But what sounds like a harmless metaphor can restrict the intellectual bravado that is essential to science. "In my view," Collins goes on to say, "DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God." Evolutionary explanations have been proffered for both these phenomena. Whether they are right or wrong is not a matter of belief but a question to be approached scientifically. The idea of an apartheid of two separate but equal metaphysics may work as a psychological coping mechanism, a way for a believer to get through a day at the lab. But theism and materialism don't stand on equal footings. The assumption of materialism is fundamental to science.
Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, tells of his exasperation with colleagues who try to play both sides of the street: looking to science for justification of their religious convictions while evading the most difficult implications--the existence of a prime mover sophisticated enough to create and run the universe, "to say nothing of mind reading millions of humans simultaneously." Such an entity, he argues, would have to be extremely complex, raising the question of how it came into existence, how it communicates--through spiritons!--and where it resides.
Dawkins is frequently dismissed as a bully, but he is only putting theological doctrines to the same kind of scrutiny that any scientific theory must withstand. No one who has witnessed the merciless dissection of a new paper in physics would describe the atmosphere as overly polite.
Sagan, writing from beyond the grave (actually his new book, The Varieties of Scientific Experience, is an edited version of his 1985 Gifford Lectures), asks why, if God created the universe, he left the evidence so scant. He might have embedded Maxwell's equations in Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Ten Commandments might have been engraved on the moon. "Or why not a hundred-kilometer crucifix in Earth orbit?... Why should God be so clear in the Bible and so obscure in the world?"
He laments what he calls a "retreat from Copernicus," a loss of nerve, an emotional regression to the idea that humanity must occupy center stage. Both Gingerich and Collins, along with most every reconciler of science and religion, invoke the anthropic principle: that the values of certain physical constants such as the charge of the electron appear to be "fine-tuned" to produce a universe hospitable to the rise of conscious, worshipful life.
But the universe is not all that hospitable--try leaving Earth without a space-suit. Life took billions of years to take root on this planet, and it is an open question whether it made it anywhere else. To us carboniferous creatures, the dials may seem miraculously tweaked, but different physical laws might have led to universes harboring equally awe-filled forms of energy, cooking up anthropic arguments of their own.
Editors' note: Two other noteworthy books on religion by scientists have appeared recently: E. O. Wilson's The Creation: A Meeting of Science and Religion (W. W. Norton, 2006) and Joan Roughgarden's Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist (Island Press, 2006).
The Editors Recommend
This Dynamic Planet: World Map of Volcanoes, Earthquakes, Impact Craters, and Plate Tectonics
Smithsonian Institution, USGS and U.S. Naval Research Laboratories, 2006
Another new edition of a classic is this map, which shows the dynamic plate tectonic processes that shape the planet. All elements of the updated map are digital, and an interactive version is at www.minerals.si.edu/minsci/tdpmap. The site is somewhat slow, but the enormous amount of data at your fingertips is worth the patience required. You can make your own regional map, for example, by choosing the layers of information you want (volcanoes, plate motion, latitude and longitude, and so on). The one-by-1.5-meter paper version is a bargain at $14.
This article was originally published with the title Scientists on Religion.