Tom Gilson

“Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion” Part 3

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Darwin's Gift?


University of California, Irvine biologist Francisco Ayala writes in his book Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion (pages 174-175),

Scientific knowledge cannot contradict religious beliefs, because science has nothing definitive to say for or against religious inspiration, religious inspiration, religious realities, or religious values. There are Christian believers, however, who see the theory of evolution as contrary to the creation narrative of the book of Genesis. These believers are entitled, of course, to hold such convictions based on their interpretation of Scripture. But Genesis is a book of religious revelations and of religious teachings, not a treatise of astronomy or biology.

I will have some points of serious disagreements with this to express, but first I must put it in a context of some appreciation. Ayala strongly disagrees with scientists (of whom he names Dawkins, Futuyma, and Provine) who conclude that science has disproved religion. He quite rightly notes on page 173,

Scientists and philosophers who assert that science excludes the validity of any knowledge outside science make a “category mistake,” confuse the method and scope of science with its metaphysical implications.

Quite right indeed, and thank you, Dr. Ayala, for that. Scientists ought to recognize the limits of their art. I only wish I could feel as comfortable with Ayala’s views on religion. Several chapters earlier (page 42) he had complained of a kind of “conceptual schizophrenia” by which some people explain some aspects of reality in natural terms and some in supernatural. I think that in the first paragraph quoted here, he exhibits a different kind of conceptual schizophrenia.

The problem is that he speaks of religious realities as if they have nothing to do with realities of the natural world. How many kinds of reality are there, though? In some religious systems there is room for this dichotomy. Some Gnostic religions–of which modern-day Christian Science is one–deny the actual reality of the material world. For them, religious reality is the “real” reality, and what science is working with is illusion. Some Buddhists similarly speak of the physical world as “Maya,” illusion. Other historic forms of belief have accepted physical reality as real but an expression of evil or fault; this is found in Platonism and many common versions of Gnosticism. Folk religions or tribal religions have commonly viewed the natural world and the supernatural world as inseparably, personally tied together–the spirits of the trees and rivers, and ideas of the sort.

Only in relatively modern times have we split the world into two opposing realities in which the material was more real than the spiritual, or in which there could be spiritual realities that were stood in no relevant relationship to physical realities. This splitting has been well documented by Francis Schaeffer in The God Who Is There, and more recently by Nancy Pearcey in Total Truth. The daily world of economics, science, politics, the news, medicine, and so on occupy a “lower story” of reality, which is taken to be solid and genuine, while religious truths, values, morals, and so on, sit in a solidly walled off, “upper story” of private belief which need have no concourse whatever with the lower.

Ayala speaks of “religion.” I will speak of Christianity instead. The Christian faith cannot be relegated to an upper story with no relation to facts of science, history, and so on. Christianity claims that God has acted in nature and in history. Some of the “religious realities” of Christianity impinge on scientific realities. What, for example, does science say about visions? Is it possible to have a testable, reliable vision of a future event? In parts of the world where Islam dominates, many Muslims are turning to faith in Jesus Christ; and it is commonplace for that to take place by means of a vision of Jesus Christ. This happens so frequently (I am reliably told) that converted former Muslims are as likely to say, “tell me about your vision,” as they are to say, “tell me how you decided to follow Christ.”

There is a religious reality–a specifically Christian reality–involved here that could, in principle, stand in genuine contradiction to science.

Ayala says that Genesis is a book of “religious revelations and of religious teachings, not a treatise of astronomy or biology.” Well, of course it’s not a scientific treatise in the sense of conveying deep detail about natural processes. But it does speak to events that it claims actually to have happened in the cosmos and in the world. To show that with a minimum of biological and geological controversy, let’s move forward in Genesis a few chapters. Genesis 12 says that there lived a couple named Abraham and Sara, who in their very old age had a son named Isaac, who had a son named Jacob, who had twelve sons, one of whom became a regent of Egypt. It says there were seven years of bumper crops in that part of the world, followed by seven years of famine. These teachings have incredible religious importance to those who understand them in the context of God’s working in the world. Which “reality” do they belong to? Orthodox Christianity is committed to the full historicity of these narratives. It is conceivable that science could contradict them, however. Maybe some ancient record in the rocks or sediment would tend to deny there was any famine in Egypt. Perhaps archaeology might show that the whole story is utterly implausible (it hasn’t, by the way; quite the opposite in fact).

And Genesis says that God created the natural order. It does not say that he created it in such a way that his fingerprints in it are unambiguously clear to every observer. But it does show that there is no bifurcation between natural realities and religious ones.

When Ayala says that scientific knowledge cannot contradict religious beliefs, he is partly right, but for the wrong reason. He takes this to be true because science and religion have nothing to do with each other; but in fact they do, for religious beliefs may very well be statements about human and natural history. On the other hand, if the religion one has in mind in a statement like that is one that expresses real truth about reality (as I’m convinced Christianity does), then science and religion properly understood and interpreted certainly cannot contradict; for reality is a unity.

Series Navigation (Darwin's Gift?):<<< “Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion” Part 2“Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion” Part 4 >>>
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