E-Net News

In My Words: Relationship between science and faith is still evolving

Associate Professor Dave Gammon writes in a newspaper opinion column about the tension between strong religious adherents and members of the scientific community, arguing how the two groups aren't mutually exclusive.

The following column appeared recently in the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record, the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer, the Winston-Salem Journal, the Roanoke (Va.) Times, the Athens (Ga.) Banner-Herald, the Gaston Gazette and the (Durham, N.C.) Herald-Sun via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Viewpoints are those of the author and not of Elon University.

*****

Associate Professor Dave Gammon

Relationship between science and faith is still evolving
By Dave Gammon - dgammon@elon.edu

 
You may have missed it, but just a few weeks ago, one of the highest-profile events in the history of the creation-evolution controversy took place when Bill Nye of Disney’s famed “Bill Nye the Science Guy” TV program debated Ken Ham, CEO of the Answers in Genesis Christian ministry.
 
Live from the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., with more than 3 million people watching on television and online, the two men tussled over evolution, science, and whether creation represents a “viable model of origins.” I cheered for both sides, at least to some extent.
 
As a highly religious man of faith, I find enormous comfort in a Creator God who understands and loves us all. As a scientist who regularly teaches human evolution, I understand the scientific evidence well and find it both compelling and stimulating.
 
It surprises strong adherents on both sides of the debate to meet people like me. A recent Gallup survey, however, found over a third of Americans accept both human evolution and a Creator. Thus, folks like myself are exceptionally common, even though we make less noise.
 
But in the perceived battle between science and religion, too many display greater interest in protecting turf than in establishing and maintaining a respectful dialogue.
 
Both sides should know the other side is not going away. Three decades of surveys show essentially unchanged percentages of evolutionists and creationists, despite the steady buildup of scientific evidence for evolution, and despite evolving religious views.
 
And nearly everyone accepts some evolutionary change, creationists included. In the debate, Ham admitted that the 13 species of Darwin’s finches probably evolved from a common ancestor. The only major claim doubted by most creationists is whether humans also originated through evolution, though mainstream scientists settled this question among themselves decades ago.
 
Nevertheless, a deluge of scientific evidence rarely wins over creationists, and emotional appeals to the Bible rarely win over evolutionists. Core motivations differ dramatically for each side. Creationists are fixated on “whodunnit,” whereas evolutionists are equally fixated on “howdunnit.”
 
Measurements of nature by themselves cannot lead to the conclusion of the presence or absence of a supernatural creator. Scientific concepts might confirm pre-existing faith, but they almost never provide that initial spark of faith. Thus, if you want to know “whodunnit,” science has limited utility.
 
Conversely, religious texts give only limited details of the mechanisms behind creation. Explanations like “formed from the dust” or “speaking something into existence” can promote awe among believers, but they make weak science because they do not lead to any testable hypotheses.
 
Some creationists argue that understanding creation is beyond human comprehension. That’s fine for them, I suppose, but if scientists held the same viewpoint, they never would have discovered the cures for so many diseases, nor would they have created such marvelous technologies. Thus, if you want to know “howdunnit," religious texts have limited utility.
 
Creationists occasionally put forth testable scientific hypotheses as Ham did in his debate. But this strategy is mostly smoke and mirrors. Arguments about the internal motors of bacterial flagella, or the clustering of proteins in a cell membrane, are a sideshow. Creationists give credence to these “scientific arguments” only because they think it leads to the conclusion of a loving Creator – a beautiful conclusion, even if it rests on flawed science.
 
Likewise, evolutionists occasionally insist on the absence of a supernatural creator. Some, such as Richard Dawkins, even use evolution as a club against belief in God. This is ironic for at least two reasons. First, as mentioned above, science provides insight only into the natural world, never the supernatural. Second, atheist evolutionists are actually in the minority. Gallup surveys show over two thirds of evolutionists also consider themselves believers.
 
Clearly, accepting evolution is not synonymous with a purely secular life.
 
To believers, human evolution can help to explain aspects of human nature troublesome from a religious perspective. Why are there so many diseases, sexual temptations, and obesity, and how can we understand the differences between women and men? Religion provides valuable insight into these questions, but the questions make even more sense in the light of evolution.
 
So next time you see skirmishes between Christian and Darwinian fish, ask yourself this: “Why not both?” As theologian Thomas Troeger so beautifully captured in his hymn “Praise the Source of Faith and Learning,” in an ideal world, religion and science simply represent two currents in a river that  “fight each other’s undertow, till converging they deliver one coherent steady flow.”
 
Dave Gammon is an associate professor of biology at Elon University.

*****

Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.
 

Eric Townsend,
Staff
3/5/2014 1:25 PM