Rod Dreher

At this moment, I’m at the National Academy of Sciences watching biologist Francisco Ayala named as winner of the 2010 Templeton Prize. Ayala, a former Dominican priest, is being recognized in part for his work in reconciling evolution with Christian theology. The prize itself, worth about $1.5 million, will be awarded to Ayala in May by the Duke of Edinburgh. Here are excerpts from the speech Ayala is giving:

I contend that science and religious beliefs need not be in contradiction. If they are properly understood, they cannot be in contradiction because science and religion concern different matters. Science concerns the processes that account for the natural world: how the planets move, the composition of matter and space, the origin and function of organisms. Religion concerns the meaning and purpose of the world and of human life, the proper relation of people to their Creator and to each other, the moral values that inspire and govern people’s life.
It is only when assertions are made beyond their legitimate boundaries that religion and science, and evolutionary theory in particular, appear to be antithetical. Science and religion are like two different windows through which we look at the world. We see different aspects of reality through them, but the world at which we look is only one and the same. Consider a painting, such as Picasso’s Guernica. Suppose that I list the coordinates of all images represented in the painting, their shape and size, the pigments used, and the quality and dimensions of this immense canvas, measuring 25 feet, 8 inches by 11 feet, 6 inches. This information would be interesting but it would be hardly satisfying if I completely omitted aesthetic considerations and failed to reflect on the painting’s meaning and purpose, the dramatic message of man’s inhumanity to man conveyed by the outstretched figure of the mother pulling her dead baby, the bellowing human faces, the wounded horse, and the Satanic image of the bull.
The point is that the physical description of the painting does not tell us anything (by itself cannot tell us anything) about the aesthetic value or historical significance of Guernica; nor, on the other hand, do aesthetics or intended meaning determine the physical features of the painting. Let Guernica be a metaphor for the point I wish to make. Scientific knowledge, like the description of the size, materials, and geometry of Guernica, is satisfying and useful, but once science has its say, there remains much about reality that is of interest: questions of value, meaning, and purpose that are beyond science’s scope.

In “Darwin’s Gift,” Ayala emphatically argues that it’s a “categorical mistake” for scientists like Richard Dawkins to claim that all knowledge outside the boundaries of science is inferior or suspect. It is one thing to say that science operates within a materialistic view of the universe; it is quite another to say that therefore, materialism offers a complete account of reality. A scientific worldview, he writes, however successful, is “hopelessly incomplete” because it does not and indeed cannot encompass questions of value and meaning.
Ayala furthermore argues — as he does in his recent book “Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion” — that evolution is consistent with Christianity in a way that more superficially “correct” religious explanations for mankind’s origins are not:

The point should be valid for those people of faith who believe in a personal God who is omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent, as Christians, Muslims, and Jews do believe. The natural world abounds in catastrophes, disasters, imperfections, dysfunctions, suffering, and cruelty. Tsunamis and earthquakes bring destruction and death to hundreds of thousands of citizens; floods and droughts bring ruin to farmers. The human jaw is poorly designed; lions devour their prey; malaria parasites kill millions of humans every year and make 500 million people very sick; about 20 percent of all human pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion because of the flawed design of the human reproductive system.
People of faith should not attribute all this misery, cruelty, and destruction to the specific design of the Creator. I rather see it as a consequence of the clumsy ways of nature and the evolutionary process. The God of revelation and faith is a God of love and mercy, and of wisdom. Scientific knowledge, and in particular the theory of evolution, provide fulfilling understanding of the world of nature and of life. They may also sustain a religious view of creation.

“Darwin’s Gift” mounts a strong attack on Intelligent Design theory, both scientifically and (interestingly) from a theological perspective. Ayala says that there are so many flaws in our biological design that it amounts to “blasphemy” to say that the immediate agency of God designed the mess that we are, and that our world of pain, cruelty and wickedness can be. On Ayala’s view, it makes more theological sense to credit God with the origin of life, but to recognize that life evolved naturalistically. He writes of

…the irony that the theory of evolution, which at first seemed to remove the need for God in the world, now has convincingly removed the need to explain the world’s imperfections as failed outcomes of God’s design.

Ayala believes that by reconciling evolutionary biology and religion, he is helping people hold on to their faith. As Scientific American wrote when they profiled Ayala in 2008:

But Ayala thinks that scientists who attack religion and ridicule the faithful–most notably, Richard Dawkins of the University of Oxford–are making a mistake. It is destructive and gives fodder to the preachers who insist followers must choose either Darwin or God. Often students in Ayala’s introductory biology class tell him that they will answer test questions as he wishes, but in truth they reject evolution because of their Christian beliefs. Then, a couple of years later, when they have learned more science, they decide to abandon their religion. The two, students seem to think, are incompatible.
That saddens him, Ayala says. Instead he would like believers to reconcile their faith with science. Drawing on five years of study in preparation for ordination as a Dominican priest, Ayala uses evolution to help answer a central paradox of Christianity–namely, how can a loving, all-knowing God allow evil and suffering?
Nature is poorly designed–with oddities such as blind spots built into the human eye and an excess of teeth jammed into our jaws. Parasites are sadists. Predators are cruel. Natural selection can explain the ruthlessness of nature, Ayala argues, and remove the “evil”–requiring an intentional act of free will–from the living world. “Darwin solved the problem,” Ayala concludes. He refers to science-savvy Christian theologians who present a God that is continuously engaged in the creative process through undirected natural selection. By addressing religious people on their own terms, Ayala aims to offer a better answer than intelligent design or creationism.

The folks who are likely to be unhappy by today’s Templeton Prize news are Richard Dawkins and the ID supporters. Imagine that. I’ll be on the lookout for responses from both sides, and post them to the blog.

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