As a daughter of a molecular biologist who was also a faithful tither to her church, I grew up in a world that saw no clear separation between science and religion. It was in the air I breathed and the way in which I learned to see the world.
For my mother, scientific exploration could only take her so far as she explored the “The involvement of pH, Adenosine triphosphate, calcium, and magnesium in the contraction of the glycerinated stalks of Vorticella” and other “decidedly microscopic” animals in her muscular dystrophy research in the mid 1950s to mid-1960s. Then, she said, “it’s all mystery and God.”
The beauty of science was something that I was attracted to as a young child—particularly biology. I was fascinated, and remain so, that there is matter that is less than a cell. The flow of blood in our veins, photosynthesis in plants, stars in the sky, how a tornado forms, the power of a hurricane, the teeming world in our oceans and more were interwoven with Sunday school lessons, tedious sermons, choirs who made a joyful noise to the Lord (sometimes literally), the many ways we love and care for each other because of our faith, and more. I was not raised in a very dualistic world as I was raised to see it as natural to talk to the universe through the stars because God was listening.
Charles Darwin changed the science of human difference by providing an explanation for the connection between species and their environments and between species themselves in external forces. Darwin concluded that forces outside the organism could change that species over time. Darwin’s evolutionary theory did not feature fixed species created for given habitats by God, the march of progress, or some inner vital force. Instead, Darwin concluded that forces outside the organism could, over time, change species.
However what Darwin could not change is our struggle to transcend deeply engrained cultural values and assumptions that can morph into vexing racism and sexism and more. Darwin was a man situated in the complex worlds of his time and in the histories of science and pseudosciences. He had a deeply conflicted position on race. He argued on one hand the biological unity of all human groups in The Descent of Man and in other notes and publications while also unquestionably assuming the superiority of Europeans. Darwin predicted that intergroup competition would ultimately “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races throughout the world.”
If I’ve learned anything from Darwin and those who have expanded and deepened his work or taken him down some dangerous rabbit holes, it is to be aware that we can fail at objectivity and devalue subjectivity prematurely in some spectacular ways as we seek to know ourselves and others if we do not remember that data can be wrong, values unexamined, cultural mores suspect, and faith devoid of moral backbone.
Darwin and advocates of rival theories all concluded that there is a hierarchy of race based on mental and emotional competence. Darwin also espoused the general interiority model of women’s capabilities as he considered some of women’s inferior traits to be fortuitous counterbalances to masculine characteristics.
When we engage in a robust religion and science conversation, we must expand our understanding of the demands of public life and how we can and must pursue just relationships within the context of creation. To do so means that we intricately factor in the impact of culture on science and reason as we strive to build on these to create rational narratives that embrace poetry and beauty that engage the heuristics of faith through critical thinking about the issues of our day such as global warning, evolution in public schools, stem cell research, human cloning, and more. We are dangerous when we believe that it is immoral or unfaithful or just plain wrong to engage science and reason from our various lens of faith. And we are dangerous when we believe that it is unscientific or irrational or just plain wrong to engage the horizons of awareness, possibility and desire that our various lens of faith bring to science.
We must also remember that science is not and cannot be a source of moral authority. Reason untethered from the demands of diversity and an expansive understanding of whom and what makes up the social order is not a foundation for expansive moral reasoning. Faith without a sense of our own situatedness stifles the moral imagination so that we are unable to be mindful of the living creation of which we are a part and embrace not only our humanness but that of others as we sit in a whirling universe that is finite with glimpses of infinity and a God who has and will outlast the boundaries of time. Some like to put God in the gaps of what science cannot know, or cannot yet know, as an inferior placeholder for future knowledge. But some understand that this dualistic approach to science, reason and faith misses the deeper interaction of situatedness, moral imagination, and careful observation. Scientific exploration can only take us so far and then it’s all mystery and God.