Where Science and Religion Can Overlap

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Keynote speaker Owen Gingerich
Credit: Keynote speaker Owen GingerichKeynote speaker Owen Gingerich

It is a common thought that the worldviews of science and religion are very different and are best not mixed. This is one way to summarize the “non-overlapping magisteria” view of the relationship between these two great quests for understanding, associated with the late American paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. But is this assessment accurate?

Owen Gingerich, a former colleague of Gould and Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and History of Science at Harvard University, discussed this model in his Herrmann Lectures on Faith and Science, delivered last week at Gordon College. The lectures were established in honor of Dr. Robert Herrmann, who often addressed the “Big Questions” and whose friendship and collaboration with Sir John Templeton opened the discussion on the relationship between the two fields. The lectures are supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

“Owen has an unusual gift for clarity. He neither simplifies nor weighs you down with all the facts at his command, but uses these facts to answer questions you might really have asked,” says Paul Wason, vice president of life sciences and genetics at the Foundation.

Gingerich considered the work of three giants of science—Nicolaus Copernicus, Charles Darwin, and Fred Hoyle—and in fascinating detail showed how, in practice, the two magisteria view does not hold. “Science, working within its own magisterium, is far more tangled with a humanistic or theological vision than we might expect,” he explained.

For example, a striking feature of Copernicus’s advocacy of heliocentrism, proposed in his 1543 magnum opus, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, is that it took around 150 years for a majority of educated people to accept that the earth revolved around the sun, and not vice versa. Arthur Koestler, author of The Sleepwalkers, supposed the reason was that no one read Copernicus’s book. However, Gingerich has shown this is incorrect. He has examined 600 surviving first and second editions, and concludes, “Every astronomer who took his occupation seriously was very likely to have had and to have read a copy of De revolutionibus.”

Nicolaus Copernicus’ De revolutionibus

A comment made by Tycho Brahe two generations later is revealing. It is not the mathematics, the great Danish astronomer said, but the suggestion that the earth is in motion ”as swift as the aethereal torches, that is, the stars themselves.” In other words, Copernicus offended a view that made human beings feel comfortable about heaven’s place in the cosmos. Human and religious concerns were the cause of the resistance, not the science.

In his second lecture, Gingerich turned to the work of Charles Darwin and, in particular, the account evolution offers of the emergence of human beings. This stance on our origin is a critical issue. The idea that evolution could imply atheism is a key reason why 4 out of 10 Americans reject evolution. But, Gingerich wondered, isn’t there more to the origins of humanity than biology?

There is an unbroken continuity between human and nonhuman brains. However, there is also clearly a discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds, witnessed in the transformative emergence of language and culture. “The fascinating question of how and when we became human inevitably offers an overlap between the magisteria,” Gingerich pointed out once more.

The third lecture considered the figure of astronomer Fred Hoyle. He was profoundly struck by the so-called “fine-tuning” of the cosmos, the way certain physically processes seem to be exquisitely balanced for life. Hoyle was an atheist, but honest enough to admit coming close to concluding the universe appears to have purpose. Science is equipped to ask “how,” Hoyle stated, but it also provokes the question of “why.”

Again, the two magisteria overlap in ways that are often not obvious in the popular stories told about science or in ways that scientists themselves are prepared to admit. “What passes as acceptable science depends on the coherency of its picture of the universe writ on a very large canvas, and that canvas includes resonance with a broader cultural milieu,” Gingerich concluded. In other words, a more accurate account of the history of science shows that the non-overlapping magisteria model can readily be challenged and opens the door to further research.