Can science and religion agree?

by Dr. Glenn Sauer, Donald J. Ross, Sr. Chair of Biology

How did life begin? What does it mean to be alive? When does life start and what happens when it ends? These are biological questions, but they also raise questions about the meaning of life and its origins that lie outside of science and are for many people a matter of faith.

Today, these sensitivities are heightened not by physics or astronomy but the science of biology. To many people, there seems to be a tension, if not an outright antagonism, between the pursuit of science and the cosmological understanding of creation that is integral to a Christian perspective on life. The popular media often points to Galileo’s (1564-1642) famous troubles with Church authorities over the issue of a sun-centered solar system as evidence of a long-standing historical conflict between science and the Catholic Church.

The teaching of biology in most academic settings does not typically include broader discussions on life’s meaning or purpose. These questions are usually left to classes in philosophy or religion. Teachers of biology may find themselves unsure or reluctant to delve into certain questions in the classroom because of an uncertainty about their students’ religious positions and sensitivities, as well as a lack of clarity about the official position of the Catholic Church on particular issues.

As a professor of biology at Fairfield, these are matters of particular interest to me. This year, thanks to a grant from the Templeton Foundation, I will be meeting with teachers and leaders in the Diocese of Bridgeport to talk together about how the teachings of the Church and the discoveries of contemporary biology can be reconciled. The long-range goal of the project is to develop a more scientifically literate and theologically articulate Catholic citizenry that is able to engage thoughtfully and productively with public policy issues relating to scientific progress and religious faith. The program will focus specifically on some of the common misconceptions held by Catholics and other religious groups regarding modern biological science.

Evolution and The Church

For example, Darwinian evolution, widely accepted by the vast majority of scientists today, has been attacked persistently by fundamentalist Christian groups since Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was first published in 1859. In the United States, religiously-based rejection of evolution has resulted in popular media spectacles, such as the famous Scopes trial in 1925, sometimes called the “Monkey Trial,” in which the State of Tennessee sued teacher John Scopes for defying a state law that prohibited the teaching of evolution. (Scopes, incidentally, was found guilty, but the verdict was overturned on a technicality.)

More recent manifestations include the “Intelligent Design” trial in Dover, Penn., in 2005, where a school district tried to change its biology curriculum to include a book that argued against Darwinian evolution and instead presented a form of creationism as an alternative. The school district was found to be in violation of the laws mandating the separation of church and state, and the judge found the school district’s actions to be unconstitutional. Interestingly, the two principal scientific witnesses in this case for both the plaintiffs (a concerned parents group) and the defendants (the school board) were practicing Roman Catholics.

So it might come as a surprise to some that the Catholic Church is not opposed to the scientific study of evolution. Even as early as the times of the Scopes trial, the writings of the Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) began to lay the groundwork for the Church’s eventual acceptance of Darwinian evolution as the best explanation for development of life and the eventual appearance of humans on Earth.

According to Teilhard, the universe (and mankind) is evolving towards what he called an “Omega Point” of maximum complexity and consciousness at which it would essentially become One with God. While most present-day biologists would argue against any particular directionality in evolutionary processes, Teilhard did recognize natural selection as the driving force of evolutionary change, as does the Church today.

Over the years, in fact, the Vatican has hosted conferences on biological evolution and what its impact might be on the theological understanding of life’s meaning and purpose. Today, some Catholic theologians, such as John Haught of Georgetown University, describe a scenario in which God lets the universe become itself, and suffers with it in the evolutionary process (struggle, death, extinction) as exemplified in Christ’s passion.

The Promise, and Problem with Stem Cells

Page 1 of 3 | Next page