The scientific fundamentalist

The scientific fundamentalist

I participated in two debates last month, and between them learned a great deal about the nature of science and religion in our time. The first debate, on the subject of religion, was with Richard Dawkins, the world’s foremost evolutionary biologist and atheist, in Toronto. The second, in New York, was with one of the world’s leading Jewish-Christian missionaries on the subject of whether Jesus died for our sins. What startled me was how, in the religion debate, although my adversary and I challenged each other’s most sacredly held beliefs, there was no offense taken on either side. Less so was there any acrimony directed toward me from the approximately 1,000 Christians who were in the audience. Religious people are by now so used to having their faith challenged that being on the defensive is no big deal.

Not so science, which has enjoyed hegemony for so long that it has become its own orthodoxy and dare never be questioned, as the following experience demonstrates.

I had already either directly participated in or moderated five previous debates that featured Richard Dawkins, the Oxford Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. Through the debates, Dawkins and I had become friends and he even attended Shabbat lunch at my home in Oxford. But the warmth of our former relationship was not in evidence as we sat waiting to be called to speak at the Idea City Convention at the University of Toronto. I detected a hardening in Dawkins’ position and perhaps an inability to distinguish between religion and religious people, such that his disdain for the former led to his contempt for the latter.

Dawkins began by arguing that he did not care whether or not religion had any positive social advantages. The only thing that mattered was whether not it was true. And it was his firm belief that religion was a canard. He was therefore inspired to crusade against it. He proceeded to argue for the logical and mathematical impossibility of God’s existence and the truth of evolution.

When it was my turn I began by questioning Dawkins’ point on his humanitarian crusade to awaken the world to the lie that is religion. Why, I asked, was religion the only "lie" that seemed to bother Dawkins. After all, he is an Englishman and lives in a country that promotes the "lie" that one human being is born royal while another is born ordinary. Surely, as part of a modern egalitarian society that rejects the divine right of kings, Dawkins ought to be inveighing as much against the British royal family as he does against vicars, rabbis, and priests. Unless, of course, he has decided that, even though the idea of royalty is a fictitious man-made construct, it was OK to keep it around given that it is a 1,000-year-old British tradition and has positive social value.

But religion is more than a useful myth. For me, my faith is true. I believe that God created the world. And yes, I said, I understood that modern science replaced creation with evolution. But the theory still had much explaining to do and many holes to fill. I mentioned that I had participated in debates on evolution with some of the world’s most noted evolutionary theorists, most famously the late Prof. John Maynard-Smith of the University of Sussex at Brighton. In those debates, in the same way that the prominent scientists who participated raised reasonable objections to religion, the other side had raised reasonable objections to evolution. There are massive inconsistencies in the theory of evolution, which is why it remains just that — a theory. Foremost among these unresolved issues is, first, how evolution contradicts the second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy increase. Second, genetic mutation, the very engine of modern neo-Darwinism, is almost always catastrophically destructive to an organism, which severely challenges the notion that mutation with natural selection ultimately leads to higher complexity. Third, after 140 years of digging up the earth, we still find enormous holes in the fossil record, the missing links that account for tens of millions of years of evolution, which is why many leading paleontologists, most notably the late Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard, argued for punctuated equilibrium — giant leaps — in evolutionary development, rather than the slow and gradual ascent argued for by scientists like Dawkins. Indeed, Darwin makes it clear in "The Origin of Species" that evolution was not developed as a theory to explain the origin of life but as a theory to explain the fossil record. Thus, the theory had to accord with existing fossil finds.

I mentioned that, from my experience, scientists responded to these objections by saying that, given sufficient time, all evolutionary obstacles could be surmounted. Billions and billions of years of accidental evolution could surmount the seemingly impossible mathematical odds that complexity and life could evolve from an amorphous cosmic soup. Yes, mutations are nearly all harmful and life-threatening. But with infinite time enough of the beneficial variety could still be had. And with more time the missing fossils links will finally be found. So, I concluded, what separates religion and science is seemingly semantics. What religion calls God, science calls time. For scientists, time had an almost divine quality and could provide for the miraculous materialization of near mathematical impossibility.

When I finished, I received a warm ovation from the audience — that is, until I alighted from the stage. I was immediately set upon by an angry, world-famous physicist who told me that evolution was a fact and could not be questioned. I responded that I was not denying it was so, but rather thought it was the purpose of science to question everything. His comment belonged far more in a theological seminary than a laboratory. He walked away hurriedly while muttering that evolution was not a theory but a fact that could not be questioned. A few reporters watched our exchange. One told me that it seemed that he had witnessed a role reversal. He would have expected the religious person to say that faith could not be questioned.

Albert Einstein once commented on the co-existence of faith and reason by saying, "Science without religion is blind; religion without science is lame." But in our time, many scientists who harbor an unreasonable objection to faith are making science into a new religion.