Evolution and Faith: Empathy Is Crucial

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Science  09 May 2008:
Vol. 320, Issue 5877, pp. 745c-746c
DOI: 10.1126/science.320.5877.745c

The News Focus story by J. Couzin, “Crossing the divide” (22 February, p. 1034) accurately and respectfully describes the crux of the challenge that our scientific understanding presents to members of faith communities. With more than 20 years of experience in teaching biology to evangelical undergraduates, I can state with a high degree of confidence that the situation within evangelicalism is to a great extent just as Couzin presented. The worldview in which so many conservative Christians are raised and trained gives them but two stark choices: Either there is a God, the world is a few thousand years old, and therefore evolution cannot have occurred, or the scientific community is correct, evolution occurred, and there is no God. The heart of the matter revolves around meaning in life, not around scientific knowledge. If we can understand the tremendous cognitive and spiritual stress this presents to the faith community, then we as truth-seeking scientists should be willing to listen to the concerns of those holding such positions.

We within the scientific community must continue to present the demonstrable evidence from the physical realm and clearly express how that evidence supports our current interpretations. This effort is not served well at all by dogmatic pronouncements such as “Evolution is fact,” even if such statements are accurate. Furthermore, for members of the scientific community to make theological statements in the name of science is philosophically illegitimate, and destructive in our truth-seeking efforts. In this short essay, Science has published the only example I have read in the leading scientific literature that takes the time and effort to understand and express what really drives the concerns of the majority of evangelicals, and does so in a manner that respects the integrity of both the scientific endeavor and the integrity of the faith commitments within the evangelical community.

Allow me to suggest that this serves as a call to us in the sciences to be more humble as we interact with the faith community. We as scientists ought to be those most keenly aware of the tenuous and ever-changing nature of human knowledge, even as we build on that which has stood the test of time. We ought to behave as though the faith community poses no threat to the integrity of science, just as the faith community ought to behave as though science poses no threat to the integrity of faith. That is the challenge to us brought forth so eloquently in this piece, and is a major focus of organizations such as The American Scientific Affiliation. Let us all humbly seek for truth as we respect one another's efforts to do so.

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