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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Science and Religion: Never the Twain?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 5, 2006

 

In words which any of us who have ever put together a bookcase can identify with, a colleague of mine [Rev. Axel Gehrmann] tells of his own “hands-on experience [with] the marvels of intelligent design”. He writes:

“I spent the better part of an afternoon sitting on the kitchen floor with my wife trying to make heads or tails out of an assortment of differently shaped boards, small plastic bags with a colorful collection of dozens of screws and tiny nails, and an assortment of brackets, hinges, and handles. We tried to make sense of how they all fit together.

“Amazingly, out of the chaos of cardboard boxes and packing material, wooden boards and plastic bags, every screw found its pre-drilled destination, each board fit perfectly to its adjoining board, each nail was pounded in its proscribed destination. And in a mere matter of hours a perfectly functional and aesthetically pleasing piece of furniture was completed.

“Our efforts were aided by a 24-page instruction manual that contained illustrations of every kind of screw, every different board. In 37 easy steps it showed how to assemble this puzzling assortment of parts into a tall, fine bookcase and workstation.

“Almost every step of the way I was mildly surprised that each of the pieces depicted in the manual was indeed somewhere among the items strewn across the kitchen floor, that it did indeed look just like the picture, and fit snugly into its intended place.

“There was no doubt in my mind that this bookcase assembly was the product of amazingly intelligent design. Each piece was carefully created. Material, shape, sizes, and purpose perfectly planned. Nothing was left to chance…”

Compared with the breath-taking, soul-shaking complexity of the natural world, a do-it-yourself bookcase is a very simple thing, indeed. Think of the subtle beauty of a butterfly’s wing, or the involved intricacy of the human hand, or the human eye—indeed, of any organ, any particular aspect, of our human bodies. Think of the majesty and power of something as (seemingly) “common” as a simple oak tree. I’m reminded of a scene from the Joan of Arcadia television series, where Joan is trying to discern whether the handsome young man before her is really God, as he says he is. She wants him to prove it to her. “OK,” she says, “if you’re really God, show me a miracle.” And the young man simply points toward a tree, in all of its fully-leafed glory. “There’s one,” he says. “That’s not a miracle,” Joan responds, “that’s just a tree!” “You try making one, then,” God responds.

Indeed: “Poems are made by fools like me/ But only God can make a tree.”

No, many people say, life is simply too much of a miracle to be accounted for by the random interaction of atoms and molecules. We are more than chemical reactions. There is more than chance to our being here.

According to some people, expecting life to arise of its own accord, without some greater design, is like expecting a chimpanzee sitting in front of a typewriter randomly striking keys one day, by pure chance, to type out the collected works of Shakespeare. It simply wouldn’t happen. Even if that poor monkey was sitting there for four billion years.

That’s the line of reasoning put forward by some proponents of intelligent design. If it were that simple, it would be an intriguing argument.

But, as in most matters in life, it’s not that simple. The brilliance of Darwin’s theory of evolution is that it does offer plausible and observable explanations on how complexity can evolve. It’s not just the monkey sitting in front of the typewriter, typing wildly. It’s not just completely random and haphazard mutation and natural selection that’s at work here. Here’s an example of the complexity of evolution which another minister has put forward:

“For instance, imagine a tiny species whose eyes are nothing more than a patch of primitive light-sensitive cells. A mutation that made these few cells fold into a raised cup-shaped bump would give the organisms who have that mutation a distinct advantage in the struggle for survival, because the raised patch of cells could recognize not only the difference between light and dark, but also the direction of a light source or a shadow. Shadows can sometimes belong to predators, so this small mutation may make it easier for these organisms to avoid their predators. Which will increase the odds that their offspring will survive and be more common in following generations. Thus in the course of millions of generations a patch of light-sensitive cells can evolve to eventually become an eye.” [Axel Gehrmann]

Whether this development comes from the hand of God, or from simple biological evolution doesn’t make it any less amazing. It’s part of the wondrous story of our common cosmic journey upon this Earth—a story we all should celebrate together, whatever our particular theologies or beliefs.

Instead, we seem destined to go on fighting the same old battles of “religion versus science”, year after year, and generation after generation.

The question of religion and science sees one that our particular religious denomination settled years ago: We’re pro-religion, and we’re pro-science. No problem there for us. Nothing has really changed within our household of faith since at least 1947, when A. Powell Davies at All Souls’ Church in Washington, D.C. wrote:

“To those who are accustomed to the liberal viewpoint in religion, it may seem surprising that anyone should wish to discuss the rather elementary question as to whether science and religion can get together. In liberal churches, it has been taken for granted for almost a generation that nothing substantial has ever kept them apart.”

The supportive and complementary relationship of religion and science seems to have already been a long settled question in Unitarian and Universalist churches way back in 1947.

But still, in the world at large, the question persists: “Which is it to be: Religion or science? Faith in God or belief in evolution?” Still, after all the hot air expended on this topic over the years, a lead editorial in the New York Times last month—as well as one in the Boston Globe around the same time—appeared in defense of evolution. Evolution is the cover story of Time and Newsweek. “Was Darwin Wrong?” the cover story of a National Geographic from not too long ago asked. (The answer, by the way, in the article, was “No, of course not.”).

Most scientists agree that intelligent design belongs in the realm of religious faith rather than scientific fact—as do most Unitarian Universalists. But most Americans are not scientists (and they sure aren’t UUs, either).

A few months ago, CBS News conducted a poll that shows that most Americans still say they reject the theory of evolution. What is it that compels so many otherwise intelligent people to reject the solid foundations of science? Even as they enjoy openly and freely the many benefits which science has brought into our lives—cures for disease and better medical care; easy transportation and microwave ovens and cell phones and computers and television sets (I guess those are all “benefits”)—many people still seem to harbor this antipathy against science, this suspicion against scientific exploration. So much has changed in American society since 1925, when the Scopes trial riveted public attention, and Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan faced off against each other in the great duel of science and religion. So much has changed since those days of the “Roaring Twenties” with Flappers, and the Charleston, and the tongue-tied and hapless Calvin Coolidge in the White House (well, maybe some things haven’t changed all that much).

Still, modern versions of the Scopes trial are being fought in communities, and school boards, and state legislatures every week across our land, it seems. People still insist on politicizing faith, and politicizing science.

In that same sermon on “Can Science and Religion Get Together?” preached in 1947, A. Powell Davies also said:

“If we wish to know what happens, in one degree or another, when unscientific institutions try to adopt science, the world has recently afforded us some instructive examples. Hitler's Germany was an unscientific institution, based upon tribal prejudice, and the myth of blood and soil. It adopted science, as we know, very energetically, but being itself unscientific, was forced to dominate and deflect it… whenever a scientist discovered something that conflicted with the Germanism of Hitler's policies, he was told to renounce it and discover the opposite.”

Then, Rev. Dr. Davies goes on (writing in 1947, remember):

“If science in the United States ever became dominated by a reactionary government, or by a reactionary church, or by both together, the result could be just as unfortunate. Indeed, it could be disastrous.”

It’s the kind of disaster that beckons (closer than we might like) when someone like Tom DeLay, still Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives at the time, says that the shootings at Columbine High School occurred “because our school systems teach our people that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial mud. Guns don’t kill people,” DeLay really said (I am not making this up), “Darwin kills people.

Science and religion are distinct spheres of human enterprise. Some of us would assert that we need both, if we are to be fully human and holistic and whole in our view of life. But the worst thing we could do to either is to impose the methods and worldview of one upon the other. The willy-nilly mixing of science and religion, one with the other, too often results in bad science and bad religion. Better to honor both in honoring the integrity and separateness of each—and reverently and respectfully discerning how each adds to the glory and wonder and joy and amazement of our being alive, here on this good Earth.

I think of myself as pro-religion; maybe even something of a mystic on my better days; perhaps much more traditional in my personal devotion than most of you. I like to think of all people as God’s children—each of us created in God’s image—each of us carrying a spark of the divine within us—each of us part of a great eternal, divine plan. To me, the Earth is sacred and all life is holy. There is a common Spirit of Life which connects us all, and I openly choose to refer to that Spirit as “God”.

My faith (my personal faith) tells me that in God we live and move and have our being. That’s why I pray. That’s why I am drawn to religious language and practice. That’s why I come to church. Those ideas are precious to me.

But in science class, I want my children (and yours) taught science, not religion. I want them to understand and appreciate and internalize the Judeo-Christian creation myths found in Genesis; I want them to have respect for the creation myths and traditions of all peoples. But I don’t want that to be part of the public school curriculum.

I want them to be able to develop their own sense of the mystery and wonder inherent in the universe; to be unafraid to cling to faith, even when it is derided by the voices in our secular culture which, sadly, has no values but those of the marketplace. But I don’t want them being taught, second hand, the superstitions and dogmas of others. They may develop their own superstitions and dogmas, in my eyes—but if these beliefs help get them through the day, and help them to make the world a better place, then so be it.

But remember the words of A. Powell Davies:

“If science in the United States ever became dominated by a reactionary government, or by a reactionary church, or by both together, the result could be just as unfortunate. Indeed, it could be disastrous.” That, it seems to me, is why it is still important for us, as citizens and as religious men and women, to honor and heed “the guidance of reason and results of science, [which] warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit,” in the words of our Purposes and Principles.

It doesn’t have to be religion or science. We really can have it both ways, if we are respectful of the boundaries, limitations, and possibilities of both. We know that. So do many of our neighbors in households of faith across the religious landscape, even in households of faith far more conservative and traditional than our own. Even Pope Benedict XVI, so often vilified in liberal circles, back when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, expressed his belief in the theory of evolution. “Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences,” he wrote back then, “furnishes mounting support for a theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth.” Sounds like pretty solid science to me.

I don’t think Pope Benedict is wishy-washy in his faith, either.

Maybe it’s like a marriage, this relationship between science and religion. A good marriage, where the two people involved are seeking great and good and maybe even ultimate goals. Not a relationship where one is subsumed totally in the being of the other. Not a relationship where one completely dominates the other, or where one is forced constantly to conform to the will of the other,

But a good marriage (or a good friendship, or any good relationship) where the particular insights of each are treasured. Where one partner learns from the other to look at things a little differently. Where the gifts of one complement and expand and deepen the gifts of the other. Where one side knows that the other offers something indispensable to his or her totality of being.

Both religion and science implore us to be true to our deepest humanity by not being satisfied by the way things appear on the surface. They both implore us to look deeper. To look beyond appearances and to glimpse, and discern, and strive to understand those miracles and wonders enveloped in creation. “I swear to you, there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell,” Walt Whitman wrote. To some of us, that is both a religious and a scientific affirmation.

This universe is so amazing—so mysterious—so sacred, and we shall probably never understand more than a small part of it. Yet, we are here; we are partners with one another in this great cosmic dance, this great cosmic journey. Knowing that should enough. Enough for us to bow down in reverence. Enough for us to tremble with wonder. Enough for us to live out our thankfulness by doing our part to make the world even more beautiful, and helping as we can to bring it to the next stage of its evolution.

 


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