Duke University Alumni Magazine


Sometimes seen as rivals for popular support, sometimes seen as separate spheres of engagement, these two world views have had an uneasy partnership in exploring the great questions.

riting around the year 396, the early theologian Saint Augustine didn't appear to be an enthusiast of science. Knowledge of the motions of the stars, he said in his On Christian Doctrine, "is of very little use in the treatment of the Divine Scriptures and even impedes it through fruitless study."

For its part, science hasn't always been welcoming of religion. Sigmund Freud, in his New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, described science and religion as rivals; each satisfies "the human thirst for knowledge." To the inventor of psychoanalysis, religion was a force that furthered human feelings of dependency. The adult could never quite shake off his childhood insecurities, and so he "harks back to the mnemonic image of the father whom in his childhood he so greatly overvalued," Freud wrote. "He exalts the image into a deity and makes it into something contemporary and real. The effective strength of this mnemonic image and the persistence of his need for protection jointly sustain his belief in God."

A contemporary theological thinker, George Marsden, has written about the "disestablishment of religion" and the commitment to "secularization" on the American campus. In his book The Soul of the American University, Marsden--formerly at Duke, now at Notre Dame --argues that "inclusive" higher education has virtually excluded "all religious perspectives from the nation's highest academic life." But the science-religion intersection has been probed in recent books, journals, news magazines, and websites. And now that intersection is working its way into Duke's curriculum.

In the fall semester, the theme of science and religion is being addressed in a Distinguished Professor Course taught by Edward Arnett, an emeritus professor in the chemistry department; the course reached its maximum enrollment of fifteen on the first day of registration last spring. "I've spent my life doing experiments, and this is going to be another one," Arnett says. "My father was very accomplished in internal medicine. I was brought up thinking like a scientist and admiring scientists and wanting to be a scientist, and I became a scientist. I was also brought up in a family that was serious about religion, and I was thoroughly used to the idea of people considering religious beliefs important in their set of values. So I come from both of those components of our culture."

Next spring, Kalman Bland, who directs the Judaic Studies program, will offer a religion department course on science and religion. Bland has a curriculum-planning grant from the Templeton Foundation, which, as its mission statement puts it, "believes a path of cooperation between the sciences and all religions will lead humanity to a deeper understanding of the universe, the unlimited creative spirit behind it, and our place in it."

For much of history, that intersection has been rather smooth. "A large part of medieval Christian, Jewish, and Islamic theology is written to reconcile or to map religious teaching and faith against the secular traditions of philosophy and science," says Bland. "Nobody would have bothered writing theology unless questions were being asked. And the questions were being generated from the reading of classical Greek texts, along with ongoing investigation in science. The classic way of putting it in the Western tradition is that God is revealed in two books. One of them is the Book of Scripture, and the other one is the Book of Nature. So science is a way of decoding the metaphorical Book of Nature, and knowledge coming from either of the two sources ought to lead you back to the one Author."

A Duke historian of science, Seymour Mauskopf, says that many pre-eminent scientists were deeply religious. "This was particularly true in the period of the Scientific Revolution. Scientists like Robert Boyle, Joseph Priestley, were profoundly, almost primarily, religious. They saw science as something like a religious vocation. Galileo even forced his two daughters to become nuns. They were illegitimate, so he may not have had any choice."

Scientists seem to be no less religiously minded than others with comparable levels of education. A year ago, an article in Scientific American discussed surveys of scientists by psychologist James H. Leuba in 1914 and 1933; the co-authors of the latest article repeated the surveys in 1996 and 1998. Four in ten of Leuba's scientists believed in "a God in intellectual and affective communication with man...to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer." The same result held in the more recent surveys. Somewhat more, about 50 percent, believed in an afterlife in Leuba's day, but now that figure is also 40 percent. Leuba had found much higher levels of disbelief and doubt in the so-called scientific elite. When they polled members of the National Academy of Sciences, the Scientific American co-authors found disbelief exceeded 90 percent. Biologists were most skeptical: Ninety-five percent of the NAS respondents identified themselves as atheistic or agnostic. Mathematicians in the NAS were most accepting: One in every six expressed belief in a personal God.

Arnett, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, says he's almost never heard religious conversation among his fellow scientists, at Duke or elsewhere. In fact, conversational themes rarely transcend a particular scientific specialty.

In Mauskopf's view, "Scientists do manage to compartmentalize their lives. I saw this when I was going to graduate school at Princeton, and I went to the local synagogue to say the prayers over the death of my mother. And I discovered a good part of the Institute for Advanced Study was there; these were mathematicians and physicists who were Orthodox Jews. So I think that scientists come in all different flavors in their attitudes toward religion, ranging from atheists to deists--and I would consider Einstein a kind of twentieth-century deist--to believers."

If any one historical event points to a divide between science and religion, it's the trial of Galileo. His published dialogues had broken with orthodoxy by suggesting that the Earth rotates on its axis every day and revolves around the sun once a year. The trial culminated in his 1633 condemnation for heresy.

Scholars note that the episode was not a clear-cut battle between the forces of science and religion. It took place in the wake of the Counter-Reformation, which produced violent struggles between Catholics and Protestants, along with challenges to papal religious authority. There was also a political dimension: Tuscany, whose ruler Galileo served, was closely allied with Spain, and Spain was a rival of the Florentine Pope Urban VIII. Quite apart from the challenge to scripture, Galileo's methods, representing as they did a break from Aristotelian methods, didn't find easy acceptance: Could the Earth's motion be true if it wasn't directly observable? And could an artificial instrument like the telescope be a means to the truth? Beyond such issues tied to the character of physical reality, there were issues tied to the character of Galileo--in Mauskopf's words, a "pugnacious personality."

As part of his defense strategy, Galileo tried to distinguish science and religion as separate spheres of activity--a distinction that has continuing resonance. In a letter to one of his patrons, the Grand Duchess Christina, he wrote that the proper theological concerns involved "the gaining of eternal bliss." Religion should not concern itself with "the lower and humbler speculations of the inferior sciences," inasmuch as "they are irrelevant to salvation." "Officials and experts of theology," then, "should not arrogate to themselves the authority to issue decrees in the professions they neither exercise nor study." Galileo employed Saint Augustine in making his case. Answering those who wondered whether the heavens move or stand still, the Christian theologian, in his interpretation of Genesis, declared that "these things should be examined with very subtle and demanding arguments," but considered such arguments irrelevant for "the needs and benefit of the Holy Church."

The more contemporary event that exposed a science-religion breach was the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial," argued in Dayton, Tennessee, over the teaching of evolution. William Durbin Ph.D. '96, now teaching at the Washington Theological Union, did his dissertation on aspects of science and religion in American culture. He says fundamentalist thinking conceives of science as being properly grounded in common-sense realism, a realism tied to belief in the authority of the Bible. "One should think of American Protestant fundamentalism as a cultural movement guided by a religious world view in which anti-evolutionism expresses a deep concern for America as a divinely appointed nation, a country with a special role to play in God's plan." Evolution, to conservative Protestants, reflects a larger cultural movement that challenges "a core belief in how God works both in nature and in society, in particular American society." The classic fundamentalist response to this perceived threat is "to separate from the rest of the culture, including taking the kids out of public schools--or failing that, to fight for their religious rights in public classrooms by advocating 'scientific creationism.' "

It's not just religious fundamentalists who are at war with Darwinism. Duke's Matt Cartmill, former president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, documented in Discover magazine a case of the academic left aligning itself with the religious right. A couple of years ago, the lower house of the North Carolina legislature passed a bill requiring that "evolution shall be taught as a scientific theory, not as a proven fact" in the state's public schools. The bill eventually died in the state senate. But as the arguments raged, the head of the program in Humanities and Human Values at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill "jumped into the fight on the creationists' side--in the name of multiculturalism," Cartmill wrote. The administrator complained that Darwin's theory "undermines religious conceptions of design or purpose in nature. As we teach it, modern science is not religiously neutralÉ [It] conflicts not just with Protestant fundamentalismÉ

but with many traditional Native American, African, and Eastern religions." So all the contending parties on the evolution issue ought to have their say in the classroom.

Cartmill, a professor of biological anthropology and anatomy, wouldn't treat scientific findings as mere social constructions: "Trying to present all ideas impartially without judging them would mean the end of science education. Like it or not, science is judgmental. It undertakes to weigh all the conflicting stories and find tests that will tell us which one is the least unlikely."

Science should be judgmental within its domain, that is: In the same article, Cartmill criticized evolutionary biologists who reflexively claim that evolution is purposeless and undirected. The official "Statement on Teaching Evolution" from the National Association of Biology Teachers used to describe evolution as "an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process," he noted. Science can't prove that nature is or isn't directed by God; because no tests are possible, science can only, in effect, shrug.

"The distinction between science as values-neutral and facts-driven and religion as dealing with meaning and values is too simple," says Mauskopf. "That used to be the construction of what science is--that scientists build up theories from facts, test the theories, and then move on. Essentially, that's the view of science that I had when I came into the history of science. I think that view has become a lot more complex. It's clear that science does act on value judgments and indeed supports them. Nevertheless, science professes not to find the kind of goal-directed meaning that perhaps drives religion--the meaning of life, the meaning of why we're here."

Darwin did see a direction in the descent of man; in his Descent of Man, he described the "remarkable success of the English as colonists over other European nations" and "the wonderful progress of the United States" in terms of natural selection. He perceived, then, "a hierarchy among the races, with the Anglo-Saxons as the ultimate race," Mauskopf says. "Yet Darwinism itself is not purposeful or goal-driven."

As evolutionary theory has it, says Mauskopf, "The reason one thing follows another has to do with all sorts of contingent circumstances, beginning with an asteroid blasting into the Earth sixty-three or sixty-five million years ago, which presumably did in the dinosaurs and ammonites. And this die-off was only one of the most recent of a number of major extinctions over the past five hundred million years. Nor are our bodies or our minds the result of any providential design; they're the result of the working out of natural selection. It all could have gone in many different directions, and there's no obvious reason why it went in this direction. And somebody who is deeply religious, even if they're not a scriptural literalist, may find all that difficult to swallow. Maybe we all find that difficult to swallow, because it is rather bleak."

It may be resistance to such bleakness that explains the findings in a Gallup Poll from the 1990s; the poll showed that 45 percent of Americans believe that "God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years."

There are echoes of Saint Augustine and Galileo--along with an avid defense of Darwinism--from today's most eloquent exponent of a science-religion divide, Harvard zoologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. In his book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, Gould encapsulates his "central principle of noninterference" in a system he calls "non-overlapping magisteria." A magisterium is a domain of authority. The magisterium of science, then, covers "the empirical realm: What is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory)." The magisterium of religion extends over "questions of ultimate meaning and moral value." To Gould, it makes no sense to conceive of "how science and religion could be unified, or even synthesized, under any common scheme of explanation or analysis." It is also untenable that "the two enterprises should experience any conflict."

Harvard sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, author of the recent book Consilience, goes beyond Gould. (Sociobiology treats social behavior as flowing from adaptive evolutionary processes.) Wilson sees science and religion as products of "autonomous evolution." He would have religion give up "blind faith" in favor of the task of framing a moral system, of codifying "the highest values of humanity consistent with empirical knowledge." In order to "retain credibility," religion must "incorporate the discoveries of science." He writes, "The eventual result of the competition between the two world views, I believe, will be the secularization of the human epic and of religion itself." Wilson doesn't just envision a great divide; he sees religion as needing to surrender to science.

Kalman Bland says it's simplistic to consider these as entirely separate spheres of activity. "Each time that division of labor is enunciated, there's usually a social or political motive behind it." In Galileo's case, the motive was deeply personal--avoiding the reach of the Inquisition. In Gould's case, "You probably need to look at the ongoing struggles in American society to keep religion out of the science curriculum. It's a diplomatic way of saying that since the two serve very different purposes, religion should stay out the way of science and then science will stay out of the way of religion. And if you have that division of labor, then everybody will be happy.

"Well, diplomacy is never really true. Diplomacy is expedient. Both religion and science make claims and propositions about the one world that we live in, and they both have an eye on what the other is saying. Science is infused by a lot of ideas coming from religion; religion can't speak without using the language of science. They overlap and converge all the time, whenever it comes to questions of behavior, morality, and natural law."

Both science and religion are integral parts of the society, Bland says, and so both are linked with social imperatives. "Any change in the society is going to both register and be affected by what's going on in the scientific and the religious communities of its time. In that way, too, they're not distinct magisteria." Seventeenth-century politics brought the emergence of absolute monarchy, Bland notes, after a long period of religious wars. "You have intellectuals in Europe wondering how to neutralize tensions in society, how to find ways of being certain about what's the truth, because of different claims to the truth. In the scientific world, you get the search for certainty. And so, too, religion in the seventeenth century is seeking certainty and dogmatism--rigid dogmatism, compared to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, where religious thinkers were much more willing to entertain skepticism and mythic imagination. So in early modern politics, science, and religion, we have a far less open and imaginative system."

Mauskopf mentions the form in which seventeenth-century English scientist William Harvey dedicated his groundbreaking treatise on the motion of the heart and the blood: "He has a triple image. He dedicates it to Charles the sovereign in the state, just as the heart is the sovereign in the body and the sun is the sovereign in the world. We used to take this as just being a kind of courtly conceit. And undoubtedly it was that, too. But we also should be willing to see it as more than that, as expressing as pithily as anything I know an interrelationship of science and society."

It's only with the nineteenth century, Bland says, that "science became less of a liberation force and more of a pragmatic solver of problems." He speculates that the sheer bigness of the scientific enterprise--and its increasing reliance on public patronage--has a lot to do with the shift. Just imagine the absurdity, he suggests, of self-defined agnostic Stephen Jay Gould testifying to Congress in support of funding the Human Genome Project, and arguing from the standpoint that genetic understanding will further the aims of secular society and of agnosticism, if not atheism.

Yet, in the eighteenth century, the French Encyclopedists saw social salvation in science; through science, they believed, a church-dictated moral code would be overthrown and a new moral code would be established. Denis Diderot was a prominent scientific materialist who--with Voltaire and Rousseau--targeted the ancien regime. In one of his imagined dialogues, Diderot mused that only physical processes imbue the "unfeeling mass" of an egg with potential: "Do you see this egg? With its aid, we can overturn all the schools of theology and all the temples of the world." As Bland puts it, "Natural science, it is claimed, will be an instrument of social revolution, undoing the power of religion, all religion. To the barricades, microscope in hand!"

If science and religion are, to at least some extent, both socially constructed, do they both subject themselves to revision? In his classic 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolution, Thomas Kuhn wrote about a shared "paradigm"--a term he coined--in the scientific community. That paradigm embraces agreed-on theories, methods, and standards in "an inextricable mixture." "Normal science" proceeds, then, in an inherently conservative community; a revolutionary theory takes hold only when the existing paradigm "has ceased to function adequately in the exploration of an aspect of nature to which that paradigm itself had previously led the way." According to Bland, scientific literature "would have us believe that science is the more open-ended, ever given to revision. But speaking as a historian of religion, I don't see any difference. Religion has undergone as many changes, and there have been as many intellectuals who reformed their religious traditions, either intentionally or unintentionally."

From his vantage point as a historian of science, Mauskopf says, "The paradox of science lies in what's called fallibilism. This is the idea that we hold particularly strongly to our scientific beliefs because we know that they are in principle tentative and are subject to testing and possible revision or even overthrowing by the methods of science. Now, religion is often portrayed as being unlike science, not fallibilistic. However, to say that religious systems have been simply static intellectually is ridiculous; they certainly haven't. Take Christianity: There's the hermeneutic tradition, the scholastic tradition, of reinterpreting Christian doctrine, of bringing it into concordance with the revived Greek philosophy in the high Middle Ages. Think of the Reformation. Again, this would be a paradigm change in religion. So theology is surrounded by change.

"Is it more static than science? Well, in some ways, probably so. One could argue that science in some ways has been more ruthless in its paradigm changes than religion. I don't know of any major work of science from 2,000 years ago that is still in force or that still plays any role in scientific research. In my own area, the history of chemistry, I don't know of any phlogiston chemists who are still at work. Whereas, obviously for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, scripture still does play a primary role in their discourse."

Modern science can be seen as approaching religion on the continuum of thought. Or it can be seen as growing farther apart. It depends where you look--and how you interpret what you see. At the level of the subatomic, modern quantum physics would seem to point to the randomness of observable events within a range of probable values--a notion incompatible with a clockwork universe that runs according to divine order. "If things are basically contingent, it may raise the question of why there is such lawlessness in certain domains, and even why the contingency itself is a universal law," Mauskopf says. "It certainly problematizes divine design and purpose rather severely. But even quantum mechanics has to account for things in terms of general laws. In quantum physics, all is not simply chaos--it's a lawful chaos. And at a higher scale in the universe, the quantum uncertainty does give way to much more lawful, deterministic, Newtonian kind of world."

Looking to the oldest and biggest phenomenon imaginable (or not quite imaginable), Ian G. Barbour, in his book When Science Meets Religion, discusses the "Anthropic Principle" as an argument for divine design. "A striking feature of the new cosmological theories is that even a small change in the physical constants would have resulted in an uninhabitable universe," he writes. "Among the many possible universes consistent with Einstein's equations, ours is one of the few in which the arbitrary parameters are just right for the existence of anything resembling organic life. Many cosmologists have pointed out that the possibility of life as we know it depends on the value of a few basic constants and is remarkably sensitive to them." The Big Bang, then, is an analogue to the biblical concept of Genesis.

But that's hardly a persuasive analogue, as Mauskopf sees it. "There may be lots of other universes where the forces are differently arrayed, and those universes collapse immediately or they expand infinitely or nothing forms or too much forms. So nobody is around there to talk about them." If the laws of nature were different, life would not exist. But wouldn't a differently constituted universe--one that, alas, can't be observed or speculated about--nevertheless exist?

Mauskopf says modern cosmology may conflict with religious notions not so much with visions of the beginning of the universe, but rather with models of the end of time. Western religions, he says, accept a linear, directional view of time. "Although God is eternal, His creation has a beginning in time. It has moments of significance of time--Moses on Mount Sinai, the birth of Jesus, the coming of Mohammed. And it has an end in time--the Apocalypse, the Last Judgment." Current cosmological theory has the universe "ending in a kind of great big whimper." That is, the universe will just keep expanding forever, and everything will get farther and farther apart. It's not the obvious closure that would seem to signal an End of Days.

In our own day, it's far from clear that the modern age has displaced religious faith with faith in science. By the eighteenth century, the European intelligentsia, which was not an insignificant proportion of the population, "tended to value science and to have some knowledge of it," Mauskopf says. "Almost nobody doubted that what Newton had done was unprecedented and was probably replicable in other domains of human knowledge. With the American Progressive Era, there was the sense that through science, government could perfect society. But in the early twenty-first century, we have a much more ambivalent view of science. There's a devaluation of science as a uniquely powerful way of gaining knowledge about the world."

In Consilience, Edward O. Wilson concludes that people, at least in the United States, respect science but are baffled by it. "They don't understand it, they prefer science fiction, they take fantasy and pseudo-science like stimulants to jolt their cerebral pleasure centers."

Even if science and religion don't harmonize easily in cosmic or subatomic matters, scientific progress, as it gives rise to new possibilities, is blurring boundaries. And we're not accepting of all those possibilities. We already eschew, in large numbers, genetically altered food. Our new genetic understanding will allow us to enhance attributes like intelligence and to correct deficiencies like inherited diseases. And just what kind of enhancing and correcting should be the aim of our genetic manipulation? That kind of question inevitably appeals to a religious sensibility--even for a self-defined "scientific empiricist" like Wilson, who finds himself resigned to humanity's questing after "spiritual fulfillment."

Maybe Wilson and the sociobiologists have it wrong. Perhaps science, as it impinges more and more on the world, will need to incorporate the discoveries of religion. As Bland puts it, "Perhaps science can be reminded by religion not to lose heart when the going gets rough and devaluation rules the roost. In turn, perhaps religion can learn from science that knowledge and truth about the world are harder to come by than we are often tempted to think--or believe."


The claim that evolution is purposeless and undirected has become almost an article of faith among evolutionary biologists. For example, the official "Statement on Teaching Evolution" from the National Association of Biology Teachers describes evolution as "an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process." That pretty much rules God out of the picture.

One popular book on evolution, Richard Dawkins' Blind Watchmaker, is subtitled Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. In his book Wonderful Life, Stephen Jay Gould argues that the evolution of human beings was fantastically improbable and that a host of unlikely events had to fall out in just the right way for intelligent life to emerge on this planet. One might well take this as a sign of God's hand at work in the evolutionary process. Gould, however, bends his argument to the opposite conclusion --that the universe is indifferent to our existence and that humans would never evolve a second time if we rewound time's videotape and started over.

But to reach this conclusion, you have to assume the very things that you are trying to prove: namely, that history isn't directed by God. If there is a God, whatever He wills happens by necessity. Because we can't really replay the same stretch of time to see if it always comes out the same way, science has no tests for the presence of God's will in history. Gould's conclusion is a profession of his religious beliefs, not a finding of science.

The broad outlines of the story of human evolution are known beyond a reasonable doubt. However, science hasn't yet found satisfying, law-based natural explanations for most of the details of that story. All that we scientists can do is admit to our ignorance and keep looking. Our ignorance doesn't prove anything one way or the other about divine plans or purposes behind the flow of history. Anybody who says it does is pushing a religious doctrine. Both the religious creationists of the right and the secular creationists of the left object and say that a lot of evolutionists are doing just that in the name of science--and to this extent they are unfortunately right.

Fortunately, evolutionary biologists are starting to realize this. After considering several such objections, the National Association of Biology Teachers deleted the words "unsupervised" and "impersonal" from its description of the evolutionary process. To me, this seems like a step in the right direction. If biologists don't want to see the theory of evolution evicted from the public schools because of its religious content, they need to accept the limitations of science and stop trying to draw vast, cosmic conclusions from the plain facts of evolution. Humility isn't just a cardinal virtue in Christian doctrine; it's also a virtue in the practice of science.

--Matt Cartmill

Cartmill is a professor in Duke's department of biological anthropology and anatomy; this is excerpted from an article in Discover magazine (March 1998) and is reprinted with permission.

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