Despite the clashes between claims based in faith v. reason, it seems that most people — on both sides of the debate about religion and science in the United States — share a belief in a kind of magic. Sadly, this need for magical thinking undermines the ability of religion and science to deal with the complexity of the material world and the mystery of creation.
The difference between a belief in magic and an appreciation of mystery has never been clearer than in the debate over “intelligent design” and the alleged challenge it presents to evolutionary biology. In claims that religious people make about a designer, as well as many of the typical refutations of that position, we see our species’ hubris on display.
Our predicament is simple: We humans know — and are capable of knowing — far less than we would like to know about how the world came to be and what kind of beings we are. For all our cleverness and inventiveness, what we don’t know still dwarfs what we do know. In the words of Wes Jackson, a biologist and sustainable-agriculture researcher, we are fundamentally ignorant. That doesn’t mean we know nothing, but simply that we don’t know enough to understand as much as we would like, as deeply as we desire.
What to do in the face of those limits? One possibility is to acknowledge them and understand life as an endless engagement with the mystery that we can, at best, only partially comprehend. Another approach is to craft magical “solutions” that purport to give definitive answers. Unfortunately, too many take this latter path.
This is obvious in the arguments of supporters of intelligent design, an approach that holds that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process such as natural selection.”
Unlike traditional creationism, this approach doesn’t identify God as the designer, though it’s nearly impossible to find an intelligent-design proponent who doesn’t believe in such a God. But the shift from God-as-creator to unidentified-designer is strategic not principled; by declining to inject religion directly into the debate, intelligent-design campaigners can make arguments that appear to be rooted in a call for objectivity — the “teach both sides” rhetoric. Instead of arguing for the superiority of intelligent design, its backers simply argue it should be taught as a competing scientific theory alongside evolution.
The problem, of course, is that intelligent design is not open to being tested experimentally and has no basis in science. It is speculative philosophy that could appropriately be taught in a course that deals with various cultures’ origin myths. Such treatment is not disrespectful of people’s religious beliefs, but simply intellectually honest.
Polls in the United States suggest that most people disagree. In one survey last year, 65 percent of people favored teaching creationism (not just intelligent design, but good, old-fashioned Christian creationism) together with evolution in science classrooms, and 37 percent thought creationism should be taught instead of evolution.
This reflects a need to articulate clear answers to questions that can’t be definitively answered given the limits of human intelligence. Those folks have cast their lot with magic, typically out of fear of mystery.
Secular people who believe science is a more compelling way to resolve this question tend to find this perplexing and/or maddening. As one person put it in casual conversation with me, “Why can’t they (creationists) just accept that evolution is the answer?”
While I also weigh in on the evolutionary theory side of this debate, I am uncomfortable with the declaration that there is any “the answer” concerning the origin and development of life. Is not a belief in science’s ability to provide definitive answers also a kind of magical thinking, a willingness to believe beyond our capacity to know? Could there be forces beyond evolution-through-natural-selection also at work that we don’t yet understand? Can we be skeptical of mystical assertions and yet open to alternative avenues of inquiry?
Both religion and science, when taken down these limited magical roads, impoverish our imaginations. But the problem isn’t religion or science per se; the best traditions in both realms don’t talk in such absolutes.
Science is based not on claims of absolute truth, but on evidence marshaled to support a theory. It works on the principle of falsifiability: Ideas must be capable of being proven false to be scientifically valid. Rather than saying something is TRUE, we can only say that to date it has not been proven false. And, of course, the history of science is a history of change, as claims once widely accepted give way to more robust ideas.
Scientists know this, as do many lay people. But in a culture that glorifies the products of the scientific method — especially our dazzling high-technology machines — many believe that science offers definitive answers. In that sense, the culture corrupts science by demanding magical answers.
Much religion, on the other hand, is based on claims of truth. But the best interpreters of religious traditions steer the discussion of faith away from certainty and toward ongoing engagement with the questions.
Jim Rigby — pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX, and a progressive theologian — puts it this way:
“Religion and science conflict only when one or both forget their proper bounds. When religion makes competing claims with science it is like a retina moving to the front of the eye; it cannot help but stand in its own light. The proper concern of religion is not declarations of truth, but the search for meaning.”
At their best, religion and science recognize mystery and reject magic. Both accept the limited scope of their inquiry and encourage other forms of understanding.
On the origins of life, evolutionary theory appears to be a compelling framework. It is folly to disregard it out of a need to believe in religious magic. But it also is folly to believe evolutionary theory is the last word on the subject and all that remains is to work out the details.
A more sensible path is to acknowledge that we live in a material world and also are part of creation.
We can look at a material world and be grateful for how some scientists have helped us understand, in limited ways, its workings. And we can be disappointed in the way some science has contributed to the degradation of the world’s ecosystems, in large part through arrogance and an underdeveloped sense of our intellectual limits.
We can look at creation and be grateful for the ways that some religious people have helped us understand, in limited ways, its meaning. And we can be disappointed in the way some religion has encouraged people to narrow the scope of inquiry into the meaning of human existence, in large part because of that same arrogance and problems with comprehending limits.
As we struggle with the timeless questions about the meaning of creation, we face the urgent problem of creating sustainable systems in the material world. This is the task of our moment in history, and to succeed we will need the best of both these traditions.
ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the board of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center <http://thirdcoastactivist.org/> http://thirdcoastactivist.org/. He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.