genetic code, he had a leading role in work that many say definitively demonstrates the strength of evolutionary theory to explain the complexity and abundance of life.

As scientists compare human genes with those of other mammals, tiny worms, even bacteria, the similarities "are absolutely compelling," Dr. Collins said. "If Darwin had tried to imagine a way to prove his theory, he could not have come up with something better, except maybe a time machine. Asking somebody to reject all of that in order to prove that they really do love God - what a horrible choice."
Like I said, on a practical level, I embrace the thinking of men like Dr. Collins. If nothing else, it provides Christians with an alternative worldview that finds a place for faith without throwing science out the window. And throwing science out the window is exactly what ID proponents want to do, no matter how loudly they proclaim otherwise.

That said, I’m still wary of statements like the following, also from Dr. Collins:

"You will never understand what it means to be a human being through naturalistic observation," he said. "You won't understand why you are here and what the meaning is. Science has no power to address these questions - and are they not the most important questions we ask ourselves?"
Those he’s far more sensible than his counterparts in camp creation, Dr. Collins is unwilling to accept that humans can live fulfilling lives without religion. He may have kicked God out of the laboratory, but the big guy is still waiting on the other side of the door. I resent the implication that religion is the only means to morality. That’s preposterous. Collins suggests that science falls short because it does not address the questions of “why you are here and what the meaning is.” Maybe that’s not the concern of say, chemistry, but secular men and women have certainly approached that question without appealing to divinity. Maybe Collins skipped the chapter on existentialism in his philosophy 101 primer.

I have great deal of respect for people of faith, scientists or otherwise, who know where God belongs and where he doesn’t. I disagree about the necessity for and the existence of God, but a Christian doctor is not a clear and present danger. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, I concur with physicist Steven Weinberg: "I think one of the great historical contributions of science is to weaken the hold of religion. That's a good thing."

--Matthew McCoy