The modern portrayal of science and religion is one of conflict, polarization and general misunderstanding. No single issue illustrates this tension better than the controversy surrounding Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which prompts questions about creation and the origin and end of human existence. While one popular perspective interprets an unbridgeable divide between belief in God and the science of evolution, the mission statement of Notre Dame envisions a potential for harmony between faith and science.
Science and religion: friends or foes?
As University President Father John Jenkins, CSC, stated in his 2005 inaugural address, Notre Dame ought to be a place where “intellectual and religious traditions converge to make it a healing, unifying, enlightening force for a world deeply in need.” Fr. Jenkins’ statement rings true for the continuing debate between faith and Darwinism, especially in the context of education.
In 2009, American historian of science Ronald Numbers compiled a book of essays titled Galileo Goes to Jail. The essays dispel through the exploration of three themes the modern idea that the science and religion are inevitably in conflict.
Numbers recounts how the work of early scientists—or natural philosophers, as they would have called themselves—was often motivated by religious commitments. From Kepler’s work with astronomy to Newton’s exploration of physics, a desire to understand the wonder of God’s creation undergirded the pursuits of some of history’s greatest thinkers.
Likewise, many religious institutions’ notorious persecutions of scientists took root in theological disagreements, not strictly scientific ones. The ambiguity concerning the interplay between theological and scientific propositions derives partially from the overlap between science and religion at that time. Indeed, science and religion once went hand in hand, as even the earliest church-funded universities advanced scientific pursuits.
Furthermore, much of the tension in the science and religion debate has been heated by late 19th century writers, such as Andrew White and John Draper, who wrote polemic accounts of the intellectual suppression of scientists by the Church.
In the 20th century, Ian Barbour, a religious scholar and physicist, proposed a model for the interplay of religion and science consisting of four typologies: conflict, independence, dialogue and integration.
Out of Barbour’s four typologies, dialogue optimistically envisions an informative exchange between science and an inquiry into the divine. Though scientific naturalists like Richard Dawkins doubt the possibility of dialogue, much work has already been done to bring science and religion into friendly relation. As one might expect, Notre Dame is a place where this sort of work is happening.
Faith, reason and Notre Dame
Professor Phillip Sloan, a Notre Dame historian of science and professor emeritus of the Program of Liberal Studies, has written extensively on the philosophy and history of evolutionary theory, as well as on the implications of this theory for Catholic thought. When Sloan explained his work to the Rover, he laid out two basic accounts of the unity of divine creation and evolution.
The first account Sloan described as “process theology,” which posits a goal-oriented evolution with humanity as a focal point of complexity. This account represents an attempt to reconcile faith and evolution in such a way that humans have a telos: witnessing creation and serving God.
“The other account, which interests me more, is a more mystic Augustinian account which places the fundamental emphasis on the creation from nothing,” Sloan continued. “This means that the world is a product of the free creation of God and that the existence of that world develops orderly.”
The second model distinguishes between primary and secondary causation. “Primary causation says there’s a primary cause for nature, the world, and the universe as created from nothing. But then within that is the establishment of secondary causation, by which natural processes have their own autonomy,” Sloan explained. “There are a number of ways in which Darwin’s On the Origin of Species can be read as making that basic point, although he isn’t trying to analyze a theological sense of creation, but he is trying to replace miraculous creation with secondary laws.”
Professor Sloan added that the Catholic Church ought to develop a “clearer understanding” of the “positive and interesting features” of Darwin’s theory, as the Catechism lacks a definitive entry on evolution.
Professor Kenneth Filchak, a specialist in Notre Dame’s department of biological sciences, sees the incompatibility of evolutionary theory and theism as a common misunderstanding.
“Early on, Darwinian evolution created a dichotomy to any kind of belief in faith, such that you couldn’t be a person of faith and be an evolutionist. Obviously, that’s wrong,” Filchak said. He went on to explain that Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the solar system, much like Darwin’s evolutionary theory, caused tremendous uproar and religious backlash initially, but the discord was ultimately resolved. “No one has a problem with the earth not being at the center of the solar system anymore,” Filchak said.
Yet Darwin’s theory has remained divisive. Perhaps the reason lies in the modern image of Charles Darwin and the appropriation of his theory by neo-Darwinists.
The real Charles Darwin
A close examination of Darwin’s life reveals a man of great spiritual nuance, rather than one who rejected religious truth outright. In his essay, “Sense of Sublimity,” Sloan describes the contributions that Darwin biographer James Moore had made to correctly interpreting Darwin’s modern image.
“As the fundamental studies of James Moore have demonstrated, we have before us all of the historical complexities of an individual who has functioned as one of the primary architects of modern scientific naturalism yet, in his later life, raised money for parish activities and served as a treasurer for the local Sunday school,” Sloan writes.
By Darwin’s own accounts his loss of faith was gradual and did not directly correspond, as some claim, to the formation of his theory of evolution. Regarding his spiritual disposition, Darwin wrote in an 1879 letter to John Fordyce, “an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” In the same letter, he claimed that a person “can be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist.”
Many scientific naturalists have tailored Darwin’s theory to their own purposes. Dawkins, Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford, presents Darwinism as an “intellectual superhighway to atheism,” while philosopher Daniel Dennett of Tufts University describes evolutionary theory as a universal acid that “eats through just about every traditional concept.” These writers reduce all aspects of life—from religion to love—to evolutionary drives.
As Sloan explained, Darwin’s ideas are less extreme than Dawkins and Dennett claim. “Darwin is more flexible on questions of teleology and purpose and doesn’t emphasize the role of chance in nearly the same way as Dawkins does,” Sloan said. “Darwin is more interesting to read.”
Darwin actually encountered men like Dawkins and Dennett when Ludwig Büchner and other German atheistic thinkers made a pilgrimage to his residence during his lifetime. Moore describes the scene in his Darwinian biography as a compilation of all the complexities of Darwin’s life: Reverend Innes, the local Anglican pastor and close friend of Darwin, was also in attendance when the atheists visited. The event reveals a man who had a fascination with the natural world and no particular qualms with faith.
“They wanted Darwin to talk about the great struggle between science and religion,” Sloan said, recalling Moore’s description, “but Darwin wanted to talk about earthworms.”
What this means for Notre Dame
When anti-religious connotations are removed from Darwin’s theory, evolution allows for theistic interpretations that maintain human specialness. As Sloan explains, there is something particular about being human, even within the scope of evolution.
“Even though every bone in my body may have some relationship to those in primates, nonetheless we confront the world in a different way, we deal with the world in which philosophy, love, language, all exist and transform the animal origins,” Sloan said.
Filchak explained how faith and reason come together in moral predicaments.
“Science can’t tell you whether or not to have an abortion,” he remarked. “However, science and the tools of science might be able to tell you about the formation of a baby’s central nervous system at a certain stage of development and that might inform someone’s opinion. Certainly, one could use reason to measure the risks of an abortion, but a certain faith in human dignity is also at play.”
Faith can also transform our motivations, according to Sloan.
“Even to say why we should protect the environment or why we should care about the melting of the Greenland icecap requires concern for some fundamental goods, and what grounds those goods are questions of ethics and theology and faith,” he said.
A variety of institutes have explored these concerns through programming and education. Theology Professor Celia Deane-Drummond has taught a course entitled “Science and Theology” that explores the intersection of faith and reason. The Colleges of Science and Arts and Letters co-sponsored a series of academic and public events in 2009 to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Numerous Notre Dame professors have written essays and books on the subject of faith and reason. As Blessed John Paul II wrote in a 1987 letter on relations of science and religion, the two cannot ignore each other’s presence.
“For the truth of the matter is that the church and the scientific community will inevitably interact; the options do not include isolation,” Blessed John Paul II writes. “Christians will inevitably assimilate the prevailing ideas about the world, and today these are deeply shaped by science. The only question is whether they will do this critically or unreflectively, with depth and nuance or with a shallowness that debases the Gospel and leaves us ashamed before history.”
Charlie Ducey is a sophomore studying English. He always thought he would come up with a clever byline, but right now, he’s just grasping for words. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.