Science and Religion–Sibling Rivalry?

Marilynne Robinson shouldn’t make me mad. She is a lovely Midwestern fiction writer, with long white hair and a demure voice, whose lecture on Religion, Science, and Art my fellow KtB editor Quince Mountain and I had the privilege of listening to at last week’s University of Iowa conference “Futures and Illusions.” And yet, as Robinson went on and we scribbled more and more furiously in our notebooks, I started to get a sinking feeling that I often do when listening to thinkers characterize the relationship between science and religion.

Robinson began by comparing the constant perceived war between science, religion, and art as “sibling rivalries,” related, but not very serious, “in every instance, exaggerated.” What’s needed, she said, is a new vision, to bring theology out of its intellectual ghetto and “restore humanist reverence for the mind.” Science, she felt, should not be treated in isolation, but as “a product of culture.” Well, okay.

As an example of how she already sees science and religion spilling into the assigned space of the other, she cited a recent New York Times story about the discovery of fossils showing there were “at least two contemporary Homo species, in addition to Homo erectus, living in East Africa as early as two million years ago.” A Museum of Natural History scholar is quoted as saying that the discovery “supports the view that the early history of Homo involved vigorous experimentation with the biological and behavioral potential of the new genus, instead of a slow process of refinement in a central lineage.”

Robinson felt that his language “implied agency,” perhaps that of a supernatural power, or at least that in his excitement over the fossils he had abandoned what she considered to be the more traditional, gradualist assumption that evolution proceeds apace, incrementally, at a relatively steady pace.

Quince was savvy enough to object to this first point right away in the question-and-answer session, to say “vigorous experimentation” does not necessarily entail that there has to be a someone to conduct the experiment. We say “experimenting” with drugs, or new ideas. Robinson acknowledged that she couldn’t read supernatural power into a New York Times quote, but did not concede her larger point that science was surprised by a more complicated picture of evolution. Looking at the original article, I see that the many scientists quoted do indeed see this discovery overturning certain of their expectations. But overturning expectations is what science does. Indeed the same article talks about how scientists have been looking for just this evidence of multiple lineages for nearly forty years.

And Robinson’s intimation that scientists always expect things to happen gradually reminded me of a conversation I’d had the week before with geologist David Montgomery, about his new book The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood (posted today on Religion Dispatches). Montgomery pointed out that to argue, as creationists advocating a worldwide, catastrophic flood do, that geology only understands slow processes, is “outright misrepresentation. They’re criticizing 1920s geology … It did take millions of years for sedimentary rock layers to form, but, you know, Mount Saint Helens did explode!” It’s misrepresentation based on being out of step with scientific history.  Today, catastrophism and incrementalism are two tools in the geologist’s toolbox, both perhaps equally useful in understanding the earth’s development. Montgomery, incidentally, independently emphasized Robinson’s point that science is a product of culture, as anyone willing to look at science’s history should be.

True, it may be unfair to fault Robinson for her somewhat regressive reading of this newspaper article—she is a novelist after all, not accountable to scientific or journalistic standards. But the media tends to ask her these big, worldly questions that they ask no one else. Leonard Lopate, interviewing Robinson on WNYC the day after I heard her at Iowa, asked “What is the relationship between religion and politics?” I’m sorry, but the only appropriate answer to that question is “How much time do we have, Leonard?” It’s an occupational hazard of being a Buddha-killer to experience immediate skepticism on the viability of  such broad queries. Quince and I thought immediately of fellow KtB editor Nathan Schneider’s reporting on the mysterious ideology of the Templeton Foundation, which throws huge pots of money into the hands of scholars asking those “Big Questions.” (See his articles “God, Science and Philanthropy” in The Nation and the “The Templeton Effect” in this week’s The Chronicle Review.)

Giving the illusion that big questions about science and religion have simple answers strikes me as slightly offensive to those who work in the uncomfortable gray area in between. As it happens, I also got to meet recently with Lee Meadows, a professor of science education the University of Alabama in Birmingham, who had been gracious enough to agree to be written about in my book on people who search for the Garden of Eden, although he does no such thing. What he does do is extremely difficult work at the edges of the culture wars, teaching teachers how to address the topic of evolution with students who are so resistant to the idea that they come to class armed with pamphlets from their churches saying “I’m not descended from a monkey.” Teachers, under intense social pressure in heavily evangelical communities, often avoid the topic completely. The educational gap is important: evolution, after all, has explanatory value not just for questions of where and how human life began, but also how it continues to change, how we become immune to viruses, how we inherit traits from our parents, and other aspects of life we all have to interface with. Say what you will about creationism being a political strategy of the religious right, which it is, or that religion and science only squabble in an intellectual sphere, but there is a real human, social cost here.

Sometimes, the Big Questions get caught up in what seems like a tiny little question. I asked Lee where he thought the next battleground between science and religion would be, and he surprised me by bringing up the fact that modern genetics excludes the possibility of tracing humanity back to one pair of homo sapiens, thus eliminating the “literal” Adam and Eve. I’d thought this was a small academic scuffle about a professor who got kicked out of a conservative Christian college for admitting this fact.  Turns out, the struggle against the “multiple lineages” hypothesis endorsed by those same surprising fossils is not restricted to hardline fundamentalists. Meadows’s own mainline Presbyterian church that says that no matter what you believe about the age of the earth, you do have to believe that we can be traced back to an actual human Adam and Eve. Which leaves the denomination conflicted.

The half-life of the Adam and Eve question is unknown. But it’s one that real, reasonable people, people who haven’t yet felt themselves touched by the culture wars, will have to sort out. Marilynne Robinson says the struggle between science and religion is exaggerated, sibling rivalry, and she may very well be right. But if so, she’s the patient parent, and many of the rest of us are down here in the trenches dukeing it out with our brothers and sisters.

Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden (Grove Press, 2011). An editor of Killing the Buddha, she lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Follow Brook on Twitter: @modmyth