No Necessary Conflict between Science and Religion

                                                              Evolution [and] faith fuel [a] fascinating give [and] take         [ Gazette title ]

by Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.
for the Sunday Gazette

Whenever Letters Editors decide that their pages need an infusion of controversy, all they need do is to publish a letter from someone claiming that Earth is less than 10,000 years old or that evolution is merely an unproved “theory.” I don’t know whether that’s what happened at the Gazette recently, but for whatever reason we are now enduring a spate of letters on a subject long since settled everywhere in the civilized world except for the United States. No other country has such a large coterie of people who insist on the literal truth of the Bible despite the mountain of scientific evidence to the contrary.

 Much of the problem stems from Genesis, which states that God created the world in six “days.” From my earliest years in parochial school, the good nuns taught me that “day” was a poor translation of the intended meaning. To be consistent with scientific evidence, a Biblical “day” must consist of several billion years. With a certainty as good as our knowledge that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, geologic evidence indicates that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, give or take a few million, and abundant astronomical evidence shows that the universe is about three times as old, 13.5 billion years. And there is another problem with Genesis in that Chapter One places the creation of man after the creation of animals, and Chapter Two the reverse, letting Adam name them as they are created.

<>The Catholic Church made peace with evolution more than fifty years ago. Speaking to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 23, 1996, Pope John Paul II said “In his [1950] Encyclical Humani generis, my predecessor Pius XII had already stated that there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation, on condition that one did not lose sight of several indisputable points.” I’ll discuss the most significant of these “indisputable points” momentarily, but the current Pope went on to say: "Today, almost half a century after the publication of the Encyclical, new knowledge has led to the recognition in the theory of evolution of more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory."

That there is no inherent conflict between science and religion has been argued brilliantly by both scientists and religious leaders over several centuries, but never so cogently as by the late Stephen Jay Gould in his 1999 book “Rocks of Ages.” Gould was agnostic (“a gnostic,” i.e. “without knowledge”) with respect to the existence of God, not atheistic (“a theistic,” i.e. without belief in a theistic god, one who is continually on duty fine tuning what goes on in the world). He felt that religion and science belong to different realms that he called NonOverlapping MAgisteria (NOMA), and that so long as neither intruded on the other’s turf, there need be no conflict.

Religion is based on faith, the willful decision to believe something for which there is no direct evidence. In one of the most beautiful, but somehow sad, passages in the New Testament, John 20:19-29, Christ says “Because thou hast seen, Thomas, thou has believed. Blessed art those who have not seen, but [yet] have believed.” Science, in contrast, is based on observational evidence and experiments that can be replicated.

One recent Gazette letter writer said that she cannot imagine that the randomness inherent in an evolutionary process could ever produce something that showed evidence of “intelligent design.” Another writer asked for specific reference to a scientific publication that showed that random trial and error had ever produced a useful object. I refer him to the February 2003 Scientific American article “Evolving Inventions” whose authors describe patentable results obtained through “genetic programming,” the use of a computer to simulate the evolution of electronic circuits that minimize the number of components needed to achieve their objective.

Finally, I return to Pope Pius XII’s admonition that it was acceptable to believe that evolution was consistent with revealed religious truth only if we do not lose sight of certain “indisputable points.” A careful reading of his encyclical shows that he has only one serious reservation: that we must believe that it is God who, however He first created man, infuses each developing human embryo with a soul. There are several possibilities as to exactly when this happens, and since all lie entirely in the realm of the religious magisterium, none is in conflict with science.

Most people, including both of our presidential candidates, believe that human life begins with conception, so one might hold with Pope Pius that God, continually on the job, implants the soul at precisely that moment. Others might believe that God does this only after some specific number of cell divisions, at the onset of consciousness, perhaps. Atheists would say that there is no soul, so it never happens. Deistic scientists would say that the life force, the soul, is an emergent property of fetal development that was inherent in the “fundamental equation of the universe,” that is, that a God invented a general principle once, infinitely long ago and outside of what we call “time,” and lets the universe develop (evolve) in accordance with the general principle.

God, virtually by definition, is “all powerful.” So why do anti-evolutionists want to limit the way in which He may have chosen to create humans? Which is the more powerful God, one who must work hard, day in and day out, creating new species one by one? Or is it One Who is so infinitely intelligent and powerful as to invent a single basic principle, let nature take its course, work occasional miracles for those with the faith to perceive and believe them, and otherwise relax for a seventh “day” of 30 billion years until a new Big Bang is needed?

Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette opinion pages.

Published August 8, 2004