Science, Faith and Books

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Scientists Who Believe in God and Now Write Books About It

A few weeks ago the New York Times listed seven books that focus on science and religion. A couple of the books occupy familiar turf for scientists, as the author summarized: creationism is wrong, evolution is right, and religion is a universal belief system explained by evolutionary psychology. A few of these books claim to fill in ground that tends to be deeply divisive, for instance in science education, where we are acutely aware of the Intelligent Design (ID) proponents on one side and the scientists on the other. Ira Flatow talked to two of these authors on Science Friday last week. Owen Gingerich wrote God's Universe and Dr. Francis S. Collins wrote The Language of God. Collins was also interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday.

Dr. Collins, a physician and geneticist who is the director of the National Genome Research Institute, describes a challenge made to him by a dying patient who was relying on faith to see him through his disease: what did he, Collins, believe in? Bereft of a lucid explanation or proof for his atheist beliefs, the young medical student went in search of "evidence". He was given a C.S. Lewis book by a Methodist minister he sought out, and this was the beginning of his conversion from atheist to believer. The story is at least anthropologically interesting, though it is not unique. ID proponents in the film Flock of Dodos had the same adult "awakening", as did Philip Johnson, a founder of the ID movement. Thousands of people privately and publicly follow this path. But unlike some of his religious brethren who turned their faith against science, Dr. Collins did something different. Instead of denouncing science and defining himself by his religion, he stuck with science and merged his beliefs with his "day job". Perhaps had he not navigated his way to the minister's doorstep to look for proof for his atheist views we would be facing a very different book, but needless to say he became a "believer" at 27, and we can now read about his interpretation of science through the lens of religion, and vice versa.

Defining the "Middle Ground" of Science and Religion

As "believers", Collins and Gingerich describe their stance on science and religion as the "middle ground". Although such a positioning is hopeful, their interpretation is troublesome. "Middle ground" seems like it should incorporate a wide range of views, from borderline atheist to borderline "believer", as well as a wide range of religious beliefs -- Hinduism, Buddhism, Muslim, etc. But Collins talks about a "believer" as someone who has a "personal God" ("to whom one turns to answer questions"). This interpretation seems like it could accommodate other faiths, but he and Gingerich limit their flexibility to those religions celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. This in itself makes their "middle ground" seem like strict Christianity. So while this new "middle ground" may generously allow scientists to be "believers", it's proponents seem to be dividing the world into "believers in God and Jesus", and "non-believers". They have staked out a place that seems to exclude many scientists in the world of varying inclinations and faiths that don't involve their particular "God". Thus their positions don't seem to be any more generous then any other fundamentalist dogma, although they do allow for stem cell research.

As they unfurl their theories, it seems as though "middle ground" becomes more and more exclusive. Collins asserts that religion is imperative because without it the world would be material and amoral. This is invalid and seems like a brittle reason to embrace religion. If religion's only place were to instruct humans of moral behavior than perhaps we should rid the world of it, seeing that it has caused so much harm. Similarly, we would not advocate learning empathy from biology's descriptions of birds and animals displaying altruistic behavior. But while religion does not necessarily instruct morals, who could not deny the great influence of some religious leaders have had on both history and morality. Scientists can't deny the positive influences of Martin Luther King, Gandhi or William Sloane Coffin. The world would be worse off without these religious leaders.

Collins argues that science is outside of nature, and Gingerich notes that God's existence can't be proved or disproved by science. But, they continue, being that God created the universe, and made man "in his image" (or perhaps "for fellowship"), they believe that being a scientist allows researchers a particular affinity with God as s/he explores God's creations. Gingerich asserts that research allows a special "link to God". The title of Collin's book, The Language of God refers directly to the genetic code. If this is "middle of the road", then I find myself in a ditch off to the side.

To their credit, both authors come out very strongly against what they consider extreme positions on either side of the religion/science debate, and clearly some people will take comfort in the fact that such esteemed scientists also *believe in God*. But given the nuances in their arguments, they don't offer council against intolerance as much as they tout their own highly personal, philosophical gymnastics. This makes it seem like they are driven solely by trying to reconcile their vocational choices with their personal religious convictions.

Both authors say that their proclamations feel a bit uncomfortable, like "taking a public bath", according to Collins. But it doesn't seem brave to me these days, if you work in the executive branch of government as Collins does, where the president holds daily prayer breakfasts, to publicly announce your religious beliefs. It seems politically prudent. Likewise, publishing a book on these personal decisions, given current media attention to these issues, seems like an economically sound or even opportunistic decision.

On Scientists who Alienate Religion

We had hoped for more from these books. Acronym Required generally veers away from discussing of religion and science, except when religious fundamentalists tromp into science territory and we feel compelled to join the crowd and give them a bit of a swat. Both the stem cell research ban and the Intelligent Design proponents' encroachment on the teaching of evolution in schools invited such commentary from us a few years ago. But we are similarly intolerant of science fundamentalism that strikes out at anyone who professes faith. To what end, we ask?

GaneshaWhy would anyone attempt to pry away some other person's faith that serves to comfort them through death, disease or insurmountable difficulty? We are driven by science and education and become as irritable and apoplectic as the next person about superstition and woo, nevertheless, why would you want to vanquish Ganesh -- from earth?

We had hoped books dealing with such subjects might focus on questions like this: When the world is chocked full of misunderstanding, war, and killing, why should gutting people's faith suddenly be a science agenda? We had hoped that someone might advocate that scientists be tolerant of faith, but rightfully intolerant of political agendas that manipulate the faithful against science. As Acronym Required wrote previously, Edward Larson's 1997 book Summer of The Gods describes how the conflict that culminated in Scopes trial was manufactured by a couple of influential authors in the early 19th century. Over time, according to the book, "[this] warfare model of science and religion had become ingrained into the received wisdom of many secular Americans"(p 21). It doesn't require an immense intellectual endeavor to see the same political manipulation of religion and science today.

We had hoped that the authors would say, since we hate getting preachy ourselves, that scientists should not pit themselves against people who believe in some God or higher power, however incongruous those beliefs may seem. It may be at times necessary for scientists to position themselves in some "battlefield", to protect the integrity of research. But doesn't attacking faith seem very self-destructive? These religious arenas are more often political constructs with political aims, then they are religion's paradigms. Scientists who are set up in these political arenas often fare poorly, as Daniel Dennett describes here.

We wanted the authors of these books to ask: doesn't it seem unfathomable that scientists should on one hand complain that science education is under funded, and loudly recognize that huge numbers of people misunderstand really basic science, but then express equally loud vitriolic intolerance of peoples' personal beliefs? Why on earth, in these times, would scientists want to alienate potential allies?

Science is truly a huge part of our history and our future. But it is nothing short of arrogance or ignorance to deny the existence of other immutable truths in our history. As we see it, attempting to expunge faith from the human experience and history only undermines acceptance for science. Perhaps these books also offer this reading, but these two authors seem advocating strictly to Christianity or CS Lewis, while the other authors tread the well worn path of damning faith -- nothing new. The New York Times author concludes:

This is where the scientific method comes in. If scientists are prepared to state their hypotheses, describe how they tested them, lay out their data, explain how they analyze their data and the conclusions they draw from their analyses -- then it should not matter if they pray to Zeus, Jehovah, the Tooth Fairy, or nobody.

Their work will speak for itself.

It's a good point and we wish it were true. But as we know, and much to our dismay, the work does not always speak for itself. Science is often truncated, misquoted, misinterpreted, refuted, disputed, and suppressed. So is the NYT author saying, in so many words, that we should turn the other cheek? Perhaps scientists cannot and sometimes should not be full-time public relations advocates, but if we want people to embrace science with all its inherent challenges, we should perhaps start by being as inclusive as we can, even of their religion. Perhaps we can just hold our tongues. These two books are ostensibly aimed at younger (perhaps college age) people confronted with seemingly conflicting truths of science and religion. Unfortunately the books don't seem to be embracing an inclusivity which would let all beliefs, and science, win.

Image from Wikipedia commons. Ganesh(a) is the Hindu God of intellect, wisdom.


Acronym Required previously wrote about science and religion in Evolution v. Not Evolution", Dover: Science Prevails over Intelligent Design: Judge Doesn't Monkey Around, witchcraft, in Haunting Through The Centuries, and education in Prioritizing Science, The Latest Report, A Fine Balance, Science Education, Who's Ahead, and others.


The books:

By Francis S. Collins. Free Press, 2006.

By Owen Gingerich.
Harvard University Press, 2006

Other books mention by the New York Times:

By Richard Dawkins. Houghton Miff lin, 2006

By Daniel C. Dennett. Viking, 2006.

By Joan Roughgarden. Island Press, 2006.

by E.O. Wilson. W.W. Norton, 2006.

By Lewis Wolpert. Faber & Faber, 2006 (British edition).

1 Comment

Thanks for another thoughtful post. Einstein, who wasn't too shabby a scientist once said "Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind." I find it interesting the figures like Einstein and the great William Sloane Coffin (a great writer/thinker, see "Letters to A Young Doubter" - have room in their minds to accomodate both God and science. Perhaps the world is massive and complex enough to encompass both God and physics, and people in both camps ought to question deeply their need to make it a binary choice. Then again, what is it that people say -- there are two types of people in the world - those that need to pigeonhole everything and those who don't...?

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