By Francisco J. Ayala
2010 Templeton Prize Laureate
Science and religion are like two different windows through which we look at the world. We see different aspects of reality through them, but the world at which we look is one and the same. Science and religious beliefs need not be in contradiction. If they are properly understood, they cannot be in contradiction, because science and religion concern different matters.
Science concerns the processes that account for the natural world: how the planets move, the composition of matter and the atmosphere, the origin and function of organisms. Religion concerns the meaning and purpose of the world and human life, the proper relation of people to their Creator and to each other, the moral values that inspire and govern people’s lives.
The proper relationship between science and religion can be, for people of faith, mutually motivating and inspiring. Science may inspire religious beliefs and religious behavior, as we respond with awe to the immensity of the universe, the wondrous diversity and adaptations of organisms, and the marvels of the human brain and the human mind. Religion promotes reverence for creation, for humankind as well as the environment. Religion may be a motivating force and source of inspiration for scientific research and may move scientists to investigate the marvelous world of the creation and to solve the puzzles with which it confronts us.
Scientific knowledge is compatible with the belief in an Omnipotent and Benevolent Creator. The Big Bang may be seen as the process by which God creates the Universe, modulates the expansion of the galaxies, and accounts for new stars and planets. Similarly, evolution may be seen as the process by which God creates the millions of species that populate the earth and provides them with functional adaptations, eyes to see, wings to fly, and gills to breath in water.
Natural processes do not exclude God’s presence in the universe or our dependence on God. Each human being starts as a microscopic cell in the mother’s womb. That cell divides again and again and diversifies in organs and limbs, in eyes, and in the myriad cells that made up our stupendous brain. People of faith can accept the natural process of human growth and development, while still believing that they are creatures of God, who fall under God’s providence.
People of faith may, similarly, accept the natural processes of the physical and the living world, while accepting the presence and ultimate causation of God. These two sets of explanations, scientific and religious, are the two windows through which we see the world.
The natural world abounds in catastrophes, disasters, imperfections, dysfunctions, suffering, and cruelty. Tsunamis and earthquakes bring destruction and death in Indonesia, Haiti and Chile; volcanic eruptions erased Pompeii and Herculaneum, killing all their citizens; floods and droughts bring ruin to farmers. The human jaw is poorly designed, lions devour their prey, malaria parasites kill millions of humans every year and make 500 million sick. 20 percent of all human pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion during the first two months. That is 20 million natural abortions every year.
As I see it, scientific knowledge is consistent with a religious belief in God. More so than the “creationists” assertion that everything in the world has been precisely designed by the Creator. Because, then, how to account for human crimes and sins (including the Biblical Fall) and for all the catastrophes that pervade the natural world?
Think again about the 20 percent f miscarriages due to the poorly designed human reproductive system. I shudder in terror at the thought that some people of faith would implicitly attribute this and so many other calamities to the Creator’s faulty design. I’d rather see them as a consequence of natural processes, including the clumsy ways of the evolutionary transformations by which humans came about. The God of revelation and faith is a God of love and mercy, and of wisdom.
Religion antagonists might say that scientific explanations do not exonerate God from moral responsibility for the evils in the world. If the world was created by God, they would say, God is ultimately responsible. God could have created a world without tsunamis, without parasites and biological dysfunctionalities, and without human miscarriages. But, a universe in which stars are continuously created, the continents move, new species come about, and human beings have free will, is much more arresting than a static world without creative natural processes, and in which humans would have been replaced by robots.
Francisco J. Ayala, the Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, is the 2010 Templeton Prize Laureate. He is author of “Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion” (Joseph Henry Press 2007).