When the baby-boom generation first decamped for college, if there was one intellectual topic that was totally passé, it was the relationship between science and religion. Hardly anyone was studying the subject, assumed by most thinkers to represent a total dead end. Now, as the boomers' children start off to college, if there's one intellectual topic that is starting to blaze red hot, it is the relationship between science and religion. Rarely has a comeback been so dramatic.
Signs of renewed interest in science and religion are numerous. The topic has recently been a top-selling cover for both Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. Universities such as Princeton and Cambridge, which in the 1960s didn't even offer courses on the relationship between science and religion, have established chairs for its study. In April, the venerable American Association for the Advancement of Science will sponsor a high-profile conference, at which physicists and theologians will debate whether recent findings of cosmology indicate anything about the existence of God. Such a confab would have been unimaginable even a decade ago.
Last week, the $1.2 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, an award previously bestowed on such figures as Mother Teresa and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, went to a little-known Minnesota academic named Ian G. Barbour. His accomplishment? Helping pioneer the interdisciplinary study of science and religion. Barbour promptly announced he would give $1 million of the award to the Berkeley, California, Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, an affiliate of Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union, and an organization whose own 1981 founding, and rising importance, are indicators of the science-and-religion trend. Why is science and religion on the rebound? Several reasons present themselves, among them:
Science was expected to disprove God, but didn't. It was widely assumed that continuing scientific research would uncover hard evidence that everything in nature can be accounted for by autonomous, pointless forces: that humanity "is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which [we] emerged only by chance," in the 1972 words of the French biologist and philosopher Jacques Monod.
But the expected disproof of the divine hasn't come. Natural-selection science, for example, has established beyond doubt that living things evolve in response to changes in their environment. But evolutionary theorists still don't have a clue as to how life began. What caused biology to begin remains one of the primary puzzles of science, with the prospect that structures as complex as the 6-billion-unit strand of human DNA could arise from chance alone seeming phenomenally improbable. Until such time as the origin of life is explained, God remains as likely as any other contender.
The Big Bang is looking more supernatural all the time. About 20 years ago, the late Carl Sagan famously said that Big Bang science would eventually show that the universe was created without any creator. Since then, the picture has changed quite a bit, one reason why, in the years before his 1996 death, Sagan himself began to advocate science-and-religion studies.
The leading contemporary development in Big Bang thinking is a theory called "cosmic inflation," which holds that the entire universe popped out of a point with no content and no dimensions, essentially expanding instantaneously to cosmological size. Now being taught at Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other top schools, this explanation of the beginning of the universe bears haunting similarity to the traditional theological notion of creation ex nihilo, "out of nothing."
That might be coincidence, of course. But the inflation theory of the Big Bang has additional aspects that sound, well, pretty darn supernatural. One is that our universe will continue to exist and expand forever, never expiring as cinders. Another is that multitudes of other universes exist in other dimensions, each also formed from tiny, empty points of nothing. The inflation theory of the genesis is sufficiently mind bending that one of the world's foremost astronomers, Allan Sandage of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution in Pasadena, recently proposed that the Big Bang could only be understood as "a miracle," in which some higher force must have played a role. A fair number of cosmologists are now saying the same. It's a 180-degree shift from a few decades ago.
Science is raising questions that science can't answer. Should people be cloned? Is an embryo a human life? Should genetic engineering be allowed? Biotechnology is generating many quandaries such as these, and will generate more. Such questions fall well outside the realm of science, one reason why many biologists, laboratory administrators and university presidents are seeking out theologians and religious scholars for consultation. Both the federal Recombinant DNA Activities Committee, which must approve genetic-engineering experiments, and the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, which is pondering cloning, have numerous theological advisors.
Religion is getting real about evolution. Some fundamentalists and creationists continue to fulminate against Charles Darwin. But mainstream faith draws ever closer to admitting that evolutionary mechanics must be correct. In 1996, Pope John Paul II called evolution "more than just a hypothesis." Some mainstream denominations, such as Episcopalianism and Reform Judaism, no longer contest natural-selection theory, seeing nothing in it that contradicts the existence of the divine. Stick-in-the-mud views about evolution have long made many of the religious seem, to scientists, simply not worth talking to. Now that mainstream faith is beginning to accept evolution, dialogue between science and religion becomes possible.
Postmodernism is running out of gas. Concepts expected to ascend to longtime intellectual dominance are, instead, losing appeal. Deconstructionism swept the university scene in the 1970s and 1980s, but hasn't worn well; interest in this theory is waning, except among specialists. Minimalist literature is in decline, having said what it had to say, or perhaps in this case, having avoided saying what it didn't have to say. The postmodern credo that all thought is conditioned by social context increasingly looks like just something to bear in mind, not the all-embracing Big Idea originally supposed. And the negativistic impulses of postwar existentialism have turned into their own enemies: If everything's meaningless, why even bother to say that?
As postmodernism descends into the blahs, metaphysics, or the study of truth, is enjoying a revival in academic departments of philosophy. Educators and thinkers burned by the fad for making all statements value-free are showing renewed interest in the study of right versus wrong. Increasing attention to the boundary between science and religion fits perfectly into that pattern, as both these disciplines concern themselves with grand issues and search for supreme answers.
This stuff is interesting. What caused the universe? Did reality arise from nothing? Is life a fluke? Is there higher purpose? Are we just interacting electrons, or do we possess an ineffable spirit? It's hard to think of many questions fundamentally more interesting, and that, ultimately, may be why science and religion is making its comeback. Neither science alone, nor spirituality alone, seems likely to produce a complete understanding of our being. But working together, they might: And if you can think of anything more interesting than that . . .
by Gregg Easterbrook, a Senior Editor at the New Republic magazine and author of Beside Still Waters: Searching for Meaning in an Age of Doubt. Los Angeles Times Sunday, March 14, 1999
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