Separate But Equal?

Can science tell us anything about religion?


In February 450 churches celebrated Charles Darwin's birthday with sermons arguing that religion and evolution do not contradict one another.

Called Evolution Sunday, the event grew out of a project organized by Dean Michael Zimmerman and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. They wrote an open letter signed by nearly 200 clerics in response 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, modifying 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 in the United States, Zimmerman decided to expand the project beyond the borders of Wisconsin. The result was "An Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science," which has received endorsements from 10,000 clergy members around the country. Most endorsers hail from relatively liberal mainline Protestant denominations. (There were 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 the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould.

Gould argued that science and religion are two "nonoverlapping 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 still part of the world's empirical constitution.

I have no doubt about the ability of religion to "transform hearts." Religion motivates the charitable works of the Salvation Army; it helped President George W. Bush 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 cannot escape the scrutiny of humanity's most powerful techniques for uncovering the facts of the world.

According to Gould, "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. But in a 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, even 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 magisterium of science is surrounding and constricting the magisterium of religion. Zimmerman's letter declares, "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 understand how the universe and humanity came to be in such a way that God fades away, and we no longer need to believe in Him.