Science, God and Intelligent Design

First, a short preface note. For those of you that might not know, I was trained, and worked as, a biologist for almost 20 years (if you count graduate school.) I know evolutionary theory, and I know science.

E.O. Wilson says, in an introduction to a new compilation of the work of Charles Darwin:

So, will science and religion find common ground, or at least agree to divide the fundamentals into mutually exclusive domains? A great many well-meaning scholars believe that such rapprochement is both possible and desirable. A few disagree, and I am one of them. I think Darwin would have held to the same position. The battle line is, as it has ever been, in biology. The inexorable growth of this science continues to widen, not to close, the tectonic gap between science and faith-based religion.

This "tectonic gap" between science and faith-based religion is in his imagination, and, unfortunately, in the imagination of many scientists, and religious leaders. It is unfortunate that most people in the United States don't "believe" in the theory of evolution, and think, for some reason, that one can't "believe" in the theory of evolution and be a Christian, or believe in God at the same time. Nothing could be further than the truth.

He states, and I completely agree, that evolution is a fact. It's as real as the theory of gravity. Just because people don't believe it, doesn't make it not so. I could believe I could defy the theory of gravity all I wanted, but I would still die if I fell off a 20 story building.

Western Science is based on things that observe the laws of nature, things that are observable and repeatable. Futher, the results of scientific inquiry are dependent on the social location, world view, and assumptions of those doing the science. But there is no question that the current life present on this planet was a result of a very long, and very interesting process, taking millions of years.

He, and many scientists like him (for example, Richard Dawkins) think that science can tell you more than it really can. He says:

... all biological processes arose through evolution of these physicochemical systems through natural selection. The first principle is concerned with the how of biology. The second is concerned with the ways the systems adapted to the environment over periods of time long enough for evolution to occur — in other words the why of biology.

No, that is not the why of biology, that's just more how. The why of biology, why is it that this process started in the first place, cannot be answered by science, as much as he'd like to think it can.

Fully half of this brou-ha-ha about evolution and intelligent design I blame on scientists like him. The theory of evolution does not suggest that there is no God. It has nothing to say on the matter, no matter how much they would like it to.  And the other half of the brou-ha-ha goes to people who want to put God in a box, and decide how exactly it was she went about putting this whole universe together. And, further, to impose that belief system on everyone else, in the guise of being science.

Neither camp is talking about science, and I wipe my hands of both of them. Athiests are completely free to believe what ever they'd like, and I am not one to impose my faith on them or anyone else, thus my adamant stance that intelligent design should not be taught in science classrooms. But athiests do have to, at some point, agree that theirs is as much a faith statement as mine is. There is no scientific evidence either way, and there likely will never be, given the nature of science.

God is huge, mysterious, ineffable, and extraordinarily interesting. Whenever we think we know what or who God is, we are wrong, because we, as humans, can't know, we can only see small parts of what God is. Christians would never think of denegrating the wonder of God's creation. Well, I have news for you: evolution is part of it. Get used to it.


It seems this debate on God's hand in creation only happens in Biology class and never Physics.

I find that odd and wonder if it's because the calculus pre req exculdes most debaters. I didn't get to Physics for that reason.

So I'm too humble to tell God she's intelligent, and I see more mystery then Design in Creation. I'm no advocate for ID.

But I do know many atrocities committed in th last century in the name of perverted Biology, and if I were designing a curriculum, I'd have the Biologists tell the class they're sorry for all the butchery done in Biology's name in the last 100 years.

Maybe on their knees, because while William Jennings Bryan may have had the Science wrong when he said, "Evolution is the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak", I wish more had spoken up for him in the Biology classrooms of Germany in the 1920s, and 30s because Bryan certainly understood the truth about creation.

here's the link for the Bryan quote and of cours Bryan thought the law of Evolution quite wrong because it was contrary to the word of God which is love.

the link is a good essay on how Bryan's received a bum rap, largely at the expense of single film from Hollywood.

Hi Michelle,

I appreciate any effort to reconcile science and religion. I'm a life-long UU who has also spent a lot of time in the natural science aisle.

From what I've read, evolutionary science explains religious feeling as an evolved instinct of the brain. If true (and I share your inclination to see science as True with a capital-T), this supports our liberal inclination to emphasize the subjective or moral truth of religious expression.

The problem is that "evolved instinct" is another term for "bias." One of the central insights of cognitive science is that human reasoning is full of bias. Reason and emotion are closely linked, and personal emotional styles vary in large part due to genetic randomness. There is a strong tendency for people to disagree based on their gut feelings about things, a tendency built into our species through natural selection. While careful, patient argument can often bring people around, according to this view dialogue on certain issues is mainly an uphill battle.

Scientists are still arguing over these points, so claiming the final word is premature, but I think it's probably accurate to describe human religious instinct as a cognitive bias characterized in some people by an inclination to see meaning behind random events. (Please note all of the places I'm hedging my bets: "probably accurate," "some people," "inclination." I'm not making claims that are 100% true for all people at all times under all circumstances. Behavioral science doesn't do that.) According to this view, we should expect some people to reject the scientific explanation of religious belief out of hand precisely because they've evolved a bias against any way of thinking that would counter their intuitive sense that religious feeling refers to objective truth.

This, in a nutshell, is the conflict between science and religion. I believe that it's a real conflict, not a simple misunderstanding. It's ironic, but in this area the science implies that it will be hard to convince people of the truth of the science.

I wish more UUs were thinking about these issues. There's work to do!


Hi Kevin,

Your statement "it's probably accurate to describe human religious instinct as a cognitive bias characterized in some people by an inclination to see meaning behind random events." is something I would beg to differ on. There is, no question, the evolved inclination of the human brain to make meaning out of what we see in the world, some of which may be random. We had to evolve this capacity in order to survive. But your statement is a presupposition that science can explain everything, which is a bias rather than an established fact.

You are right, the conflict between religion and science is based in bias. The bias on one hand that science can explain everything, and anything besides science is either unreal, or unrelated random events. And the bias on the other hand that science should be dismissed out of hand.

My argument is that western science, because of it's nature, and the world view of it's origin and practitioners, cannot explain everything. And once you understand and embrace the limitations of western science, the real conflict between religion and science goes away. But you are correct, the biases will remain, thus, I guess, the conflict will remain in all but people who can see science's power, *and* it's limitations.

Hi Michelle,

You're reading too much into my statement when you say it's a presupposition that science can explain everything. It isn't. I know that science can't explain everything.

What science explains is that consciousness and religious feeling are both physical phenomenon. They don't occur in a soul full of grace, or in a reasoning mind of pure logic, but in a highly limited physical brain that works according to the well-defined rules of our evolved psychology.

How did this brain come to be? Science says it evolved through a process of natural selection. Why did this process begin in the first place? Y'know, what's it all about? Science has no opinion. (I think we agree here.)

Here's my problem. You're trying to resolve the conflict between science and religion by giving them different jobs, neither of which is to "explain everything." This won't work. Science knows what it is and is not good at explaining. The problem is that religion has different ambitions. Religious beliefs often try to explain things, like human origins, that science explains better. When this happens, science and religion are very much in conflict.

I don't know who you're trying to reach with your blog, but I don't think many creationists are going to be persuaded when you say "evolution exists; get over it" or when you assert that religion and science don't actually conflict after all. That's not how they see things.

Personally, I agree that religion and science go well together.


Hi Kevin,

All of those points are very well taken. Thanks for the dialogue. I know I'm preaching to the converted, mostly. I don't expect many, if any creationists read my blog. I wouldn't expect any creationists would be swayed by what I said anyway, even if they read this. It was kinda just one of those things - sending it out into the blogosphere. :-)

Thanks Michelle. I enjoy this kind of conversation, and I appreciate bloggers who are gracious about letting me toy with my ideas on their blogs. :)

If this issue interests you, just this morning I happened across a good article in the current (Dec 05) "Atlantic Monthly," called "Is God An Accident?" by Paul Bloom. It's all about what evolutionary science is saying about religion. I'm sure it's available online for a fee, but it's also on newsstands now.


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