Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Review of Religion and the Sciences of Origins by Kelly James Clark

Kelly Clark, a philosopher and senior research fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute, provides some much needed reflection and historical perspective on the often contentious relationship between scientists and religious believers. Clark begins by exploring possible models of engagement between the two realms:
  •  Conflict - If fiery spokesmen like Richard Dawkins, Maarten Boudry and Ken Ham are to be believed, the scientific and religious communities are locked in a mortal combat out of which one must ultimately emerge as victor. Which one? Depends on whom you ask.... 
  •  Separation - Stephen Gould's "non-overlapping magesteria" formulation compartmentalizes science and religion into separate, independent spheres. 
  •  Integration - In this view, science and religion provide two different perspectives on the same underlying reality; therefore they reinforce and correct one another. 
Clark espouses integration, pointing out ways that each discipline can inform the other. Neuroscience and biology can inform religious conceptions of personhood, and astrophysics and geology can help us discern what in ancient creation accounts are the essential points and what are the cultural accommodations. Perhaps more counterintuitive to advocates of the conflict and separation schools, religion can shape the scientific enterprise in return by providing an understanding of epistemology, the ethics of research methodologies, and the limits of what science can prove. The remainder of the book elaborates the often fruitful collaboration between the domains, both historically and today.

The author proceeds with an essay on the development of science--from the Aristotelian approach of "sense and common sense," to Bacon's idea of God's "two books" (science and Scripture), and eventually to Darwin's evolution, which liberates William Paley's divine watchmaker from the task of specially designing every species de novo, but not necessarily from his role as creator and ruler of the universe. Pioneers of scientific research like Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton all pursued "natural philosophy" (what we now call science) because they believed both that God created the universe in an orderly way (governed by universal, mathematical laws) and that he invites us to investigate and understand it. For many modern scientists and philosophers, though, science's implicit dependence on epistemological support from religion has shrunk to the point of seeming invisible. I must thank Clark for drawing my attention to the scientific pioneers' explicit affirmation of theology's role and impetus in science.

Clark devotes a chapter to the Galileo controversy, a major turning point in the relationship of science and religion. In particular, Clark carefully examines Galileo's hermeneutical approach to Scripture. As noted elsewhere in the book, religious thinkers like Augustine and Maimonides had previously concluded that God accommodated his revelation to the scientific worldview of his audience, rather than insist that they acquire a more accurate understanding of astronomy or geology prior to entering a covenant relationship with Him. Galileo, however, deepened the accommodation principle by putting it in a broader framework of four points:
  1. "The Naturalism Stance: When we examine the physical world we ought to bracket out religious considerations." This could also be called methodological naturalism. 
  2. "The Accommodation Principle: When speaking of the natural world, the Bible accommodates the opinions and views of the common people." 
  3. "The Doctrine of the Two Books: God has revealed truth both in Scripture and in nature. On matters of faith, the Book of Scripture has authority; on matters relating to the material world, the Book of Nature has authority." 
  4. "Interpretive Humility: We ought not think our interpretation of the Bible is final, especially when dealing with matters extrinsic to the central message of the Scriptures." 
While both Catholic and Protestant theologians were amenable to methodological naturalism and the doctrine of the Two Books, the principles of accommodation and interpretive humility were more controversial. As Clark notes, the Roman curia was especially indisposed to interpretive humility because of its acrimonious struggle against Protestantism. In my opinion, Clark indulges in a bit of blame-the-victim analysis by stating that the dust-up was more the result of Galileo's inflammatory rhetoric than a deep-seated conflict between science and religion. I disagree for two reasons:

  • Prior to the release of his sardonic Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo had long struggled under the burden of widespread and nasty rhetoric from leading theologians. As Clark himself quotes from Galileo's Letter, "no small number of professors" had "hurled various charges and published numerous writings" against Galileo's observations. In other words, Galileo didn't pick this fight, the theologians did. 
  •  While the Roman curia might have been in theoretical agreement on the doctrine of the two books, there was a strong conflict over how to apply it. What Galileo regarded as "a matter relating to the material world" was regarded inalterably by Pope Urban and the curia as "a matter of faith." The Pope stated that the Church, in accord with its traditions, was the only party allowed to interpret Scriptures that spoke of the sun moving but the earth not being moved. Ultimately, Urban's stance had to result in conflict, because there were no scientists making observations with telescopes and microscopes when the Church's foundations of Scripture and tradition were first being laid. 

The synthesis Galileo so elegantly articulated in his letter to the grand Duchess Christina (found in Works of Galileo Galilei) remains to this day a useful framework for integrating faith and science, however, so I learned much from this chapter.

The majority of the book is a discussion of a broad range of issues: evolution and creation, randomness and free will, the implications of evolutionary psychology for religious belief and morality, neurobiology and the existence of the soul, and what the design of the universe says (if anything) about the existence of God. Clark begins each chapter by presenting the various approaches to a question, including the evidence adduced by the proponents. While Clark clearly favors integration approaches, I found his discussion of differing viewpoints to be generally even-handed. The author typically closes a chapter by offering an explanation that integrates scientific and religious perspectives. For example, he notes that God can provide direction to the supposedly undirected process of biological evolution by putting his finger on the scale of circumstances that undergird natural selection. Although he also presents other models for integrating evolution and the doctrine of creation, I found this one quite intriguing. If I might be permitted to riff on Clark's idea ... we could envision God saying to Himself at the end of the Cretaceous: "Hmmm, these dinosaurs have reached a point where smaller ones could evolve into birds. The larger ones, however, are suppressing the rise of mammals. I think I'll nudge a massive asteroid in the direction of the Earth to wipe out those hulking tetrapods."

Clark finishes with chapters on debates over evolution and creation within Judaism and Islam. I didn't realize that Islam has its own Ken Ham wannabe, a Turkish artist name Harun Yahya who often borrows Ham's arguments almost verbatim to attack the (supposedly) idolatrous claims of (supposedly) infidel scientists. Clark also quotes Jewish and Muslim scholars who promote an integration viewpoint; I appreciated their analysis, even if I don't fully agree with their religious views. The extensive endnotes and bibliography are excellent resources for those who want to investigate the historical and contemporary debates more fully.

I will close this review by sharing some views on how Clark could strengthen this already commendable and helpful work in a future edition:

1) Even though the Intelligent Design camp has staked out a lot of territory in contemporary debates, nowhere does Clark engage their claims. ID has gained a lot of traction among religious believers who want to integrate their faith with science--or at least with geology, physics, and astronomy, if not with biology. In a book that aspires to provide an overview of the key ideas in contemporary debates, the absence of any analysis of ID is puzzling. Clark does spend a paragraph on how the recourse to supernatural causation--the "God of the gaps" approach--is ultimately self-defeating. However, the ID camp has made a broad array of claims (irreducible complexity, mathematical probabilities of mutations, methods of selecting between competing explanations for historical events) that need to be addressed. I wish Clark had included a chapter (or at least a few pages) on contemporary ID claims.

2) The chapter on geocentrism would be strengthened by a recognition of how key Protestant theologians (Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon) joined in the rejection of heliocentrism on the basis of its contradiction to the (supposedly) ordinary and crystal-clear message of Scripture. Contemporary proponents of Young Earth Creation like Ken Ham and the Institute for Creation Research make similar claims about the (supposedly) ordinary and crystal-clear meaning of the Genesis creation account, yet they seem completely unaware of how their Reformation theological heroes were ultimately proved wrong in a similar debate 400 years ago.

3) While Clark's irenic approach is refreshing in our era of hype, I would prefer describing the relationship between science and religion as dialogue, rather than integration. Integration implies that disagreements between the two domains cannot remain intractable, but some scientific findings (e.g., that a bodily injury to a brain can dramatically alter someone's behavior and even faith) strongly challenge Clark's sunny optimism about their accord. The Biblical books of Job and Ecclesiastes indicate that the religious believer may sometimes have to hold on to faith in the face of a universe that elicits doubt; we can sympathize with Job's wife who, surveying the destruction of her world, exclaims, "Curse God and die!" There are mysteries, contradictions whose resolution awaits a more complete revelation than we can ever view with our mortal eyes. To his credit, Clark recognizes some of these conundrums; he just doesn't seem to recognize their implication for his terminology. On the other hand, using the word integration allows Clark to reference the popular television series CSI (Conflict, Separation, Integration--get it?), so I won't lament his terminology too much!

Clark's broad perspective makes a unique contribution to a debate dominated by treatises on more narrowly defined issues (just biology, or just the age of the universe, etc.) where authors often do not examine their own premises. I have some disagreements with Clark, but I nevertheless found this book to be extraordinarily helpful and insightful. Highly recommended for undergraduate courses, church discussion groups, or anyone interested in the relationship between science and religion.
The author provided a review copy of this book to me.