Bridging the divide between science and faith

Science seeks truth in a different way than religion. Scientists ask the question How did life begin? while religion seeks meaning to our existence. Therefore some would argue that there should be peaceful coexistence instead of conflict. Others would take comfort in the fact that inanimate and animate matter are composed of the same basic elements, hinting at the influence of a divine architect using the same building blocks. Karen Armstrong, a religious scholar and former Roman Catholic nun, holds the view that religion is an ethical alchemy rather than a belief in things. Nevertheless, the reality is that differences between the two groups over life/death/evolution have drowned out voices seeking common ground or at the very least making their cases without vilifying the opposition. Gregory Petsko, a biologist from Brandeis University, is one voice making himself heard from the wilderness in a recently published article. He calls for a dialogue stripped of the usual rancor [1].

The road towards a truce between the two camps is paved with many obstacles. Embryonic stem cell research is one area where the battle lines are clearly drawn. Why? John Burn, a British clinical geneticist raised as a Christian, provides insights [2]. The vehement response to stem cell research as an assault on the sanctity of human life has its roots in a papal bull issued in 1869. Pius IX declared that life should, as a precaution, be deemed to commence at conception. Can one ever consider the union of a sperm and egg as life? It depends on where the definition is being applied. When removed from the controversial realm of stem cell research and applied to exobiology, scientists would have no problem referring to any discovery of Martian germs or the successful generation of a synthetic cell as life. However, the religious argument centers on the very essence of humanity ie, the possession of a soul. Burn points out that Jewish and Islamic teaching on the commencement of life differ from that of Christianity. Their scriptures proclaim the commencement of life at 40-80 days – when the embryo has a primitive nervous system. By contrast, Pope Benedict XVI declared that ensoulment occurs at the blastocyst stage. Burn’s article advocates a search for solutions rather than focusing on religious differences. Adult stem cell research may provide a temporary respite from the stalemate. Ultimately he proposes that medical need should trump literal biblical interpretations, as happened when cadaver organ donation was finally accepted.

Evolution is another roadblock and has in fact spawned a pseudoscience, intelligent design (ID). ID attempts to validate the existence of God by looking for examples of irreducible complexity in nature. Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University, dissects the scientific arguments for ID in his recently published book [3]. The bacterial flagellum (of E. coli) and blood clotting are often cited as examples of irreducible complexity in nature. About 30 proteins are needed to ensure normal functioning of the flagellum. Similarly, a multitude of steps have to be in place to ensure normal blood clotting. ID proponents argue that such biological systems are evidence of an external architect, because the components of each system could not function independently – they only function together for a unique purpose. Miller brings his prowess as an educator to the table in countering these arguments. Ten of the thirty flagellar proteins can also function in secretory systems necessary for bacterial virulence. In addition, comparative genomics has identified functioning blood clotting pathways in other organisms that lack some of the so-called critical steps. He cites many other examples as evidence of nature tinkering with different species using bits and pieces over time. Miller relishes the to and fro dialogue with ID proponents, suggesting that ID be put to experimental tests. He also cites the conservative, Charles Krauthammer’s remarks (appeared in the Washington Post): How ridiculous to make evolution the enemy of God. What could be more elegant, more simple, more brilliant, more economical, more creative, indeed more divine than a planet with millions of life forms, distinct and yet interactive, all ultimately derived from accumulated variations in a single double-stranded molecule, pliable and fecund enough to give us mollusks and mice, Newton and Einstein? Even if it did give us the Kansas State Board of Education (anti-evolutionists), too.

Arguments like those eloquently summarized by Miller and others are effective in pointing out flaws in ID. Does this mean that science and faith are permanently at odds and that scientists cannot be spiritual/believers? The answer is no. Just look at two famous examples: Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton. A brain scientist, Jill Bolte-Taylor, detailed how a rare stroke in her left brain hemisphere (location of the ego) forced her to tap into the right side of her brain, eliciting an experience of Nirvana [5]. While not advocating on behalf of religion, she regularly lectures on her experience and the benefits of tapping into one’s spiritual side.

It seems to be human nature to search for objective reality and revelation. Edward Wilson, famed entomologist and Harvard professor, proposed a unified model to explain everything that humans know and can know (interested readers are referred to his book) [6]. Perhaps an excerpt from the poem, Desiderata [7], best captures the human condition:

You are a child of the universe

no less than the trees and the stars;

you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you,

no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Sources
1. Greg Petsko, The new Manichaens. Genome Biol. 2008;9:105.

2. John Burn, Can a cell have a soul? British Medical Journal, 2008;336:1132.

3. Kenneth Miller, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. (New York: Penguin Group; 2008).

4. John Hurdle, Philadelphia set to honor Darwin and Evolution, The New York Times, June 23, 2008.

5. Jill Bolte-Taylor, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, (New York: Viking, Penguin Group; 2008).

6. Edward O. Wilson, Consilience:The Unity of Knowledge, (New York: A.A.Knopf; 1998).

7. Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, 1920.

Disclaimer: This essay, written a few years ago, reflects my understanding at that time and I respect the rights of others to disagree with its content. Since then, many advances have been made in the area of biology (specifically, stem cell research) and I have personally seen the power of faith in helping people to cope with harsh times. Whenever I find the time to craft my evolving thoughts (on science and relgion) into another narrative, I shall inflict those ideas on to an unsuspecting public.

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