Transcript: Evolution and Creationism in Focus
Can Religion and Science Ever Mix?
While the board did not mandate the teaching of biblically-based "creation science," its decision raised new questions about the separation of church and state and about what role – if any – religion should play in science.
Dr. Robert Russell, founder and executive director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS), was online August 25, 1999, to discuss his organization's view that both religion and science are indispensable in any attempt to understand our existence and should not be mutually exclusive.
Dr. Russell has multiple degrees in physics and theology and has written or edited a number of publications on science and religion. He recently co-edited the 1998 volume Evolution and Molecular Biology: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, which was jointly published by the Vatican Observatory Press and CTNS.
Good afternoon. In our continuing exploration of religion and science in the wake of the Kansas school board decision on evolution, we're grateful to have with us Dr. Robert Russell, a theologian and physicist.
Let's get started with our first question.
Concord, California: It seems to me that what has happened in Kansas should be alarming for the very people who would support the teaching of creationism in public schools. It takes faith to believe in creationsim. If the churches are not able to instill and inspire the kind of faith that it takes to believe in creationsim then I think the problem resides in the church, not in the public schools. What are your thoughts?
Dr. Robert Russell: Interesting point, Concord! Many scholars around the world are much more interested in exploring a mutually supportive dialogue and interaction between the natural sciences, including evolutionary and molecular biology, cosmology, etc., and Christian theology, including a theology of creation. We do not use read the bible literally, as do many "creationists". Granted there is an element of faith in every form of knowledge, including science and religion, what really counts in such a dialogue is the way each side holds their views self-critically, open to reformulation, and concerned for a common pursuit of truth. Mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, by and large, seek to encourage faith in the God of the bible who acts through the processes of nature and history to bring about life in all its diverse forms and to bring humanity into a deeper community with God, each other, and life everywhere. "Creationism" is at best a distraction, at worst a caricature, of this goal. You're right, though; the Kansas event is really a problem within the church, not between the church and society: it's another instance of the "fundamentalist-modernist" conflict over the authority of scripture (ie., literal vs. normative) within the wider Christian community.
Washington DC: Do you agree with the Kansas school board's assertion that we would be lying to children by exposing them to the unproven theory of evolution. Does this mean we should limit the teaching of other theories which could possibly clash with a strict biblical interpretation -ie the entire field of theoretical physics-
Dr. Robert Russell: I most strongly disagree with Kansas's school board assertion. Biological evolution is one of the most well-established sciences we have, rivelling Big Bang cosmology and non-equilibrium thermodynamics in physics. It is intimately tied to molecular biology / genetics. If it were wrong, we would have wasted 3Billion dollars on the Human Genome Project, and there would be no hope to cure 4000-5000 human diseases which are based on genetic mutations. The real problem is that almost all fields of contemporary human knowledge since the Enlightenment have come to challenge a literal reading of scripture, causing the 'fundamentalist-moderninst' split in the 19th century and producing the reaction called "Fundamentalism" at the turn of this century. I am part of mainline Protestantism which, along with most Roman Catholic theologians, reads scripture through the scholar lens of 150 of careful studies, discovering it is much more complex and celebratory of God than any literal reading produces.
Dr. Robert Russell: I certainly agree in part that it is more responsible both scholarly and rhetorically to read science as asking how and religion why --- roots philosophically go back to Kant, of course. A current proponent of distinction is Steven Gould.
Marysville, Kansas: I am a Presbyterian pastor in Kansas who has a teenage daughter, so I am a bit concerned about this recent turn of events with the state school board. However, I am mollified by our local newspaper's query of local school boards. None of the area schools plans to alter their curriculum in any way. It seems that the only change the state decision will bring about is that questions about evolution will not appear on state-sponsored curriculum testing -of which sort I am not clear-. I plan to continue to teach my daughter and the children of my parishioners that an ongoing system of evolution is a magnificent way for God to accomplish creation. Last spring I took our children's Sunday School to a local fossil bed where we studied Genesis amidst quite an array of marine fossils --- seeing firsthand how fascinating is God's system of change and how it blesses us.
Dr. Robert Russell: I'm delighted to know you, even indirectly this way! What you did with your daughter is just what my wife (who is a UCC minister) and I did with ours!
Cabin John, MD: Did you read the chat with Tom Willis earlier this week? If so, how do you see his role in this debate, and do you think that his stubborn attitude is harmful to the discourse on religion in schools-evolution?
Dr. Robert Russell: I read it yesterday and was saddened and angered by the way he treated many of the folks sending in questions. I was glad, though, that at least one person representing creation science challenged him. Clearly we each need to be mindful to separate the question from the person asking it, and to remember that God loves (and died for) the person --- even before they knew it!
Washington DC: I may be wrong, but it was my understanding that Kansas felt that evolution should not be taught because it could not be proven -the chat guy here earlier in the week even called it lying-. However, what could be less able to prove than evolution? How do you prove there is a God? It is an absatract concept based on faith - having nothing to do with science. The basis of science is something is-is not regardless of your faith in it -ie. water boils and freezes at certain degrees regardless of whether we want it to or not-. In my mind, creationism is a lot less provable than evolution.
Dr. Robert Russell: I can agree with much of what you said, though the issue of "provability" is extradordinarily complex, as the history of philosophy of science since the 1920's has shown. A couple of quick replies to think about: the boiling of water is more phenomenological than theoretical (compare it with, say, general relativity or quantum mechanics), just as the golden rule is more phenomenological and can be given lots of reasons in its support, including practical ones (!), than say the Great Commandment which asks us to love God as well as our neighbor. Another reply: The basis of science consists in a set of assumptions about nature which science cannot prove or disprove but must operate out of in order to be science: that taking empirical data constitutes genuine knowledge (compare with other more idealist philosophies of nature), that the universe can be represented mathematically (we got this one from Greek phil), that the universe is contingent and requires experimenting in order to be known (this one comes from the doctrine of creation ex nihilo --- out ofnothing --- and represents part of the contribution of the Medieval church to the birth of science inthe west), etc. So science includes assumptions which cannot be proven, and which, ironically, have their roots by and large in the theologies of the west, including contributions from Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
We're roughly halfway through our discussion with Dr. Robert Russell. Please continue to submit your questions.
College Park, Md.:
Hello Dr Russell,
Dr. Robert Russell: Each of us is, of course, free to dispense with particular religious views, but we should keep a couple things in mind: first, religion can be defined as the search for what is of ultimate value, significance, and reality in our lives, and in this sense all of us are religious. Second, it is often important to give up a more or less naive view of what Christianity is thought to claim (such as the way you depicted the miracle at Cana) in order to'clear the ground' as it were for a deeper and more life-giving experience of God in one's life --- and thirdly, I may well give up on God, but the good news is that God will never ever give up on me.
WDC: By categorically condemning atheism as "foe" are you not also condemning atheists -entitled to live their lives, teach their children as they see fit-as enemies and sinking a bit into the arrogance and disrespect you allude to avoiding?
Dr. Robert Russell: Thank you very much for your reply, since I most certainly do NOT want to be heard this way, and if I was, I apologize for it!
San Diego, CA:
Please explain why you think that "religion....is indispensable in any attempt to understand our existence"
washingtonpost.com: FYI, the quotation above was written by washingtonpost.com in an attempt to introduce readers to Dr. Russell's organization. If it's inaccurate in any way, Dr. Russell, please say so in your response. Thank you.
Dr. Robert Russell: For starters I'd say that religion broadly speaking includes the most important questions we each ask ourselves --- is life meaningful, what is its purpose, how should I live in relation to myself, to others, to what ultimately counts. The Biblical religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, seek torespond to these basic questions through their traditions of sacred text, interprtation, values, and liturgies. I think it matters very much which relgion, since these responses can differ profoundly, but I also think we must be vigorously open to the religions commitments of others as we grow within our own.
Rockville, MD: For those of us who are not fundamentalists, the "debate" between evolution and creationism" seems ludicrous. But is it obscuring the more important question as to whether evolution, as we know it today, necessarily excludes the possibility of some designer? Do the hard core proponents of evolution take that view and is that the picture of evolution that is presented in the schools?
Dr. Robert Russell: Good question! The question would be what one means by design. Roughly speaking, if God as designer has to violate the laws of nature, intervene within the orderly processes of evolution, then I think this view is highly problemmatic =--- for theological as well as scientific reasons. But if God is already intimately immanent in the very processes of nature, being the transcendent Creator / source of everyting, as well as the ongoing, continuous creator of the world, than the processes of evolution ARE God's design. Many of us are working on this immanentalist, non-interventionist, interpretation which combines both transcendence and immanence nicely.
College Park, Md.:
Hello Dr Russell,
Dr. Robert Russell: Christianity calls me to accept that Jesus died for my sins and offers me new life through His Resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit. As theologians articular a detailed theology surrounding this primary experience of faith, one of the issues we wrestle with is why there even is a world / universe in the first place,why there are lawss of nature, why this universe should be one in which order, complexity and mind emerges in nature and in time out of matter and disorder, etc. Ultimately the concept of God explains all these to me in detailed ways --- and sheds light on the particular kind of order we have in natural laws --- for ex., God would want to create a universe capable of the evlution of life and mind and spirit in order toi come into community / covenant with creatures capable of moral agency (such as humanity on earth; SETI elsewhere?). Thelogy of creation also provides many of the assumptions on which science is based. In the end, the sheer fact of the existence of the universe is something which science must assume and can never account for --- as even Stephen Hawking points to at the end of Brief History of Time.
MCLean: Isn't the Big Bang theory and the religious concept of the creation of the universe really consistent. God created the universe through the Big Bang.
Dr. Robert Russell: Good point. Roughly: yes and no! Until recently, when the standard Big Bang (Einstein's version) reigned, t=0 seemed to lend support to (though I'd say never proof of --- pace, Hugh Ross!) creation ex nihilo. Actually even this kind of claim is extremely complex --- read Quantum Cosmology and th Laws of NAture that I co-edited in 1990. But recently, inflationary Big Bang and now various quantum cosmology scenarios undo the scientific credibilyt in t=0 and with the earlier consonance with creation theology. Remember, though, that what creation theology is really about is God's continuous immanent activity in nature which we describe by science as the 'laws of nature', and without God there would be no universe at all, whether or not it had a beginning --- we've known that since the 10-13 c.!
Washington, DC: I agree with much of what you say but I find, personally, fundamentalism far more offensive than atheism. Atheism is to me a religion masked as nonreligion. Fundamentalism claims to speak for all Christianity but is in fact a mean perversion of it.
Dr. Robert Russell: One thing to keep in mind is that 'fundamentalism' appears in all major world religions --- and in science! Perhaps the real divide here is between a fundamentalist stance towards one's truth claims (dogmatism, literal reading, appeal to authority, etc.) and an attitude of tolerance: convictions held passionately but fallibly, openness to intrisic limitations, etc.
washingtonpost.com: We'd like to alert our affiliates that we're going to run over our allotted time. With the quality and quantity of questions we're getting, Dr. Russell has agreed to stay on with us another 15-20 minutes.
Please continue to submit your questions.
Fairfax, VA: Is your viewpoint just a lot of mental gymnastics in order to make opposing arguments compatible? Isn't this issue really "either-or"?
Dr. Robert Russell: Fair enough --- some issues within what I call the general 'science-religion' discussion may well be 'either-or', but not 'science-religion' itself. My point is that there can be genuiine conflict, and that this is healthy as long as it is addressed with mutual respect, self-criticism, and acommon commitment to truth. For example: do humans have a soul? Are human values such as altruism purely genetic devices for survival? Is the sheer existence of the universe in need of explanation? What I want to avoid is using science per se --- and not its philosophical or religious interpretation --- as a proof for or against God.
What I find really frightening about what's happened in Kansas is the general ignorance of science -- by which I mean the nature of scientific inquiry and scientific method -- in our culture that makes it possible for people to talk about "Creation science." I'm a non-scientist who studied a great deal of science before choosing another profession, and I'm constantly amazed at how few people understand what a theory is, or the idea of testing a hypothesis, etc.
Dr. Robert Russell: Great comment --- a strongly agree with you!
College Park, MD:
Hello again Dr Russell,
Dr. Robert Russell: Thanks for your question inviting me to clarify my point!
washingtonpost.com: You say that scientific methodologies and history are rooted in theology. Could you give a couple specific examples of how theology influenced the origins of science?
Dr. Robert Russell: Rooted in part, I hope I said!!! Quick examples: the contingency and rationality of the world came out of Jewish, Islamic and Christian philosophies of nature roughly 10-14 c. (culminating in Thomas Aquinas). They underlie the assumptions that we cannot fully know what the world is like by pure reason (eg., Greek deductive syllogism) but must, instead, experiment to find out what there actually is out there (eg., inductionism as the Bacon/Mills basis of modern science in the west). The assumption that to experiment is not sacrireligious because the world is not divine but created --- though certain experiments may be immoral.
Washington, DC: I agree that all major religions have fundamentalist branches, but here the danger is Christian fundamentalism. In Pakistan and Israel it's other brands. Why are they allowed to monopolize the word Christian? "Christian school" has come to mean a fundamentalist one. When the media want a "Christian" spokesman they drag out Jerry Falwell for the umpteenth time. Why?
Dr. Robert Russell: Interesting point. When I lecture in Europe or Japan, I find 'fu8ndamentalism' used much more generally. Perhaps what you are point to is due to our American context --- although creation science is beginning to permeate Europe, sadly.
Baltimore, MD: There are thousands of creation myths from many cultures around the world. If creationsism is true, which creation myth should we believe?
Dr. Robert Russell: Perhaps there's truth to be found in each. The question is what perspective we bring in order to uncover that truth. I start with the Biblical account not as a 'legend' or just a poem, but as supremebly revelatory of God as Creator. I read it normatively, but not literally, since that does violence to the text, setting Gen. 1 against Gen. 2, etc., etc., etc.,
We have unfortunately run out of time. Thanks to all who participated (and lurked! :-), and thanks especially to Dr. Russell for joining us today.
Dr. Robert Russell: I want to thank those who wrote in questions and comments. I hope I was able to respond to many of you, and to those I missed, perhaps there will be another opportunity.
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