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Feb 18 2005
Opinion: War Between Religion and Science is Not Inevitable

War between religion and science is not inevitable


Knight Ridder Newspapers

(KRT) - Word is that the battle between the Religious Right and those who accept Darwinian evolution is heating up. Recent newsworthy events have provided the more visible signs of renewed engagement. For example:

_Anti-evolution conservatives have recaptured majority membership of the Kansas state board of education.

_Some biology textbooks in Georgia contain disclaimers that evolution is just one theory among others.

_And petitions are circulating that call for teaching not just evolution but also creationism or "intelligent design," the newest proposed alternative, in the classroom.

Less visible, but perhaps more significant, is anecdotal and some survey evidence suggesting that many science courses in public schools simply avoid the topic of evolution. Just because it's in the curriculum doesn't mean it's in the classroom. Some principals and superintendents discourage instructors from dealing with the E-word. Some teachers give it a wide berth on their own.

The reasons are political, not pedagogical. A number of science educators think the tendency to avoid the topic is widespread, particularly in school districts with a significant population of Christian fundamentalists. And there is evidence that a revived offensive against teaching evolution is the next big fight for these religious and social conservatives.

These days the apparent theory of choice as an alternative to Darwinian evolution is intelligent design. The heart of this theory is the conviction that life is too complex to have occurred by chance and, therefore, intelligence is guiding the process. There are, furthermore, "physical marks of design ... visible in aspects of biology."

Please note that this is not a faith-based theory. Proponents of intelligent design say nothing about a creator. They do not doubt that evolution has occurred and, presumably, is still occurring. Still, devout believers use intelligent design in their arguments against evolution and for creationism.

The theory falls short of scientific methodology because it does not explain how this design is supposed to have happened and does not produce statements that can be falsified or corroborated. The theory apparently exists outside the scope of science, though scientists and nonscientists are free to believe or reject it.

So it's possible to be Darwinian (a scientific position) and still believe in design (a philosophical and sometimes theological one). Asa Gray, the Harvard botanist who introduced Darwin's "Origin of Species" to the American scientific community and was an enthusiastic Darwinian scientifically, was a theist theologically. The contemporary Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich notes that it's possible to entertain ideas of design within an evolutionary framework.

Let's keep two facts in mind:

_The scientific consensus is that all life has evolved from common ancestors and that the process has continued for billions of years. This theory has been and continues to be tested, corroborated, expanded and corrected as part of scientific methodology. It is the premise for work in the life sciences.

_The metaphor of "The Warfare of Science and Religion," particularly when Darwinism is used as the case study, describes the encounter too narrowly. When Gray introduced Darwin to America, there was more than one religious response to evolution. Just as there is today. I know a distinguished evolutionary biologist who is an active member of a mainline Christian congregation. Warfare is not inevitable, though it may seem so to Protestant biblical literalists.

Others of the Protestant persuasion choose to stand with John Paul II, who has stated that evolution and religion can coexist. We also should stand up to those who insist that it must be either/or.


(Leo Sandon is distinguished teaching professor of religion and American studies at Florida State University. E-mail him at

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