Can science and religion agree?

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

Another common misconception is that the Catholic Church is opposed to stem cell research. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that are able to transform into other cell types with specific functions. Stem cells have the potential of providing a way to replace cells that are lost due to injury, degenerative disease, or the natural aging process. These cells are present during all human developmental stages, but they are most potent, and easiest to obtain, if they are harvested from very early (one week old) embryos. This causes the destruction of the embryo and it is this procedure which the Church strongly opposes.

The Church has never objected to the use of stem cells derived from other sources, such as umbilical cords or adult tissues. The Church’s objection to embryonic stem cell research is not based upon a fear of scientific progress, but on natural law theology which views an embryo as a human life and consequently needs to be afforded the same level of human dignity as anyone else.

Those who disagree with this position argue, correctly, that stem cells derived from other sources are much less potent in their ability to be transformed into other cell types. So, while most scientists reacted negatively to a recent presidential ban on such research in the U.S., it caused some to explore alternate ways for obtaining more potent stem cells.

Very recent progress in a technique called “nuclear reprogramming” indicates that it may be possible to derive pluripotent stem cells from differentiated adult cells such as skin cells and liver cells. Whether or not reprogrammed cells are as effective as embryonic stem cells in producing other cell types remains to be seen. It will also be interesting to see the Church’s position on research in this emerging area. While Church opposition to the use of embryonic stem cells remains controversial, in my view it has led to the opening of new research directions which may ultimately prove just as promising from scientific and medical standpoints.

Fundamentalisms in Science

Many scientists see developments such as the Intelligent Design movement or the stem cell controversy as an indication that religious people or religion itself is antagonistic to science. As a result, some scientists have felt the need to “fight back” with scientifically based critiques of religion that are the central themes of many of the so-called “new atheist” writers.

These authors use their positions as scientists to denigrate or explain away religious belief and the existence of God as an artifact of human social evolution. In my view, such writers are just as misguided and counterproductive as the fundamentalist Christians they seek to oppose. Science is empirically based: its powerful investigative insights are restricted to what can be physically measured and verified. Religion calls upon insights and knowledge that extend beyond the material reality accessible to science. So, just as the Bible should not be used as scientific textbook, scientific facts should not be used in any attempt to undermine or invalidate religion.

In my opinion, the real effect of the offerings from the new atheist writers is only to stifle constructive dialogue, interfering with our ability to address important political issues such as education, climate change, and human healthcare. Both religion and science can offer solutions to these important problems that can and should be mutually supportive. For example, why can’t scientific evidence for global warming be joined with religious concepts of stewardship for the earth and each other that then compels us to take meaningful action?

In my work, I seek to find areas of consonance between science and religion rather than dissonance — areas where meaningful conversation rather than self-serving diatribes can flourish. That is why I think this work is important and I am excited about this new project.

Dr. Glenn Sauer of Fairfield’s Biology Department recently received a $117,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The purpose of the grant is to help Catholic schools and parishes of the Diocese of Bridgeport begin developing programs that directly address religious issues that are impacted by modern advances in the biological sciences. The program will be based in Fairfield’s Center for Faith and Public Life. Dr. Sauer will be assisted by the Center for Academic Excellence and faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences.

Beginning in June 2012, diocesan teachers and religious leaders will meet with Dr. Sauer and other Fairfield faculty for a series of day-long workshops designed to scientifically educate participants and illuminate points of contact between science and Catholic religious perspectives.

Following the five day summer workshop, diocesan participants will meet monthly throughout the 2012- 2013 academic year to develop programs in science and religion to take back to their parishes and schools.