Scientists Peer Into the Cosmos of Spirituality
Four recent books explore the possible connections between science and religion.
BOSTON — SPIRITUAL EVOLUTION: SCIENTISTS DISCUSS THEIR BELIEFS
Edited by John Marks Templeton and
Kenneth Seeman Giniger
Templeton Foundation Press
152 pp., $22.95
SCIENCE AND THEOLOGY: THE NEW CONSONANCE
Edited by Ted Peters
256 pp., $58
SKEPTICS AND TRUE BELIEVERS: THE EXHILARATING CONNECTION BETWEEN SCIENCE AND RELIGION
By Chet Raymo
288 pp., $23
DARWIN'S BLACK BOX: THE BIOCHEMICAL CHALLENGE TO EVOLUTION
By Michael J. Behe
307 pp., $13
What is science? "The search for truth about the order and structure of the universe." "The great book of the universe written in the language of mathematics." "A model of the world subject to modification by new evidence."
To scientists, it is all of these, plus a marvelously successful discipline, uncovering new and astonishing worlds, from the infinitesimal to the infinite.
Yet for some scientists, it cannot uncover the whole story. To inscribe the nature of life in its full meaning requires going beyond description of the physical world. Practicing science may inform and be informed by a spiritual journey.
Spiritual Evolution: Scientists Discuss Their Beliefs is an engaging set of personal essays exploring how 10 prominent scientists have sought to integrate what they were learning professionally with their most private intuitions and perspectives.
Biologist Charles Birch and medical doctor Larry Dossey, for example, write of their passages from fundamentalist childhoods through loss of faith during scientific studies into deep spiritual convictions that influenced their careers. Birch finds a meaningful perspective on evolution and the conviction that "mentality cannot arise from no-mentality." Dossey moves into consciousness research and a "vision of the world that is inherently spiritual."
S. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an astronomer who discovered pulsars, writes of her Quaker experience and the "felt presence" of God in everyday life, whether or not "S(He) created the physical universe 15 billion years ago."
This small volume also speaks to the "false choice," in Dossey's words, that young science students are pressed to make between science and the spiritual. This has "caused immense pain for millions of questing, bright young people" who are told they must choose between being "rational, analytical, logical, and scientific" or "intuitive, religious, spiritual, and intellectually reckless."
Science and Theology: The New Consonance is an in-depth engagement in the discussion between a group of scientists and theologians on some of the big questions: Is there a purpose to the universe? Does God act in nature? What does evolution have to do with ethics? How does the possibility that the universe will die relate to the concepts of resurrection and immortality?
The contributors range from physicist Paul Davies, a popular writer ("The Mind of God") and winner of the Templeton Religion Prize, to philosophical theologian Nancey Murphy, to Pope John Paul II.
Davies deals with the question "Is the Universe Absurd?," the pope with "Evolution and the Living God." Murphy discusses why universities should teach the natural and social sciences "as if there is a creating and loving God."
This is not a "popular" science and religion book. It can be heavy going in places. But for those with deep interest, it offers valuable insight into where scientific and religious thinkers are heading.
Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection Between Science and Religion is a "popular science" book. Chet Raymo - a professor of physics and astronomy at Stonehill College and science columnist for The Boston Globe - is aiming at the ordinary person who, he feels, in this period of spiritual searching is too often headed in the wrong direction. Too many have wandered into the "true believers" camp, when they really ought to be where he is, among the "skeptics."
The skeptic is the child of the scientific revolution, "always a little lost in the vastness of the cosmos," he writes, but trusting "the ability of the human mind to make sense of the world." True believers "look for help from outside - from God, spirits, or extraterrestrials. Their world is black-and-white. They seek simple and certain truths, provided by a source that is more reliable than the human mind."
Raymo is a lively, witty writer whose fascination with the world of scientific discovery is catching. He's a wonderful guide to appreciating the glories of the universe. But his approach to religion is much less knowledgeable and seems based on his personal experience of moving away from a Roman Catholic upbringing based on accepting authority.
His book purports to connect science and religion. It seems rather to offer a new religion that is not quite science itself, but a mysterious sense of life arising from the awe one feels in contemplating the world revealed by science.
He writes of faith in a God who acts in people's lives, tending to lump it together with belief in fairies, astrology, and other superstitions. One chapter is entitled "Astrology and Prayer" and gives short shrift to the growing interest in healing.
Calling on people to accept what is "fact," he says, "We are dust motes in a cosmos that is vast beyond our knowing.... Our souls are embedded in matter and impermanent. God, if he exists at all, is deaf to our pleas. Are these uncomfortable truths? Yes. Can we live with them wisely and well...? Yes."
"Skeptics and True Believers" is a paean to natural science. Its biggest failing lies in its premise that everyone fits into one of Raymo's two camps.
In Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, biochemist and teacher Michael J. Behe demonstrates why skepticism is a key value of the scientific enterprise. (Recently released in paperback, the book caused a stir when first published in 1996.) This is a lively review of what has been learned about the structure of life at the molecular level and its implications for "neo-Darwinism" (the agreement on evolution theory reached by biologists before modern biochemistry developed).
Behe writes that cell structure is "irreducibly complex." It is "chock full [of] systems composed of well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function," and removal of any part would cause the cell to cease functioning. Consequently, he claims, cells could not have developed through the kind of gradual modifications central to Darwin's theory.
Instead, cells suggest "design" by an intelligent agent, he says. This book has made Behe a leading figure in the "intelligent design" movement. He is attacked by Darwinists as simply a "sophisticated creationist," but Behe does not dispute evolution's applicability in some areas.
About half of the book is devoted to technical explanations, which he is aware the general reader may wish to skim. But the rest is surprisingly readable, offering a concise history of biology, a review of the debate on evolution, and an educational look at the values and pressures at work in the world of science.
* Jane Lampman is the Monitor's religion writer.