Of Many Things

Mary Budd Rowe was a model scientist, ever inquisitive, asking questions no one had asked before. She was a psychologist who specialized in science education. When I first met her in the late 1970’s, she had done pioneering work on “wait time,” the time teachers allow students to ponder a question. She had proved that the longer teachers waited for students to respond, the better the answers the students gave. One time Mary prodded me, “What do you do for the visual learners?” “What do you mean?” I asked. Students, she explained, learn in different ways. Most teachers are attuned to verbal learners; but some students learn from visual cues. After that, in preparing a class, I always imagined how I would diagram my lesson and how I wanted the blackboard to look when class was done.

In the late 1970’s, Mary accepted a temporary position at the National Science Foundation, heading its programs on secondary school science education. I passed on to her a lecture I had given on science and ethics. She returned it with excitement. “We have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to explain ‘science literacy’ without success, and here you have done it. May we use it in a volume we are producing?” (Science literacy referred to the kind of non-technical knowledge of science the average citizen needed to follow newspaper reports and public debates on scientific issues.) I agreed, and my essay became the introduction to a book entitled Education for the 80s: Science.


The essay explained how it was necessary to distinguish between science and its cultural uses. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, genetics was manipulated to advance eugenic campaigns against so-called inferior races and mentally defective individuals.

Demography was another case in point. The threat of a population explosion was repeatedly used to promote population control for nonwhite races and third world countries. It continues to be cited, though less often and less persuasively, in environmental debates. My point was that in the public arena, hard science can be used and abused, so one needed to distinguish between scientific findings and the political and moral programs tied to them in the culture.

Another field I wanted to cite as a subject of cultural confusion was evolutionary biology, but Ray Hannapel, a close friend and colleague of Mary’s, who was supposed to be my co-author, would not hear of it. After a series of run-ins with creationists, who opposed the inclusion of evolution in high school curricula, he was firmly opposed to any message that evolution was anything but hard science. Ultimately, I authored the essay alone; but I was warned off evolution and, in the end, did not mention it in the introduction.

Today the heated debate over intelligent design seems almost déjà vu. Intelligent design, of course, is far more sophisticated than creationism, and I confess to having more than a little interest in it. The partisans in the debate, however, seem to ignore two things. First, as Michael Buckley, S.J., showed in At the Origins of Modern Atheism, the roots of atheism were in 17th-century natural theology, which tried to rest belief in God on the science of the day. When Buckley presented a copy of his book to Pope John Paul II, the pope asked, “Well, who is responsible for modern atheism?” Buckley answered, “the theologians.” The proponents of intelligent design, it seems, are repeating the mistake of their 17th-century predecessors.

The second mistake belongs to the evolutionists. They fail to recognize that in the broader culture—including many classrooms—evolution quickly becomes a metaphor to carry broad agendas. Richard Dawkins, the author of The Selfish Gene and an adamant defender of evolution, is a good example. He uses a particular reading of evolution to make the case for atheism and ethical egoism.

The lesson is not that there ought to be a wall of strict separation between science and religion. The human mind naturally makes leaps from one field to another. The great physicist Werner Heisenberg wrote that poets and artists, not scientists, inspired his pioneering insights. Religion can draw on science; and science, though most often unwittingly, draws on religion. The key is to know when we are practicing religion and when we are doing science.

Both the adversaries in the debate over intelligent design claim they are doing science. What divides them, however, is natural theology, the philosophy each would extract from science. Wisdom is in knowing the difference.

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12 years ago
In his excellent column Of Many Things on Sept. 12, Drew Christiansen, S.J., mentions the contention of Michael Buckley, S.J., that “the roots of atheism were in 17th-century natural theology” and suggests that “the proponents of intelligent design...are repeating the mistake” of using science as evidence for belief in God. He seems to hint that if scientific evidence is the foundation of belief in God, science will sooner or later (or again) turn us into atheists.

It seems that both intelligent design theorists, and certain evolutionists who oppose them, share a faulty and dangerous assumption: if God is involved in the creation and development of life, we will catch him in the act. Intelligent-design advocates believe that examination of life at the molecular and cellular level provides evidence of divine intervention. Atheistic evolutionists like Richard Dawkins believe that there is no such evidence, and that therefore God does not exist or at least can have had no part in creation.

These professional scientists prove amateur theologians. Who says that if God is involved in creation—either as an intelligent designer or the directing force of evolution—we will find evidence of it? Is it not equally possible that God’s creative activity may be so perfect, so pure and so seamless that we will, in fact, find no physical or molecular evidence of it at all? The biblical tradition itself finds evidence of God not at the molecular level, but in the glory, beauty and overarching order of creation—decidedly unscientific evidences, grounded in human aesthetic perception. If the scientists are going to moonlight as theologians, we had better subject their theology to as careful a scrutiny as their biology.


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