‘from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved’
…the origins of all species, including our own, are found in natural processes that can be observed and studied scientifically. In other words, evolution demonstrates that our own existence is woven into the very fabric of the natural world. Seen in this light, the human presence is not a mistake of nature or a random accident, but a direct consequence of the characteristics of the universe. What evolution tells us is that we are part of the grand, dynamic and ever-changing fabric of life that covers our planet. To a person of faith, an understanding of the evolutionary process only deepens our appreciation of the scope and wisdom of the Creator’s work.
For Christians today, the scientific successes of evolutionary theory present a genuine opportunity to come to grips with the reality of the natural world that gave rise to us. That science, no question about it, presents genuine challenges to religion, but it also provides religion with an extraordinary opportunity to inform and enlighten the scientific vision of our existence…
Dobzhansky understood science as a way to refine and expand our understanding of the Creator’s power and majesty. This, I would suggest, is a model for the proper relationship between science and faith. A similar understanding was expressed more recently by Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer and Jesuit brother, appointed head of the Vatican Observatory. Interviewed by Astrobiology magazine, Consolmagno stated:
The trouble is that some people think they can use science to prove God. And that puts science ahead of God; that makes science more powerful than God. That’s bad theology. In fact, some philosophers have said that’s what led to atheism in the eighteenth century – the fallacy of the God of the gaps. You say, ‘I have no idea how this could have happened. It must have been God’s design’. And then fifty years later, somebody explains how it did happen, and you say, ‘I don’t need God anymore’. If your faith is based on science, that’s a very shaky kind of faith. My belief in God is not because of something I’ve seen in science. But I can turn it the other way around and say, ‘I believe in science because of my faith in God’. (Consolmagno, 2005)
The historical roots of modern science lie not in a rejection of faith, but rather in the conviction that exploration of the natural world is an act of praise and worship. As Aquinas and other Christian philosophers have emphasized, faith and reason are both gifts from God, and as such they should be complementary. In many ways, I would argue that science itself, regardless of the religious beliefs of its practitioners, is based on two great elements of faith. The first is that a genuine universe exists and can be understood by rational scientific inquiry. The second is that knowledge of that universe, gained through science, is to be preferred to ignorance. Albert Einstein, although not a theist, echoed these sentiments when he wrote:
While it is true that scientific results are entirely independent from religious or moral considerations, those individuals to whom we owe the great creative achievements of science were all of them imbued with the truly religious conviction that this universe of ours is something perfect and susceptible to the rational striving for knowledge. (Einstein, 1954, p. 52)
Ultimately, the religion and science debate continues because of a deep antagonism between extremists on both sides of the issue. The solution is not to split the difference, but to come to a genuine understanding and appreciation of the true depth of scientific and religious thought on the issues at hand. In the specific case of evolution, the sophistication of Christian thinking on natural processes and the divine will is routinely underestimated by those who would use science as a weapon against faith. Conversely, the Christian community often fails to appreciate the self-critical nature of science and the clear recognition of most scientists as to the limitations of scientific inquiry. In the final analysis, both sides may come to realize, as Charles Darwin did, that there is indeed beauty, wonder and even grandeur in the evolutionary view of life.
This post was a series of extracts from Ken Miller, ‘Evolution, faith and science’, pages 86-93 of Reason and Wonder: Why science and faith need each other (Templeton Press, 2017) with permission of the publisher.