SCIENCE AND RELIGION An Evolution Sunday Sermon by Dean Scotty McLennan
University Public Worship
Stanford Memorial Church
March 2, 2008
Is there any way to reconcile science and religion? That’s my sermon topic today. In our scripture readings we have the Genesis creation story to deal with,i along with Matthew’s gospel account of Jesus being tempted by the devil to defy the law of gravity by throwing himself off the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem.ii What do we do with the Biblical claim that the universe as we know it -- including the earth with vegetation, living creatures of every kind and human beings – was all created in six days? What would really have happened if Jesus had thrown himself off the temple, rather than wisely responding “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”?iii
Journalist Christopher Hitchens was on campus a month ago. As many of you know, he’s the author of a current best-seller entitled God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.iv In the first chapter of that book he states one of his irreducible objections to religious faith: “It wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos.”v He explains that he “distrust[s] anything that contradicts science or outrages reason,”vi One of the major problems for religion is that it “comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody…had the smallest idea of what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable need for knowledge…Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion…All attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule for precisely these reasons.”vii
By contrast, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of Liberty University in Lynchburg Virginia – a university which now has more than 20,000 studentsviii -- wrote that “The Bible is the inerrant ... word of the living God. It is absolutely infallible, without error in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as well as in areas such as geography, science, history, etc.”ix Last year the New York Times published an article about a professor of earth sciences at Liberty University, Marcus Ross, who received his Ph.D. in geosciences from the University of Rhode Island. He believes that the Bible presents a literally true account of the creation of the universe, and that the earth is at most 10,000 years old.x
Today at the Stanford Memorial Church we’re celebrating “Evolution Sunday.” We’re part of a national movement, as you’ll see in the note in the announcements section of the order of service, of more than 535 congregations across the country and around the world, committed to affirming that timeless religious truths and the discoveries of modern science can comfortably coexist. Associate Dean Joanne Sanders and I are among more than 10,000 Christian clergy who have signed an open letter which states, in part, that the majority of Christians don’t read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook, and that many of the beloved stories found in the Bible, such as the Genesis account of creation (as read this morning)xi convey truths of a different order than scientific truth. They touch hearts, as is the province of great literature, poetry, and art, but they are not intended to convey scientific information. Here’s where both Hitchens and Falwell are wrong. I quote from the letter now: “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. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought… We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.”
This has been a good quarter at Stanford to explore the relationship of science and religion, because we also had physician-geneticist Francis Collins, Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, on campus last month. He directs the multinational 2,400-scientist team that mapped the 3 billion letters of the human DNA blueprint. He is also a devout Christian who converted from atheism at the age of 27 and now advises evangelical scientists on how to reconcile their faith with their scientific careers.xii He’s a best-selling author himself, having written The Language of God, which came out in 2006.
In his Stanford talk on “God and the Genome” to an overflow audience in Memorial Auditorium on February 5, Collins asserted that science and religion tend to address different questions: how versus why. Science discovers natural laws, which tell us how the universe operates. Religion asks big existential questions like “Why is there something instead of nothing?” But there are also ways in which religion and science overlap, of necessity. Collins says that his faith must rest squarely upon what he knows through logic and reason and science. Skepticism and doubt, of the sort encouraged by the scientific method, are critical to the development and testing of faith. Evolution is a scientific theory like gravity, which has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. Biblical literalism is a major problem when it leads to results like seeing the universe as we now know it having been created in six days, or human beings as having been created out of the blue, just as we now are, rather than having evolved from other living organisms which first appeared on the earth billions of years ago; our own species, homo sapiens, evolved from primate ancestors about 200,000 years ago.xiii
Collins calls himself a theistic evolutionist. For him DNA is the way God spoke life into being, and evolution is the mechanism by which God’s plan has been carried out. One might ask, though, why do you need God at all? Why aren’t the scientific answers alone enough? My personal answer traces back to a course I took in my freshman year on human evolution from a geneticist and evolutionary biologist named Theodosius Dobzhansky. He cited the great Russian novelist Dostoevsky as having said that “Man needs the unfathomable and the infinite just as much as he does the small planet which he inhabits.”xiv Then, Dobzhansky pointed out how Darwin himself had assumed a Creator God behind all those natural laws like gravity and natural selection that have continued to work consistently and reliably throughout the ages. In Darwin’s revolutionary book, On the Origin of Species. he declared:
To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that … [we] view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited…
“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us… There is grandeur in this view of life…having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.xv
There’s another way in which Francis Collins references God. He talks about the improbability of life, and especially of human life, as having occurred just by chance. Several scientific constants were necessary. Gravitation was one of them, and if it had been off by just “one part in a hundred million million, then the expansion of the universe after the Big Bang would not have occurred in the fashion that was necessary for life to occur.” A designer becomes “a rather plausible explanation for what is otherwise an exceedingly improbable event – namely, our existence.” Collins recognizes that other scientific theories have been proposed, like our universe being only one of a very large number of parallel universes, so the odds would then increase that a tiny minority of universes, like ours, will have just the right fine-tuning to support life somewhere within them. But Collins finds the explanation of a creator God to be more compelling in its simplicity and elegance than “the bubbling of all these multiverses.”xvi
However, he disagrees with the modern proponents of so-called “Intelligent Design” (capital I, capital D), a theory first propounded by a Cal-Berkeley law professor in 1991.xvii Advocates of Intelligent Design challenge the theory of evolution by claiming that there are cases of irreducible complexity, like the human eye or the blood clotting mechanism, which could not have occurred stepwise through the long process of evolutionary natural selection. Instead, an intelligent designer must have stepped in and created these particular organs and functions, full-blown in all of their complexity, in one fell swoop. Collins retorts that these arguments have no scientific merit, and each of the claims that particular mechanisms could not have evolved through step-by-step natural selection have since been refuted.xviii There are also important theological objections to Intelligent Design theory, since it reduces God to certain gaps in current scientific explanation; God will be whittled away even more as those gaps are filled in scientifically in the future, as they have been in the past. Also, Intelligent Design theory ends up portraying God “as a clumsy Creator, having to intervene at regular intervals to fix the inadequacies of his own initial plan,” which supposedly had included trustworthy, consistent natural laws.xix In summary, Collins finds Intelligent Design to be simultaneously bad science and bad theology.
A week from today evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins will be on campus. He’s written another best-selling book called The God Delusion.xx Just over a year ago there was a cover story in Time Magazine entitled “God vs. Science,”xxi which featured a debate between Dawkins and Collins. Collins suggests that atheists like Dawkins “sometimes come across as a bit arrogant…characterizing faith as something only an idiot would attach themselves to.”xxii Dawkins suggests that Christians like Collins should realize from the discoveries of modern science that “If there is a God, it’s going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed.”xxiii
One area where the two of them seem to agree, however, is in resisting the attempts of the religious right and the federal government to denigrate or curtail modern science. Both scientists are in favor of opening new stem-cell lines to develop medical cures and save lives. They are both concerned about good science education in our schools, from kindergarten all the way through graduate and medical school. This is an area that the 10,000 signatories of the clergy letter for Evolution Sunday are also deeply concerned about: “We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge.”
It’s astounding to realize that in a 2004 Gallup poll, 45% of Americans chose this statement, when asked which of three came closest to their views on the origin and developments of human beings: “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”xxiv Stanford professor of evolutionary biology Joan Roughgarden, in a little book called Evolution and Christian Faith, where she reconciles science and religion for herself, cites another 2004 poll which found that 35% of Protestant doctors believe that “God created humans exactly as they appear now.” These are American physicians who have made it all the way through college and medical school and are now practicing medicine! 65% of all physicians approve of teaching biblical creationism alongside evolution in our public schools. Perhaps this wouldn’t be utterly worrisome, if polls didn’t also show that 40% of Americans want to replace evolution with creationism in our public school science curriculum.xxv
There’s too much that really matters in our world than to allow conservative religion to trump science education about evolution, starting with medical cures based on the genome project and stem-cell research. There are implications for our economy as well – will we not train our children to be scientifically competitive in the global marketplace? There are implications for understanding our environment and ultimately for saving the earth.
It’s time now for a reconciliation between science and religion that allows both to flourish and to complement each other. Francis Collins at the end of his book calls for “a truce in the escalating war between science and spirit.” He claims that “Like so many earthly wars, this one has been initiated and intensified by extremists on both sides, sounding alarms that predict imminent ruin unless the other side is vanquished…Abandon the battlements. Our hopes, joys, and the future of our world depend on it.”xxvi NOTES
i Genesis 1:24 – 2:4.
ii Matthew 4: 1-10.
iii Matthew 4:7.
iv Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007).
v Hitchens, God is Not Great, p. 4.
vi Hitchens, God is Not Great, p. 5.
vii Hitchens, God is Not Great, p. 64-65.
viii “Admissions,” Liberty University, http://www.liberty.edu/admissions
ix Jerry Falwell, Listen, America! (New York: Bantam, 1981). (As quoted in John C. Bennett, “Assessing the Concerns of the Religious Right,” Christian Century, October 14, 1981, pp. 1018-1022).
x Cornelia Dean, “Believing Scripture but Playing by Science’s Rules,” New York Times (February 12, 2007).
xi Genesis 1:24 – 2:4.
xii David Van Biema, “God vs. Science,” Time (November 2, 2006).
xiii Francis S. Collins, The Language of God (New York: Free Press, 2006), pp. 89, 96.
xiv Theodosius Dobzhansky, The Biology of Ultimate Concern (New York: New American Library, 1967), p. 63
xv Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (London: John Murray, 1859).
xvi Van Biema, “God vs. Science.”
xvii Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial (Regnery Gateway, Washington, DC, 1991).
xviii See Collins, The Language of God, pp. 186-193.
xix See Collins, The Language of God, pp. 193-194.
xx Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006).
xxi David Van Biema, “God vs. Science,” Time (November 2, 2006).
xxii Biema, “God vs. Science.”
xxiii Biema, “God vs. Science.”
xxiv Collins, Language of God, p. 147.
xxv Joan Roughgarden, Evolution and Christian Faith (Washington: Island Press, 2006).