Can faith, science
Evolution and Christianity
are not incompatible, many believe.
Inquirer Staff Writer
For centuries, religious believers have sought signs of God's
designing hand in nature's mysteries - whether the orderly motions
of the sun, moon and planets, the intricate beauty of an insect's
wing, or the complexity of the human eye.
Others say it's the nature of faith not to require evidence.
The term intelligent design entered popular discourse
recently, but the philosophy behind it goes back to antiquity. Some
philosophers, theologians and religious scientists say the age-old
battle unnecessarily pits religion against science, and religion
tends to lose.
University of Pennsylvania anatomy professor Peter Dodson said
his Catholic faith does not require an intelligent designer to leave
clues in nature. "I'm an evolutionary biologist and I'm a Christian,
and these issues are not problematic for me."
Dodson, who has lectured on the relationship between religion and
science, said the intelligent-design argument falls into an old
philosophical notion called "God of the gaps" - the search for signs
of the supernatural in otherwise unexplainable natural
Isaac Newton proposed something like this, said Wesley Wildman, a
professor of theology at Boston University. Where he failed to
explain the more complex interactions between heavenly bodies with
his own laws, Newton proposed the hand of God intervening directly
to keep the solar system orderly.
Today's proponents of intelligent design have argued that science
can't explain the complexity of some single-celled organisms or the
machinery of the human eye. They suggest a designer's
Filling the gaps
The trouble with this as theology is that when science fills
these gaps in, Dodson said, it can squeeze the role of God out. Just
as physics later found natural explanations for what Newton
attributed to God's outreach, so biology may more fully explain
complex cellular machinery in the future.
Dodson said his faith is unaffected by science because his God
wouldn't necessarily leave traces - not in the fossil record or in
DNA or anywhere in nature. For him and other scientific believers,
absence of evidence is not evidence of God's absence.
In the past, intelligent design had less science to compete with,
said Boston's Wildman, who identifies himself as an evangelical
Protestant. In the fourth century B.C., Aristotle anticipated
evolution and even proposed something like natural selection, but
then rejected it because he thought nature was too complex to have
emerged without an intelligent designer. In the 13th century,
Wildman said, St. Thomas Aquinas argued persuasively that the
natural world was intelligently designed by God.
The idea behind intelligent design pervades branches of all three
major monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam, he
said. All three have also sprouted branches in which faith does not
rest on evidence for the divine in nature.
Theology and science
Some of today's proponents of intelligent design say it's not
just theology - it's science. Todd Moody, a philosophy professor of
St. Joseph's University, takes this view, arguing that the design
theory debated in a Dover, Pa., courtroom is not necessarily a
religious idea because it doesn't specify whether the designer is a
supernatural power or not. "There's no way to know," he said. "It
could be Klingons."
But the idea that aliens came to Earth and tweaked evolution
doesn't qualify as science, said Michael Weisberg, a University of
Pennsylvania philosophy professor. There's no evidence in its favor,
nor is there any proposed way to get that evidence. "To move from
speculation to scientific hypothesis, one has not just to assert
something," he said, "but to show how it can be tested."
Though the current debate focuses on biology, plenty of other
areas of science also gape with holes. Astronomy still can't explain
the nature of the "dark matter" that seems to pervade the universe.
Einstein's general relativity breaks down in describing the world at
a subatomic scale.
Dodson says evolution is singled out not for anything it says
about God but for what it seems to say about humanity. "I think the
biggest problem for religious believers is the insistence that
humans are an accident of an uncaring cosmos," he said.
Shuffling of genes through sex and mutation generates the variety
from which natural selection can work. The chance encounter with an
asteroid probably killed the dinosaurs, opening a new niche for the
mammals that eventually spawned humanity. The late Stephen Jay Gould
and other prominent scientists have said if we ran the clock back,
evolution might produce a different mix of plants and animals and
possibly a world with no human beings.
By adding a guiding hand, intelligent design allows its adherents
to continue to believe humans were destined to be here - that we're
here for a reason.
Boston's Wildman said his faith does not depend on the notion of
humanity as central to the purpose of the universe. "It's a silly
conceit and it makes human beings feel better to think that way -
that the whole success of the universe turns on the success of the
He said the tradition of ascribing so much importance to humanity
goes back to the notion of a chosen people in the Old Testament. For
Christians it comes from the belief that Jesus was God's son.
But such a God looks too small, too tribal and too humanlike, he
said, to avoid getting pushed out of the ever narrowing gaps in
science. That in turn can reinforce the notion that to be scientific
you must be an atheist.
For him, a human-centered God is an approximation of the real
thing, "and the real thing is beyond human comprehension."