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God and the Dinosaurs


American Paleontologist 5 (1997), May, pp. 6-8

As the Millenium approaches and we comet-watchers get our "containers" in order, something is in the air.  I feel moved to divulge a ghaslty personal secret. In doing so, I am inspired by  the example of a number of other evolutionary scientists and philosophers who have come out of the  closet. I am comforted by the company of Stephen Jay Gould, E.O. Wilson, the late Carl Sagan, William Provine, Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins, to name  but a few. These courageous individuals have shared with us their religious views, which as a group range from respectful agnosticism to evangelical atheism. I can no longer hide the fact that I am a deeply committed Christian. All of my life I have practiced the faith of my fathers; this gives meaning and joy to my life, informs each breath  I take and everything  that I do.  It is sometimes a lonely path to follow. There are ever so many articulate models for the scientist as atheist, but rather fewer these days for the scientist as believer. Although I have spoken on these matters to sympathetic groups of faculty and students on several campuses, this is the first time I have revealed this troublesome secret in print. I will add my few  words as a theistic evolutionist to advocate what physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne terms “a broader view of reality.”

Why do I do so now? I might say because literally the Spirit moves me to do so. I can also mention John Catalani’s lovely essay in the last issue of The American Paleontologist (“Evolution ? --No problem says the Pope”), as well as Stephen Jay Gould’s essay, erudite and insightful as always, in the March 1997 Natural History (“Evolution and the Church -- Nonoverlapping Magisteria”). Over the years and through countless discussions with fellow travelers and skeptics alike, I  have come to accept myself and achieve a level of comfort with my stance. The position that a scientist can accept evolution and believe in God is a much misunderstood position , but one with a long tradition. William Provine has labeled such a position “hypocrisy,” although when I pressed him, he magnanimously allowed that I may not actually be a hypocrite, “merely blinded by powerful cultural traditions.” The position that Peter Dodson is blind but that Will Provine sees clearly may lack some of the objectivity that science requires for its operation.

Religious belief is not the enemy of science, nor vice versa. In fact, it has been observed more than once that the Judaeo-Christian view of the cosmos the prevailed in western Europe during past centuries was the correct view to permit science to develop and flourish. Greco-Roman pantheism that saw gods behind every rock and tree didn’t work; the view that God was apart  from Nature was fruitful. Aristotle‚s view of eternal unchanging essences, and worse yet, Plato‚s  view of true reality as incorporeal essences  barely flickering on the wall of a cave, were philosophers that did not permit natural science to prosper.

As Stanley Jaki phrased it so memorably, in these  cultures, yes, science was born, but it was a stillbirth! Similarly, the Chinese view that respect of elders is a superior virtue to respect of truth could not allow science to flower. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas baptized Aristotle, eschewing Augustine’s neo-Platonism that focused on treasures eternal to the neglect of the things of this earth. Christians were invited to take God‚s creation seriously. Thus was added to the Book of Revelation the Book of Nature, two ways of knowing God. Many of the great scientists who pioneered the development of science, Kepler, Copernicus, Newton, Linnaeus, Buckland to name but a few, regarded their activities as studying the Creator through his works. The notion that the world could be viewed independently of God is a product of the Enlightenment.

Theologian John Haught, in his masterful book Science and Religion. From Conflict to Conversation, characterizes the relationship between science and religion as taking one of four postures: conflict, contrast, contact or confirmation. Contrast is a primitive form of the relationship between science and religion, as in the model of two snakes eating each other’s tails, neither granting the other the right to exist. Scientists have predicted the disappearance of religion since the Enlightenment. As E.O. Wilson admits in his book, On Human Nature, this isn’t going to happen. Indeed, Larson and Witham recently published in Nature a survey revealing that about 40% of scientists believe in a personal God, a number essentially unchanged since early in this century! The extreme “scientific” position of non-tolerance is termed materialism or scientific naturalism. This is a philosophical position in no way intrinsic to science that entails the a priori belief that science is the only path to knowledge. William Provine, Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins all espouse this view in their writings. For example, Dennet, in his compelling  book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, describes Darwinism as “universal acid” which destroys all non-materialistic belief systems. The religious counterpart of non-tolerance is scientific creationism, an outgrowth of the fundamentalist belief in biblical literalism, a view discredited by liberal Christians since the 5th century, when Augustine observed that the purpose of the Bible is to teach us how to go to heaven,  not how the heavens go !

A second level of relationship between science and religion is the contrast position, seemingly espoused by Gould. This is the position that science and religion operate in completely non-overlapping spheres. This permits each to hold sway in its own domain, but also denies the possibility of any dialogue between them. I for one find this position too restrictive. This way leads to an all-too painful schizophrenia. I require more integration in my life. I refuse to leave my brains at the back of the church!

A contact or dialogue position seeks to recognize the fundamental harmony between science and religion. A religion that belittles science is too thin for me. As Polkinghorne says, “A scientist expects a fundamental theory to be tough, surprising and exciting,” no less in religion than in science. My science informs my view of God. The order and regularity I  see and study in Nature are reflections of the nature of God. My God is not a trickster or a magician. My God is also a God who grants freedom to His creation. Natural objects realize their natures, even when this means that the earth quakes and volcanoes spew lava, winds turn violent and raging waters overwhelm people. God grants the same freedom to people, who freely chose good or evil. Haught observers that natural selection may be no more problematic  than gravitation with respect to the existence of God.

The metaphor of the second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy, has transferred to human culture to a remarkable degree. Jacques Monod and Steven Weinberg are among those who have preached cosmic pessimism. The universe is going to come to an end in 15 billion years, either in an agonizing  ball of fire or in unending cold and dark, so human existence is pointless, tragic farce. But 15 billion years is a timescale that is utterly irrelevant for human affairs. Moreover, our supposed understanding of the second law of thermodynamics accords poorly with our experience of the universe. Far from running downhill, the universe is an unimaginably  creative, happening place! Only two elements, hydrogen and helium, were present at the Creation; today there are 111 elements and counting. Life did not create complex organic molecules; life is a(n inevitable?) consequence of the upward spiral of ontological complexity of which organic evolution is but a manifestation.  Matter experimenting  with novelty is trend that life did not invent but merely jumped astride, as Haught so aptly expressed it. Do these facts not suggest that the second law of thermodynamics is an inappropriate metaphor for culture? Haught instead asks, “Why is the Universe so intolerant of monotony?”

The highest stage  of relationship between science and religion is a vision that integrates both endeavors. One such view is that a universe created by God must be an evolutionary one. God‚s providential love for us infinite, and by definition this cannot be poured out in an instant  but is necessarily on-going and open-ended. Creation is not finished: stars are exploding, comets are impacting, new elements are being created, life is evolving.

I have great respect for science. It is one of  the most important and satisfying activities of my life, but it is only part of my life. I respect  the limits of science. When at last physicists achieve their Holy Grail, their Theory of Everything (TOE), I fear that with their few equations they will have explained almost nothing because they will have touched little that is most human of all. How can a few numbers explain the richness of human experience: Shakespeare, the Bible, the Monna Lisa, the Brahm’s Requiem, the Resurrection? As powerful as Science is in its proper domain, it is woefully incomplete as a prescription for human affairs. Science does not tell me how i should lead my life and what i should do for my neighbor.

As a religious scientist, I have a particular perspective on the evolutionary process. What then of the dinosaurs? In a word, dinosaurs were the jewels of God’s creation. They graced the planet for 160 million years. Like all of His Creation, they gave Him praise. God loved them.

References Cited

Catalani, J. 1997. Evolution? -- No problem says the Pope, “American Paleontologists” 5 (1): 6-7.

Dennet, D.C. 1995. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Simon & Schuster, New York.

Gould, S.J. 1997. Non overlapping Magisteria, “Natural History” 106 (2): 16-22; 60-62.

Haught, J.F. 1995, Science and Religion. From Conflict to Conversation, Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ.

Larson, E.J. and L. Witham, 1997, Scientists are still keeping the faith, “Nature” 386: 435-436.

Polkinghorne, J. 1994, The Faith of a Physicist, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Wilson, E.O. 1978. On Human Nature, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

American Paleontologist 5 (1997), no. 2, May, pp. 6-8.