The Magazine

Darwin's Synthesis

How much conflict between science and religion?

Feb 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 21 • By KEVIN R. KOSAR
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Today, Barnes's intellectual descendents continue their work at reconciling the Christian faith and the findings of evolutionary biology and the allied sciences. Lamentably, Bowler gives their work little attention until his last 20 pages. Michael Ruse, Arthur Peacocke, and others receive brief mention, and their efforts at reconciliation are little explained. The reader is left wondering: Is synthesis, or at least rapprochement, possible?

One obvious approach to the conundrum is philosophy, which teaches the ways of knowing and their limits. Four centuries ago, Hobbes picked up where Descartes left off, and taught his readers that man's limited faculties kept him from knowing much of reality. After Hobbes, Berkeley and Hume further developed skepticism's assault on mankind's ability to know. Critically, Hume emphasized that knowledge is inevitably contingent: What past experience has taught, future experience can disprove. Hence, the scientific method, which relies on the testing of hypotheses about how things work, never can establish anything once and for all. So it was that Kant, the colossus of Königsberg, who devoted much of his life to studying the workings of reason, made room for faith in life by establishing the limits of knowledge through reason. Barnes himself advocated something like this in the Gorilla Sermons:

Between the religious revelation of Jesus and modern science there is no opposition. The two dovetail into one another with singular exactness. Evolution describes facts; the ultimate meaning of those facts Christ's teaching discloses. We need faith to accept the Lord's message; we cannot prove its truth by the methods of inquiry useful in the physical and biological sciences, for the spiritual world is a type of reality which the organs of sense will not reveal.

Yet, neither philosophy nor Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons will put an end to the eye-gouging fights between fundamentalists and Darwinists in America. If Plato taught us anything, it is the folly of trying to make all men wise. If atheists wish to abuse science by saying that it proves there is no God, they will. If fundamentalists want to read the Bible--in translation, no less--and assert that every word of it is purely factual, then they shall. Man's a quarrelsome creature. Happily, however, most bystanders do not seem eager to enter the fray. This is likely due to their mixed-mindedness about the matter: Polls have shown that most Americans believe that evolution is probably true, but most of them also believe in God.

Kevin R. Kosar is a writer in Washington.