Enough About Evolution and Scripture! Beyond the Science v. Religion Debate, Part I

By Adam Frank | January 26, 2008 11:27 am

Adam FrankAdam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion. You can read more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

If the change-fest in Washington last week taught us anything, it’s that we are long overdue for transcending rickety old categories and rusty old polarities. A particularly urgent place to start, given the dismal history of the last eight years, would be the traditional Science v. Religion debate, which is exhausted, ossified, and no longer speaks to the challenges we face as a species.

I am a practicing scientist (astrophysics) and, after writing for DISCOVER and other popular science magazines for a decade, I consider myself something of an evangelist of science’s methods and worldview. I have always been in love with science and, for the record, do not hold a belief in a supernatural deity. But, in a cosmic twist of fate, it was science that gave me a profound respect for the character of experience people have always called “sacred.” Through my scientific practice, I have gained respect not for religion as a means of social organization and control, but for what happens beneath the institutions where individuals encounter the world through their own, inmost experience.

In other words, I am a practicing scientist who responds deeply to the beauty revealed in the worlds of science and art, and many of the diverse forms of spiritual endeavor.

From that perspective, it is clear that at this particular moment in history, when we face such obvious and overwhelming dangers, it’s time to put prejudices that drag discussion between science and the domains of human spiritual endeavor aside. We need to see if there isn’t something else that can be said about them beyond the exhausted and fruitless debate over evolution and creationism.

It’s time to put a definitive end to the futile misguided school board curriculum battles and find the creative will to speak to the many ways humans encounter the True and the Real. In a century sure to be haunted by climate change, resource depletion, and terrorism, we will need any and all tools of wisdom we can get. Science and Religion, at their best, can both be sources of wisdom. At their worst…well, we all know what that looks like.

This is the first in a series of posts where I am going to argue that there is a very different way of looking at the domains of scientific practice and the root of human religious experience. It’s not about Richard Dawkins, and it’s not about Intelligent Design (grrrrr!). There is nothing useful for the rest of us in that old battle, with its eternally amped up combatants. It’s also not about new-age wishful thinking about quantum physics and spirituality. It’s the nature of world and our place in it we are talking about, so wishful thinking simply won’t cut it here.

Taken as a whole, in discussions of science and religion there is simply too much at stake for us to rest in our comfort zones of accepted opinion. We need to find a new way, and the first step in finding that way is breaking free of inherited perspectives.

To be continued…

Image: Courtesy of www.constantfire.com

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion
MORE ABOUT: Adam frank, creationism

Comments (34)

  1. Jason Heldenbrand

    What you’re presenting is a totally rational argument for irrational people. Unfortunately the push for Intelligent Design in schools is an argument used by people who’ve already abandoned most logic and reason, searching for a way to keep religion in schools when other avenues are closed to them. In that regard, those who need to listen to you will not. The only hope for the future are the new generations, that the old guard of religious conservatives will give way to a younger generation of more open minded spiritualist-sorts who do not apply themselves to a dogma.

  2. Huh?

    So you’ve decided there is no god. You’ve decided religious people have nothing to contribute except a “sacred experience.” You’ve decided that nothing else is even worth discussing. You belittle anything that is not science as ossified, wishful thinking, grrrr-worthy, but because you condescend to describe the subjective religious experience as vaguely beautiful, that makes you the one who will move us all past the old science-religion debate. And you accuse us of wishful thinking.

  3. Charles Schmidt

    It seems to me that a debate requires more than one person postulating their evidence for their version of the truth. However, selecting which points to take on is like having an answer and looking for the question that you think it answers. You can even have the best data and others that support your view but that will not change anyone’s mind any more than you having yours changed by what you find. So it would seem that what you have going is an exercise in futility that will neither change what you or anyone else thinks or believes. But I look forward to reading what you have to present.

  4. Bystander

    It’s going to be much more difficult than doling out facts to these kind of people. We’re talking about a number of centuries where this source of mass delusion has been practiced as fact and touted to be the cure-all, where the punishment for disagreement was death and attempted genocides. It’s not just generations of idiots breeding with idiots, it’s the zealots continually impressing on these people to remember the fear and to doubt truth.

  5. Sarah

    I agree fully with what is proposed here. There needs to be a new way of thinking, new perspectives, especially in this time of uncertainty and opposition. Can Science and Spirituality be bridged in a way where all benefit and cooperate? I hope so.

  6. “Huh?”,

    Give Mr. Frank a break. As a theistic evolutionist (or as I prefer to call myself, an evolutionary creationist) — and one that has made the 180-degree switch from young-earth creationism to full-blown support for both cosmologcal and biological evolution, as well as the common descent of man from lower life forms (including the so-called “soul” and all) — I can appreciate where Mr. Frank is coming from. Over the last year, having interacted with a number of irenic atheists and agnostics on my blog, I’ve come to a significantly enhanced understanding of and sympathy for their arguments. In fact, I’d rather hang out with them than those of ICR’s, AiG’s, or the Discovery Institute’s ilk.

    What you really should do is actually sit down and listen to people like Mr. Frank rather than make them “talk to the hand.” Work to find common ground. From what I can tell, Mr. Frank is no Richard Dawkins. In fact, I suspect that he and I, even though I worship God as revealed in the Christian Bible, would get along famously! That being said, I’m looking forward to what he has to say and I’m headed to Amazon.com to check out his book. =)

  7. Unlike Sean over at Cosmic Variance, I think this dialog idea from Adam Frank is a good proposal and I’d love to read his book.

    There were IMHO some major fallacies and downers in the CV critique, however well-intentioned. First, the wrongness of this:
    When you start talking about “spirituality,” people are going to take you to mean something that goes beyond the laws of nature, in the sense of being incompatible with them, not just “hard to understand in terms of them”
    Nope, the more sophisticated approach (I use that without apology, pls. anyone don’t blather humble populist drivel against elites) is to ask why the laws are the way the are, are they that way for a purpose, if anything/any”One” is responsible for that way to be etc. That’s a heck of a ways off from crude interfering issues (not that it is self-evident or probable that our universe can’t be interfered in by something, if not “God” then other realms, “other universes” etc.) There is also the issue of experience as spirituality, and more I’m sure. No, it isn’t like being Humpty Dumpty. Words have layers of meaning, contexts; just look at the numbered distinctions in a dictionary entry.

    Second, this is one of the worst ways to think about/angle on issues themselves:
    But there is a deeper point, which is consistently missed by the gentle-minded/accommodationist/agnostic/liberal-religious/sophisticated-theology segment of the debate: It’s Not About You.
    Ugh. First, the fact that most people are either conventional believers or outright doubters is not the point (argument ad populum fallacy, here including the false idea that only the popular ideas were relevant, not just the fallacy that such ideas have to be true.) Yes, it matters to social policy etc., but minorities (and within a category) often have the best ideas. Why not engage the best the “other side” has to offer, instead of focusing on their most pathetic rabble (which I suspect is more to have an easily beatable straw man whipping boy than any earnest concern for practicality of application.)

    Third, I’ll defend the claim that more “sophisticated” approaches to religion are better (and more relevant for people’s edification, not to be confused with relevant to political brawling), well yes. One way to look at it: It just doesn’t make sense to think that it’s OK to wonder about the deep meaning of laws in the universe and be impressed with that, but not go up a step further (yet not all the way to a “being” like traditional God) and get the notion it’s likely to have a purpose or point geared to having inhabitants because of anthropic fine tuning, etc. Really, if you can look for “expressions” of things like symmetry and “beauty” in the universe (without a “someone” to make it so) why not inherent, “purposefulness” too? Some thinkers have noted, the latter can be a foundational element without a specific “personality” to make it so.

    Finally, I and others in the “spiritual centrist” category get tired of putting it all up as this false two-ways system of science v. religion and whether they can be compatible. It reminds me of how libertarians are sick of the liberal/conservative face off as if they didn’t exist. But ultimate questions are also dealt with by philosophy, which does what it can with issues not directly open to empirical study. (The argument that something has to be empirically knowable to be worth believing or meaningful etc. is itself philosophy, there’s no getting away from big P. It is philosophical reasoning which frames what our epistemic givens are, how “shared” etc, to get science off the ground.) Legitimate philosophy by definition is not derived from cultural traditions (other than necessary entanglement with “intellectual history” but that is unavoidable …) or claimed revelations. It works on whatever good knowledge there is and various reasoning processes to try and find answers.

    Hence philosophy has to be compatible with science – meaning no contradiction – but it deals with questions that may not be part of science (and of course, the question of whether there are such issues and what to do about them if anything.) Questions like, is the universe necessary or contingent, is there a necessary being and what is it, is it all that exists, is modal realism a cogent answer to the question of why one or some possible worlds exist and not others; etc., are not “religion” even though they deal with the same issues that religions do.

    PS: For background context, I am Unitarian Universalist and an independent “seeker” who isn’t buying anyone’s simple-minded, hand-me-down religion or disreligion.

  8. I was a Christian for 10 years, and a young-earther at that. Now I do believe in God, but not in the same way. I adhere to Spinoza’s arguments of what God is. And so, I do indeed see the importance of discussing something like this…we live in a country that is, in regards to our education (specifically science) a laughing stock amongst most nations. It is crucial that we realize that, even though their arguments are out-dated, egregious and logically about as sound as Palin for president, that they are still people…some of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met have been deeply religious…true, many (but not all) of them reject evolution…but here’s my point: I know firsthand what it is like to have your faith stripped away from you…it hurts. Do we really need to approach this problem of evolution and religion in such a derisive way? I would rather take it slowly…I have no desire to destroy someones world view. ..merely alter it.

  9. Clifton Dickey

    I grew up in a somewhat religious household and I always believed in God but as I got older, I turned to science and physics of all kinds. I’ve always been a very smart person and studied all aspects of science, physics, astronomy, sub atomic particles, etc…, in search of the mysteries of life. It wasn’t until I turned my heart over to Jesus and started to read the bible regularly that I finally found the answers that my heart was longing for. Why do we feel the need to disprove the existance of God through science? I believe both can coexist if we are just willing to accept God as the creator. In my opinion, God exists in a place where there is no time and we can’t expect the bible to explain creation in absolute detail. Remember, the bible was written by man for God and there will always be scrutany beceause of it. There is one fact that we need to realize, the universe was created by God. The reason we search for answers is beceause we were made in His image. Science does not explain everything and never does. The longer we search for answers without the knowledge of the existance of God, the further we are from the truth and in effect, will never find the answers.

  10. I’m looking forward to this series. Making blanket statements just causes problems, finding common ground solves them.

    While it’s easy to say the other side will never get it, you will find lots of cases where people with opposing views can come together. When I was in college, I was invited to a theology group that turned out to be a campus crusade meeting. I stuck around for the free dinner and figured I could antagonize them a bit, especially about evolution. At one point I made a snarky comment that believe in creationism implies that god is too dumb to think of something as effective as evolution.

    Instead of opposition, they started talking about how the bible never said how god created things, just that he did. By the end of the night, most of the people there were completely open to the idea that evolution was essentially the paintbrush god used to create.

    Not a 100% win, but it was enough that I could have a discussion about evolution with a group of evangelical christians and made a few interesting friends in the process.

  11. Belief in something unproven is not the issue. Hypocrisy is the problem. Religion is susceptible to hypocrites who use mass hypnosis for their own means. By its very nature, science is neither perfect nor hypocritic; I can deal with the honest unknown.

  12. Dagoberto Flores

    Good topic. Good intention. Good timing. A new era in education is about to begin.

    Why non scientific theories should be taught on schools? Is not what churches are for? Science is not taught on churches, and no scientist nor regular citizens are making such a demand.

    For those who believe in God, go to your churches, teach creation or whatever theory your sacred book asks for, and let the schools embrace science as it should be.

  13. “For those who believe in God, go to your churches, teach creation or whatever theory your sacred book asks for, and let the schools embrace science as it should be.”

    We’re not asking for God and creation to be taught in schools; just that the theory of evolution is taught as a THEORY, not a fact.

  14. After reading about Frank’s good-intentioned project and the related comments, I am reminded of the following quote by Joseph Wood: “The world of poetry, mythology, and religion represents the world as a man would like to have it, while science represents the world as he gradually comes to discover it.”

  15. Reginald Selkirk

    But, in a cosmic twist of fate, it was science that gave me a profound respect for the character of experience people have always called “sacred.”

    People have always called that experience “sacred” because they thought that it actually was sacred in the usual sense of the word; i.e. most people actually believed there was a supernatural component to that experience.

  16. Reginald Selkirk

    When speaking of chemistry, people have always used the word “phlogiston.” Therefore, as we continue to speak of chemistry in a more scientifically enlightened sense, let us continue to use the word “phlogiston,” even though we, as enlightened folk (wink, wink) understand that when we say phlogiston, we don’t really mean phlogiston.

  17. Sam

    “For those who believe in God, go to your churches, teach creation or whatever theory your sacred book asks for, and let the schools embrace science as it should be.”

    The problem with teaching Creationism or evolution for that matter is the fact that science doesn’t have all the answers. Science can explain so little about our existance, there are countless theories but for the most part not a lot of proof. Can science prove the Big Bang Theory? So far I haven’t seen any proof, it is just a theory so let’s treat it as such. As a Christian and a scientist I’ve been able to find a middle ground, yes I believe in evolution, and of course I believe in the Creator, so let me believe what I want to believe. I believe in GOD because he makes me a better person, whether there is heaven or hell at the end of the tunnel is irrelevant. But just in case….. And yes I agree that religion can be utilized to manipulate the masses but so can many other mediums.

    As a scientist I was taught to consider all the different possibilities, but some scientists seem to be abandoning that idea.

    And yes, I will teach Creationism at my church and you teach whatever it is you believe in at home. As a teacher I can assure you that science can be taught without having to go into detail about who did what or who didn’t do it for that matter.

  18. Bob

    Mr Frank,
    I have been reading through many of these blogs and I have to say that I agree a lot with Huh. Just because you say it with a nice tone to your pen doesn’t mean that you are saying anything about the Church that is going to move us forward. Quite frankly in some ways I prefer Dawkins over you. At least he is frank enough to say that he thinks we Christians are basically foolish and dead wrong. Do you really believe that your dialogue because you contextualize it in a way that would make us want to have a beer with you is in some way going to move things forward? I don’t see it.

  19. SeekingUnderstanding

    Science and religion are both complementary and diametric; the two approaches try to explain why our minds are able to ask a question. They are like oil and water. They coexist inertly together half mixed or half separated, take your pick.

    Complimentary are the seeking of reliably consistent explanations of the “why’s and how’s” of life. The differences are in how the stories of the “why’s and how’s” of life are “sought after” and consequently told.

    Science tenaciously seeks to answer questions of life from hard evidence gathered from interactions of matter and energy and their resultant dynamic and diverse causalities and perceived determinism as experienced through sensory inputs.

    Religion tenaciously seeks to answer questions of life that science ultimately can’t or hasn’t yet been able to answer. Religion, unlike science, also provides, and unfortunately in some cases dictates, ethics and morality essential for civil mass social interaction.

    Science concludes to jump, religion jumps to conclusions.

    Religion pacifies, appeases and comforts fear and ignorance (ironically even sometimes instills fear as a control mechanism…”God fearing” Never understood why I should ‘fear’a God? What a terrible life that would be. Life’s complicated and hard enough as it is). Science theorizes, experiments and tries to enlighten and explain away ignorance. It’s complementary that where one fails the other succeeds.

    It surprises me that no one has stated the most important and obvious differential between religion and science; what happens to me when I die?

    The religious and scientific why’s, what’s and how’s of our “sentient existence” is certainly interesting and worth debating, but what really scares the bajeebers out of and totally eludes scientists and theologians alike is what happens when we biologically cease to function on this petri dish we call Earth.

    Hard science won’t touch paranormal after-life questions, so it’s left to religion to pacify and appease the greatest fear and unknown of all; what happens to me when I die?

    It’s interesting and confusing to me that science and religion would ever be at odds. But then, determining the course that human nature has, is and will set is impossible.

  20. erik

    I have recently been, again, rummaging through this debate and consequently this post. I appreciate the desire to move forward past religion. As a pastor I preach that same message. Religion was not created by God. A relationship with God was created by God. I appreciated your thoughts in your post. Yet, how life began is indeed one of the key discussions behind both science and intelligent design and/or creationism. I don’t think we can disregard this debated issue as it’s answers have pivitol resolutions that impact how we view our world.

  21. Bobby McBride

    First, let me say that neither side of the evolution vs creation debate is correct. Those who have ears, let them hear! It’s so simple…. Evolution IS Creation! God does not get into a hurry! Why should he? Evolution is so obvious, even a blind man can see it, Plants EVOLVE from seeds, complex creatures EVOLVE from single cells (eggs) or from the union of two single sells. Except for single-celled creatures, ALL living things EVOLVE from simple to complex. Otogeny recapitulates phylogeny! If the parable of the sower is taken a step further, then consider God as the sower, and planets the seeds. Comets are therefore the “sperm” of the Universe. So, God sows the seeds of creation in the Heavens, “waters” them with comets, and lets evolution run its course. Millions of species may perish before the desired result is obtained. And the desired result, of course, are CREATURES which have EVOLVED into sentient beings with a capacity for finding out who they are and where they came from. These sre the creatures which God harvests. Don’t be a religious zealot or a scientific moron! The Intelligent design is the beauty of God being able to throw out “seeds” into many different “soils”, and sit back and wait to see what kind of “fruit” grows from it! There are so many Biblical and scientific references I could make that corroborate my assumption that I cann not list them all here. RELIGION and SCIENCE, properly understood, are one and the same. Some of you will say, “He’s an idiot!” Others will say, “He’s a genius, and he’s right!” For those of you who know I’m right, I’d like to talk to you. For those who would rather argue than concede, contact your respective schools od thought and show them how stupid I am. Thank you for your time. mac23skidoo@yahoo.com

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