One of the greatest challenges of our time is reconciling the seemingly opposing worldviews of religion and science. The “science-religion” debate has, however, become one of animosity, misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Darwin Day, on February 12, offers an opportunity to move beyond polarized debate to a more constructive dialogue. Charles Darwin himself recognized that religiosity is part of human nature. More than 150 years after he published his theory of evolution, an explosion of research has begun to advance Darwin’s initial observations, in order to develop accounts of how not just humans, but religion, evolved.
We are a group of evolutionary scientists who have contributed to this research. Yet as the evolutionary study of religion has taken off, we have come to believe that a dialogue with theology is increasingly necessary. We have joined a group of theologians on a year-long residential research project on evolution and human nature at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, NJ. This conversation moves beyond the stale discourse of New Atheists versus Creationists in order to generate hypotheses-based understandings of religion—one of the last great puzzles of evolutionary biology. Religion, even God, is no longer a taboo subject of study among evolutionary scientists, and evolutionary theory is becoming a part of the toolkit for modern theologians.
The experience has been challenging but exhilarating. Unlike superficial characterizations of utter disagreement in the science-religion debate, points of consensus have emerged. The notion that evolution is the process underlying the origins and dynamics of life on Earth is uncontested. Our questions are not about if evolution is true, but rather its implications and opportunities for understanding humanity. We also agree that religious commitments are not only important across cultures and history, but also represent a genuine force that has shaped, and continues to shape, the human species.
We suggest a new paradigm. Not only can scientists bring an evolutionary lens to the understanding of religion, but the wealth of ideas in theology can generate new questions for scientists to explore. Theology as a mode of reflecting on the divine and as an experience of the sublime goes beyond sifting through archaeological traces of “religion” emerging in human history. The intensity and diversity of religious reflection challenges any superficial reading of the evolution of religion as a simple set of universal features. The remarkably different ways in which faith is experienced and lived by individuals and communities calls for special expertize to understand what beliefs mean, as well as how they emerge, develop and change over time. This is the expertise that theologians have and scholars of the evolution of religion need.
Humans, like every other organism, are the product of evolutionary histories. But it is the particulars of human evolution that are generating our best discussions. One of these is the ubiquity and power of religious belief. We are asking not only whether such a pattern evolved in humans, but also when, how and why. At the same time we are not limiting our inquiry to basic biological explanations concerning physiology and behavior. We are also exploring the pivotal role of the mind and social context of human evolution.
Our team rejects the claim that all aspects of religious commitments and scientific understanding are necessarily antithetical, or that their realms of inquiry are entirely “non-overlapping magisteria”, in Stephen Jay Gould’s phrase. Our work has been informed by the prominence, practice and structure of religious experience and human evolutionary histories–both have influenced how human beings developed and who we are today. Bringing together religion and science is not easy; we do disagree on occasion and at times come close to reaching impasses that seem almost insurmountable. But we have not yet encountered a fatal gap or a firmly locked door. Importantly, we are finding that hard work and careful listening can be rewarding and open up new ways of thinking and new hypotheses. What is remarkable is that there are so few opportunities for such sustained dialogue to occur. It turns out that evolutionary science, religion and theology can share the same table. We have no illusions that this year will produce answers to the big questions of life that will satisfy everyone, or even anyone. But we are certain that we can generate a better set of questions and a more productive path lies ahead for those who are willing to engage in the flourishing multi-disciplinary dialogue on what it means to be human.
Dominic Johnson, University of Oxford, co-leader
Celia Deane-Drummond, University of Notre Dame, co-leader
Agustin Fuentes, University of Notre Dame, science team member
Lee Cronk, Rutgers University, science team member
Hillary Lenfesty, Center of Theological Inquiry, science team member
Jeff Schloss, Wesmont College, science team member
Richard Sosis, University of Connecticut, science team member