God vs. Science

We revere faith and scientific progress, hunger for miracles and for MRIs. But are the worldviews compatible? TIME convenes a debate

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Finding a spokesman for this side of the question was not hard, since Richard Dawkins, perhaps its foremost polemicist, has just come out with The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin), the rare volume whose position is so clear it forgoes a subtitle. The five-week New York Times best seller (now at No. 8) attacks faith philosophically and historically as well as scientifically, but leans heavily on Darwinian theory, which was Dawkins' expertise as a young scientist and more recently as an explicator of evolutionary psychology so lucid that he occupies the Charles Simonyi professorship for the public understanding of science at Oxford University.

Dawkins is riding the crest of an atheist literary wave. In 2004, The End of Faith, a multipronged indictment by neuroscience grad student Sam Harris, was published (over 400,000 copies in print). Harris has written a 96-page follow-up, Letter to a Christian Nation, which is now No. 14 on the Times list. Last February, Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett produced Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, which has sold fewer copies but has helped usher the discussion into the public arena.

If Dennett and Harris are almost-scientists (Dennett runs a multidisciplinary scientific-philosophic program), the authors of half a dozen aggressively secular volumes are card carriers: In Moral Minds, Harvard biologist Marc Hauser explores the--nondivine--origins of our sense of right and wrong (September); in Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast (due in January) by self-described "atheist-reductionist-materialist" biologist Lewis Wolpert, religion is one of those impossible things; Victor Stenger, a physicist-astronomer, has a book coming out titled God: The Failed Hypothesis. Meanwhile, Ann Druyan, widow of archskeptical astrophysicist Carl Sagan, has edited Sagan's unpublished lectures on God and his absence into a book, The Varieties of Scientific Experience, out this month.

Dawkins and his army have a swarm of articulate theological opponents, of course. But the most ardent of these don't really care very much about science, and an argument in which one party stands immovable on Scripture and the other immobile on the periodic table doesn't get anyone very far. Most Americans occupy the middle ground: we want it all. We want to cheer on science's strides and still humble ourselves on the Sabbath. We want access to both MRIs and miracles. We want debates about issues like stem cells without conceding that the positions are so intrinsically inimical as to make discussion fruitless. And to balance formidable standard bearers like Dawkins, we seek those who possess religious conviction but also scientific achievements to credibly argue the widespread hope that science and God are in harmony--that, indeed, science is of God.

Informed conciliators have recently become more vocal. Stanford University biologist Joan Roughgarden has just come out with Evolution and Christian Faith, which provides what she calls a "strong Christian defense" of evolutionary biology, illustrating the discipline's major concepts with biblical passages. Entomologist Edward O. Wilson, a famous skeptic of standard faith, has written The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, urging believers and non-believers to unite over conservation. But foremost of those arguing for common ground is Francis Collins.

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