Wary (and Inevitable?) Embrace

Science and religion, at odds for centuries, can -- and may be bound to -- find common ground, say speakers at AAAS session.
February 21, 2011

WASHINGTON -- A little more than five years ago, when James J. McCarthy was invited to attend a meeting of prominent scientists and evangelical Christians, he had his doubts.

McCarthy, the Alexander Agassiz professor of biological oceanography at Harvard University, wondered if he would be locked in a dead-end argument over the age of the planet -- one in which no amount of scientific evidence he could marshal would ever trump faith in a biblical interpretation of a young Earth.

But McCarthy overcame his initial misgivings, as he recounted here Friday morning during a session called "Evangelicals, Science, and Policy: Toward a Constructive Engagement" at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

At the 2005 meeting, he was among the 30 participants -- including the organizers, Eric Chivian, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and founder and director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment, and Rev. Richard Cizik (also a panelist), who was then still vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals -- who gathered at a plantation in Georgia to discuss the urgency of climate change.

The experience was transformative. "We found that each side of the table had far more in common than ever, ever imagined," McCarthy said Friday, adding that it quickly became clear that the scientists and evangelical Christians shared what he called "a genuine reverence for life on this planet."

The meeting resulted in a visit to Alaska where scientists and theologians could witness the effects of climate change together first-hand, as captured in "God and Global Warming" on PBS. It also led to the drafting of an open letter, "An Urgent Call to Action," that was presented in 2007. "We agree," the scientists and evangelicals wrote in the letter, "not only that reckless human activity has imperiled the Earth -- especially the unsustainable and short-sighted lifestyles and public policies of our own nation -- but also that we share a profound moral obligation to work together to call our nation, and other nations, to the kind of dramatic change urgently required in our day." Though the intervening years have seen joint appearances of some who made the trip, they have also resulted in backtracking by others who have reverted to climate change skepticism.

The interchange, like the session Friday, is part of an ongoing effort among scientists and evangelical Christians to bridge centuries of contentiousness between church and science, a period marked by feuds over everything from heliocentrism to evolution. Friday's voices from both sides of the battle expressed the desire to find common ground on some of the most morally, philosophically, emotionally, and existentially charged issues of the day -- a tension, as many noted, that ultimately might be resolved by the forces of demography. And, while the AAAS has been attempting to bridge the gap since 1995 through its "Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion" (as have others, including the John Templeton Foundation), recent history shows that much work remains to be done. More importantly, these areas of tension are likely to increase, as scientific discoveries about the nature of the mind and consciousness raise vexing questions about the existence of free will and the soul.

Religion: not Excluded, not Privileged

Recent news suggests that the old battles are not quite dead, as shown by the finding by Pennsylvania State University political scientists that a majority of high school biology teachers do not make a forceful case for biological evolution in the classroom. At the same time, science also has a way of unearthing new and vexing fault lines as researchers chart new discoveries with deep human, moral (and, of course, political) implications.

That's what James F. Childress, the Edwin B. Kyle Professor of religious studies and professor of medical education at the University of Virginia, experienced when he became a member of President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission, which advised the federal government on cloning, embryonic stem cells and other issues.

Though the original members of the commission had ample representation from science, medicine, law and industry, they recognized that diverse moral ideas from a range of religious traditions should be brought to bear on the scientific discoveries they would be discussing. For example, Childress said Friday, science alone could not determine the "moral status" of cryogenically preserved human embryos produced by in-vitro fertilization, which can be used in stem cell research. Were the embryos, as Childress put it, mere tissue, potential human life or actual human life? One area of agreement was that the embryos should be treated with respect and that alternatives to using them for research should be pursued first.

While the stem cell policy that the federal government eventually adopted under President Bush limited funding and access to embryos far more than scientists would have liked, Childress said that it was critical to involve religion in deeply human questions. "This engagement is vitally important," he said, "and there are a number of pitfalls."

One such pitfall is finding the proper place of religion. Religious traditions inform questions of ethics and morality, both for scientists and for the public at large. Therefore, religion, he argued, should not be ignored, but dealt with explicitly: it should be neither excluded nor privileged. And one religious tradition alone should not be allowed to rule over others (Friday's panel focused on evangelical Christians -- defined as the 30 percent of Americans who are united in their high regard for biblical authority -- in large part, he said, because of their activism in recent decades and the influence they wield on public policy). Engaging a range of religious traditions, including the secular, said Childress, is most likely to help in finding areas of common ground.

Contention Ahead -- and Within

The tensions between science and religion are likely to intensify as new discoveries in neuroscience emerge, said William Newsome, professor of neurobiology at Stanford University's School of Medicine. Some of this research reframes consciousness or behavior as little more than the byproduct of firing of sets of neurons.

The rhetoric for this view has been in place for decades. Newsome pointed to Francis Crick's 1994 book, The Astonishing Hypothesis. Crick, who won the Nobel Prize as one of the discoverers of DNA's double helix structure, famously declared on the book's opening page, "'You,' your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."

Newsome also cited Steven Pinker's essay, "The Brain: The Mystery of Consciousness," for Time Magazine, in which he argued that the existence "an executive 'I'" perched in the control room of our brains that balances competing stimuli and coordinates muscles and responses is a myth. "Consciousness turns out to consist of a maelstrom of events distributed across the brain," wrote Pinker, who is Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. "These events compete for attention, and as one process outshouts the others, the brain rationalizes the outcome after the fact and concocts the impression that a single self was in charge all along."

Newsome said such arguments are troubling because they come dangerously close to erasing the notion of moral responsibility and human agency (though Pinker would likely disagree; he writes in the same essay that "the biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul").

Science also suffers from its own "dogma" of reducibility, said Newsome. This dogma holds that complex processes can ultimately be reduced to their most basic, fundamental level. For neuroscientists, he said, this basic level is defined as the neuron (he later joked that physicists would argue a neuron can be further reduced to atoms). As Pinker's and Crick's arguments demonstrate, a fundamental view of neuroscience dictates that beliefs and emotions are no more than the results of neuronic impulses.

What Newsome argued, on the other hand, is the notion of "mutual manipulability," in which small-scale, discrete actions and large-scale complex ones reside on a two-way street. Neurons may fire a certain way to create long-term spatial memory -- but this larger-scale process, in turn, influences how the neurons behave. Following this model, said Newsome, high-level thoughts and ideas -- or matters of faith and belief -- have an impact on neurons. This more systemic view is not yet popular among neuroscientists, he observed. "We need a revolution in biology," said Newsome.

'The Old War is No More'

A revolution may already be under way among evangelical Christians, said Cizik, in which their vision encompasses a "new heaven and a new earth," as well as a role as protector and steward of this earth. This shift may be more pronounced among the young. Among different religious groups recently surveyed by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, evangelicals showed the widest gap among religious groups in how people of different ages but the same faith view the Bible. Less than half, or 47 percent, of young evangelicals interpret the Bible literally, as compared to 61 percent of those 30 and older.

"It really is something you should be encouraged by," said Cizik. "The old war is no more." If Cizik has cast his lot with the apparently changing mores of young evangelicals, his peers have been unwilling to do so. Cizik was pressed to resign the vice presidency of the National Association of Evangelicals after a 2008 interview with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air in which he said he was open to same-sex civil unions (another issue with profound generational differences in attitude). Young evangelicals, he said, are not prone to take the same hard line on wedge issues, or to see science as the bogeyman -- a prospect some find threatening. "If you get evangelicals to accept that science is not the enemy," he said, "they'll change their political views."

McCarthy said he also had noted the age dynamic Cizik described. McCarthy recalled a visit to a church during the trip he and his fellow scientists made to Alaska with the evangelicals. After a reverend there inveighed against climate science, a young woman in the same church stood up and gently upbraided him. It was the reverend's daughter.


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