Do science and religion rule each other out?
The Green Bible is an English version of the New Revised Standard Version Bible with a focus on environmental issues and teachings. Image courtesy of the publisher, HarperOne.
Miller: No, I certainly don’t think they do. I think the whole tradition of Western science is that science and religion are not mutually exclusive. There are many people in the scientific community, in the United States and around the world, who hold strong religious points of view and do not see their points of view conflicting with working in science or even with the philosophy of science.
Can science prove or disprove the existence of a higher being?
Miller: No, it can’t. The existence of a supreme being simply is not a scientific question. A supreme being stands outside of nature. Science is a naturalistic process and can only answer questions about what is inside nature. Beyond that it’s a matter of personal belief.
How is it possible to believe in the evolution of a complex world and God?
Miller: That’s an interesting question. God, for those of us who believe in Him, is the Creator and the Master of the universe. As C. S. Lewis once said, “[God] likes matter. He invented it.” [Mere Christianity, Harper, 2001] It seems to me that an all-powerful Creator, who is behind both the material of the universe and the laws that govern the interactions of that material, would be able to accomplish any goal He wanted to in terms of the process, the architecture, or the ultimate fruition of the universe.
Now, what I don’t find useful to speculate about are the exact physical, chemical, or biological processes that could be attributed to God, or identified as God working His magic in the world. I think both Western religious tradition and scripture itself tell us that God is very subtle and He can use many ways to accomplish His ends.
If a supreme being put evolution into motion, do humans then have a moral responsibility for the care of the planet?
Miller: Oh, that’s a very good question. I think the answer to that is certainly “Yes.” Let’s talk about it biologically first. We are the brightest things on the block. We have become the single, most common, large mammal on Earth. We might take that for granted today, but 500 years ago that was not true. We were not the single, most common, large mammal. That means, in terms of ecological impact, that our species is unique. We have the possibility to do more good, to do more damage, or to cause more extinctions than any other organism on this planet. So we have to use our responsibility wisely.
From a religious point of view, there is an entire movement within Christian theology, known as the Christian Ecology Movement. It takes very seriously the Biblical admonition that we should be stewards of the Earth. We are Earth’s guardians. The Bible is filled with parables about the wise steward and the foolish steward. The care of Earth, in particular, is an area in which both the religious and scientific sentiments coincide.
In your book,_ Finding Darwin’s God, _you write, “in nature, elusive and unexplored, we will find the Creator at work.” How is your view different from that of creationists or proponents of intelligent design, who argue against evolution?
Miller: I think the biggest difference, and the most direct way to pinpoint that difference, is to say that creationists inevitably look for God in what science has not yet explained or in what they claim science cannot explain. Most scientists who are religious look for God in what science does understand and has explained. So the way in which my view is different from the creationists or intelligent design proponents is that I find knowledge a compelling reason to believe in God. They find ignorance a compelling reason to believe in God.
You also write in the same book, “There is a deeper problem caused by the opponents of evolution, a problem for religion.” Please explain.
Miller: When religion places itself in conflict with science, that is, when religion says that we have to reject scientific explanations for religious reasons, it basically means that every time science advances in understanding, religion contracts. If you define religion as being the things that science cannot explain, every time the realm of science expands—and every year we understand a little more about life, the world around us, and the cosmos—those areas become smaller. I think ultimately the rejection of mainstream science, and the rejection of evolution by the creationist movement, is a mistake for religion because it essentially argues that religion is disapproved by the mechanisms and tools of science. That’s a profound theological mistake.
Why does evolution remain a dangerous idea for some of the American public?
Miller: I think evolution remains a dangerous idea for two reasons:
Many people in the religious community continue to believe that evolution cannot be reconciled with religion. That is just not true. Most people understand that, but not everyone.
Evolution concerns something very fundamental. Evolution is controversial for the same reason that you can start a fight by going into a bar and saying something about somebody’s mother. It concerns where we’re from, what our status is as human beings, and how we relate to the rest of life on the Earth. That will always make it a controversial idea, not just in the U.S. but also in many countries around the world.
How should science respond to this public fear of evolution?
Miller: Science can respond in three ways:
The first is by answering the objections that are frequently raised against evolution. The charge that evolution is not good science—that there are no transitional forms, that the mechanism of evolution doesn’t work, and other similar charges—can easily be answered from scientific literature.
The second is by emphasizing the fact that scientific ideas are different from religious ideas and therefore that science in general, and evolution in particular, does not present an obligatory threat to religion.
The last way to respond is simply by doing good science. Evolutionary biology is fundamentally a useful theory. It’s a theory whose application and practice in the laboratory every single day yields useful scientific results. The American people are a people of practical results and consequences. When something works, when something is practical, when something earns money, it gets respect in American society, and evolution can do all of those things.
In some regions of the U.S., educators are being encouraged, sometimes forced, by their institution to teach “alternative” ideas to evolution. What is your response to this development?
Miller: Disappointment. If the ideas being offered were genuinely scientific alternatives, if they were ideas that had significant support within the scientific community or substantial experimental evidence, it might be interesting to include them in the science classroom.
Unfortunately, the “alternatives” actually being offered are not scientific at all. The insertion of an idea such as young-earth creationism, which requires a rejection of astronomy, physics, and chemistry as well as biology, into the scientific curriculum makes about as much sense as teaching witchcraft in medical school. The other alternative often proposed, so-called “intelligent” design, doesn’t even rise to the level of being a scientific hypothesis. It has no explanatory power and approaches scientific problems by nothing more than an appeal to the “designer.” Since such appeals are not testable, they don’t amount to science and can only mislead students as to the nature of science and scientific evidence.
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