Religion Under the Microscope

Are science and faith separate but equal?


In celebration of Charles Darwin's 197th birthday, 450 churches around the country were treated to sermons about how religion and evolutionary biology do not contradict one another.

This so-called Evolution Sunday grew out of the Clergy Letter Project organized by Michael Zimmerman, Dean of the College of Letters and Science at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and his colleagues. They were responding to a 2004 resolution by the Grantsburg, Wisconsin, school board requiring that biology classes incorporate "various models or theories" of the origin of life. Later that year, the Grantsburg board backed down a bit and modified its curriculum resolution to stipulate that "Students shall be able to explain the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory."

Noting the ongoing evolution wars around the United States, Zimmer decided to expand the Clergy Letter Project beyond the borders of Wisconsin. Now the Open Letter on Religion and Science has received endorsements from 10,000 clergy around the country. Most endorsers are from relatively liberal mainline Protestant denominations. For example, a quick check of endorsers found just seven endorsements from Southern Baptists, almost all of whom were associated with hospitals or academic institutions.

The Open Letter declares: "We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as 'one theory among others' is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children." So far, so good.

The Letter goes on to draw a distinction between "two very different, but complementary, forms of truth." Religious truth, according to the Letter, is "of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts." The divines seem to be reaching for the proposed accommodation between science and religion devised by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. Gould argued that science and religion are two non-overlapping magisteria.

According to Gould, "if religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world's empirical constitution." But can this formulation survive the continuing scrutiny of religion by science? While it is true that science has nothing to say about whether souls are divinely infused into people, religion is nonetheless part of the world's empirical constitution.

I have no doubts about the ability of religion to "transform hearts." Religion motivates the charitable works of the Salvation Army; it helped President George W. Bush to stop drinking; and it inspired 19 Muslims to slam airliners into buildings. It is an undeniably powerful force in human lives. Something that has such a far-reaching influence on human affairs cannot escape the scrutiny of humanity's most powerful techniques for uncovering the facts of the world.

On the other hand, Gould asserts, "The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value." Possibly because he despised evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, Gould was comfortable making this distinction. However, in a certain sense "values" are "facts" about human beings and as such can be studied by scientists. Today researchers into evolutionary psychology, neuroeconomics, genetics and other fields are elucidating the sources of human morality and how it functions. Dean Hamer, a biologist at the National Cancer Institute claims to have found "The God Gene," which affects how certain mood regulating chemicals are transported in people's brains. This variant of the VMAT2 gene seems to make people who have it more susceptible to spiritual beliefs.

Of course, theology is still a long way from being reduced to biochemistry. Scientific research into the sources of religious belief is just beginning, so any of the current findings could be rejected or revised as further evidence becomes available. Nevertheless, the magisteria of science is surrounding and shrinking the domain of the magisteria of religion. The Open Letter asserts, "We believe that among God's good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator." It may well be that that same capacity for critical thought eventually leads us to stop believing in Him.