Friday, April 13, 2007


The debate - on occasions rancorous - pitting faith and religion versus science and reason is innumerable centuries old. March back to the Middle Ages, for example, and one finds it at the center of intellectual inquiry during that period. Indeed, Medieval scholars took the brilliant position of using the Hellenistic rationalism of Plato, et al., to explain the existence of God and "proof" basic tenets of Christianity. Think Thomas Aquinas and the doctrine of Scholasticism. One can also look to the late Medieval and Renaissance efforts of the Catholic Church to suppress scientific inquiry, particularly when the conclusions of those inquiries departed from the orthodoxy of a world view still rooted in the Ptolemaic cosmology (see picture at left) of the ancient world. Galileo discovered all too quickly the cost of scientific heresy.

Perhaps because we tend to be more religiously zealous - one could argue fanatical - than our European antecedents, Americans tend to expend an inordinate amount of energy on these questions. One suspects that a few of those early Puritan and Baptist genes have latched on to our intellectual DNA and refuse to succumb to the prospect of evolutionary obscurity. So here we are at the genesis of the 21st century and the fight shows no signs of abating. In fact, surveying the "faith vs. reason" issue over the last century, one could conclude that the debate has grown nastier with each passing decade. Of course, I'm biased. Having emerged from a science-friendly childhood and a career that started in academe, I find the "faith" camp - usually represented by generic evangelical Protestants, Pentecostals, Southern Baptists and other non-descript Christian conservatives - excessively anti-intellectual and mean-spirited. I had students at the University of Tennessee who sneered at me and shook their heads when I talked about the 18th century Scientific Revolution or Darwin and the advancements of 19th century scientists.

Typically, the arguments swirl around Darwin and evolution and the ways in which Darwin's ideas contradict the creation story of Genesis. We've even argued about it in court, most notably in the "Scopes Monkey Trial" of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. Noted trial attorney Clarence Darrow and politician William Jennings Bryan, pictured at right, stood sweating in a small-town Tennessee courtroom and argued over the "inerrancy" of the Bible and the "truth" of science. Obviously a case like this could never settle the issue. And year after year, the teaching of evolution or creationism is brought up in countless U.S. school districts. More recently, creationists have tried to reshape the tenor of the debate and add intellectual luster to their arguments by renaming their ideas "intelligent design." Let's just say their basic theology hasn't changed.

So why am I bringing this up? First, I'm in the rather unique position of working for a religious-based non-profit while serving as a freelance editor for the New York Academy of Sciences and Columbia's Center for the Study of Science and Religion. In short, I can't escape the debate; it swirls around me on a daily basis. More recently, however, my interest in the topic has been sparked by a promising new biography of Albert Einstein: Walter Isaacson's Einstein: His Life and Universe.

Isaacson apparently has taken more time than previous biographers to examine Einstein's Weltanschauung vis-a-vis his thoughts on matters spiritual. If one knew Einstein only in the context of his scientific ideas, one might justifiably conclude that he was an atheist. Many of his contemporaries, in fact, proved outspoken critics of the very idea of "god." Yet Einstein was by no means an atheist. In fact, he exerted considerable energy to the process of explaining his understanding of "god" - a god that doubtless existed but did not intervene in the day-to-day affairs of people - both in print and in public addresses. It will be interesting to learn how Einstein ultimately dealt with his Jewish heritage, particularly in the wake of the Holocaust and his relocation to the United States. (His religious background as a child was decidedly eclectic. He was raised by atheist parents, attended a Catholic school, and for a time in his youth embraced Jewish orthodoxy.)

I'm also hoping that Isaacson's biography will help me in my own attempts to incorporate the spiritual and the scientific into a coherent belief system. Obviously I'm a disciple of the post-Newtonian cosmology. I get excited about things like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, Quantum Mechanics and String Theory. I remember being thrilled when my college physics professor showed us the math behind Einstein's concept of time-space dilation.

But I also get excited about issues of faith, particularly when expressed by C. S. Lewis or Henri Nouwen. For me, the two sides of the coin don't represent incompatible ideas. Indeed, I think it's possible to believe in god and Darwin and would ask creationists who believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis how evolution diminishes god? And even if we take Genesis and place it in the context of numerous other, often similar, creation stories, does that negate god? Frankly, I think the concept of creation is too complex for humans to understand. Certainly the present state of conflicting ideas and hypotheses in physics suggests this conclusion. Creation stories are simply our feeble-minded attempts to explain something clearly beyond our grasp. To humans in the ancient world, a story like that found in Genesis represented a rational response to questions like "how did we get here." The "stories" told by physicists today simply represent an effort to craft a new "Genesis."

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