Scientists and Religious Faith

Ronald N. Giere

My focus in this article is not on science and religion in the abstract but on scientists and their particular religious views. In secular circles, mention of sc ientists and religious faith typically calls to mind prominent scientists who have been critical of religion: Richard Dawkins, Steven Weinberg, and Carl Sagan come to mind. Here I will concentrate on another group of scientists, those who have achieved distinction in their fields but also exhibit a strong Christian faith. My interest, moreover, is in scientists who, since the beginning of this century, have defended their religious faith in books written for a general audience. There are in fact dozens of such books. It would be interesting to survey a number of these to see if any noteworthy patterns emerge. I have done a preliminary survey of this sort (but it is not large enough to draw any general conclusions). Let us look at two such scientists, a physicist and a biologist.

Owen Gingerich is professor emeritus of astronomy and of the history of science at Harvard University and a former senior astronomer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. He has written papers on the atmosphere of the Sun as well as the most authoritative existing account of the life and work of Nicholas Copernicus. He has been a member of many professional organizations and even has an asteroid named after him. No one can doubt his knowledge of science. Nevertheless, as revealed in God’s Universe (Harvard, 2006), Gingerich believes that “the universe has been created with intention and purpose” (p. 7). But he also holds that “this belief does not interfere with the scientific enterprise.” It is clear that he holds the reverse view that science does not interfere with a belief in an intelligent creator.

So Gingerich claims that science and religion are compatible and even complementary. And, indeed, he avoids obvious conflicts. For example, he rejects biblical literalism, agreeing with astronomers that the universe is about fourteen billion years old and the solar system is at least five billion years old. He accepts evolutionary theory, agreeing that humans evolved from lower forms of life over millions of years. It follows that he is no friend of Intelligent Design (capital I, capital D, as he puts it), which rejects evolutionary theory. His intelligent design is strictly lower case. Nevertheless, there are conflicts; it is just that they are at much more subtle levels.

Take cosmology. It is no part of cosmological theories that there is no creator god; it is, rather, that there is no need to posit such a god. The ultimate arbiter in science is observation. But all the observations are the same whether or not one posits a creator god. So there is no empirical basis for such a posit. Moreover, there is no place for a god in a scientific astronomy. It would be a mystery by what means any creator god interacts with the universe as depicted in our scientific theories.

Gingerich’s implicit reply is both methodological and metaphysical. The methodological aspect comes out when he writes: “For me, the universe is a more coherent and congenial place if I assume that it embodies purpose and intention” (p. 41). Elsewhere, he argues that coherence is the primary ground on which scientific theories are accepted or rejected (pp. 94–96). It was on such a basis, he claims, that the Copernican system was initially accepted. It was already well established by the time empirical “proofs” such as the Foucault pendulum for the rotation of Earth and observed stellar parallax for its orbital motion came along. He makes the methodological parallel between science and religion explicit when he writes: “Just as we find scientific explanations credible because they hang together in a finely textured tapestry of connections, a coherency if you will, so also we expect teleological and theological explanations will have a convincing consistency” (p. 95). He goes on to insist that coherence does not provide “proofs” in either domain.

Gingerich makes much of another methodology, or pattern of inference, that may or may not reduce to coherence. This pattern of reasoning is based on a version of what has come to be known as “the anthropic principle.” According to current cosmological theory, there is only a very narrow range of possible universes that would permit the formation of planets with life forms. A “strong” anthropic principle argues from this apparent “fine-tuning” of the universe to the existence of an intelligent force with the intention that self-conscious humans should come into existence. A “weak” form of the argument claims only that the existence of humans provides evidence that the universe must be fine-tuned the way it is. Of course, the weak form works equally well if one starts with the existence of fruit flies, and current cosmological theory might be wrong.

Gingerich, however, embraces a “strong” form of the argument, dismissing weak forms as too “materialistic” and leaving too much to “blind chance.” He also uses an anthropic argument with other starting points, for example, pointing out the fact that there is no atom with mass number five, which means that it takes several generations of stars to produce the higher elements. Otherwise there would be no higher elements and thus no life (pp. 52–55). There are echoes of anthropic thinking throughout the book. It will not have escaped the reader’s attention that all this is merely a cosmological version of a traditional argument from design.

Gingerich also invokes metaphysics, which he reminds us means “beyond physics.” He writes: “’Is the universe designed?’ is not a scientific question. . . . The reason is simple. The question . . . is one without an answer in the scientific sense. It is a metaphysical question, whose answer can only come out of metaphysical reasoning” (p. 70).

It turns out, however, that metaphysical reasoning is mainly a matter of personal belief. He writes: “Evolutionists who deny cosmic teleology and who, in placing their faith in cosmic roulette, argue for the purposelessness of the universe are not articulating a scientifically established fact; they are advocating their personal metaphysical stance. This posture, I believe, is something that should be legitimately resisted” (p. 75).

He is, however, evenhanded in applying the same reasoning to his own views: “My subjective, metaphysical view, that the universe would make more sense if a divine will operated at this level to design the universe in a purposeful way, can be neither denied nor proved by scientific means. It is a matter of belief or ideology how we choose to think about the universe, and it will make no difference how we do our science” (p. 101).

It seems that in the end, this book is to be understood as an expression of Gingerich’s personal metaphysical views, a few of which tend toward the extravagant, such as when he indicates tentative support for the view that our current “cosmology leads logically to the idea of a transcendence situated beyond time and space, giving the lie to the notion that the cosmos is all there is or was or ever will be” (p. 78).

But is the view of evolutionists that there is no purpose in our evolutionary history really not a scientific matter? It is part of evolutionary theory, not personal opinion, that mutations are random and thus have no inherent tendency to be adaptive. Gingerich is equivocal on this point. He writes: “Science will not collapse if some practitioners are convinced that there has occasionally been creative input into the long chain of being. Are mutations
blind chance, or is God’s miraculous hand continually at work, disguised in the ambiguity of the uncertainty principle?” (p. 70).

The popular view implied in the rhetorical question is usually called “guided evolution.” If this is indeed Gingerich’s view, he is clearly in opposition to evolutionary theory as understood by most biologists. The attempt to hide “God’s miraculous hand” within the uncertainties of quantum theory is also a popular move among theists. The best argument presumes that probabilities are really relative frequencies in an infinite sequence of trials. In principle, one could change the outcome in an infinite number of properly spaced trials without changing the limiting relative frequencies. This reasoning does not work, however, if probabilities are inherent in individual trials, which is now the dominant scientific view of quantum physicists.

For a secularist reading this book, it still remains puzzling how a man so versed in the sciences could hold the views he clearly does. One may take a clue from the revelation that Gingerich came out of a family counting Amish ministers among its ancestors, that his immediate family was very religious, and that he received his undergraduate degree from a Mennonite college in Indiana. He does not mention ever having felt conflicts between his faith in God and his scientific pursuits. It seems that throughout his life, he developed more and more sophisticated ways of reconciling his religious beliefs with the ever-changing claims of the sciences. In this he would be like the seventeenth-century papal astronomers who found ever-more complicated ways of reconciling new observations with Ptolemaic astronomy. It is ironic that the subject of so much of Gingerich’s scholarship, Nicholas Copernicus, chose science over scripture. But then again, Copernicus also thought he was investigating the workings of God’s universe.

Francis Collins

In June of 2000, then-President Bill Clinton publicly announced the “completion” of The Human Genome Project. Among those with him was Francis Collins, head of the international genome project. In his prepared remarks, President Clinton said: “Today we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of God’s most divine and sacred gift.” When it came his turn, Collins echoed Clinton’s remarks, concluding that “we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.” But this was no mere echo. Collins had endorsed the choice of words Clinton spoke during the speechwriting process. The fact is that Collins is a committed Christian as well as a respected scientist. He sets out his views on these two aspects of his life in The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006).

Unlike Gingerich, Collins was not brought up in a strongly Christian household. As he himself remarks, “Faith was not an important part of my childhood” (p. 13). An enthusiastic teacher turned him on to chemistry in high school, and he went on to obtain a BA in chemistry at the University of Virginia, where he became what he later learned was an agnostic. Pursuing a PhD in physical chemistry at Yale, he became an acknowledged atheist. Unsure that he wanted to spend his life as a research chemist, he applied to medical school at the University of North Carolina, where he was introduced to his true scientific calling, medical genetics. Contact with patients who were ardent Christians led him to question his lack of belief. A period of questioning led him to the writings of C.S. Lewis, which turned the tide. He made what he describes as “a leap of faith” (p. 31) . He returned to Yale as a research fellow working on human genetics and then took up a faculty position at the University of Michigan, becoming director of its genome center. It was from there that he moved to the National Institutes of Health to direct the National Human Genome Research Institute. His credentials, both as a scientist and committed Christian, are beyond dispute.

From the subtitle of his book, one would expect Collins to stress evidence from genetics and the Human Genome Project in favor of belief in the Christian God. But that is not what he does. Regarding the completion of the genome project, he says: “For me, as a believer, the uncovering of the human genome sequence held additional significance. This book was written in the DNA language by which God spoke life into being” (p. 123). This statement clearly presupposes that one is already a believer.

The arguments for belief he does give are different. The most important for him is the supposed existence of the “Moral Law” in every person. For Collins, the Moral Law cannot come from the material world. It must come from somewhere “outside of space and time” (p. 67). Often reference to the Moral Law is accompanied by mention of the fact that just about every culture we know about includes worship of some sort of supernatural being. He writes: “In my view, [the] 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. Freeing God from the burden of special acts of creation does not remove Him as the source of the things that make humanity special, and of the universe itself. It merely shows us something of how He operates” (pp. 140–41). He returns to the Moral Law near the end of the book, saying, “After twenty-eight years as a believer, the Moral Law still stands out for me as the strongest sign post to God” (p. 218).

A scientist is supposed to be especially cognizant of potential alternatives to favored hypotheses. In the case of the Moral Law and the near-universal incidence across cultures of beliefs in a supernatural being, the main alternatives to the actual existence of the supernatural are based in psychology and cultural anthropology. Collins much too quickly dismisses explanations from these quarters as insufficient to account for the recognized phenomena. Nor does he give sufficient weight to problems of cultural relativity. He is not sufficiently worried about the possibility that his attitude toward Christianity might be quite different if he were Japanese, Chinese, Indian, or even French. He fails to engage secular thinkers who take the inability to show one religious tradition superior to all others as grounds for rejecting all religious traditions.

The other argument for the existence of a deity that Collins takes very seriously is the origin of the universe, about which he claims: “The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation. It forces the conclusion that nature had a defined beginning. I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that” (p. 67). Presumably it is in the power of supernatural forces to create themselves.

Like Gingerich, he also lays great stress on the “fine-tuning” found in current theories of cosmology (pp. 57–84). In Collins’s version of the argument, there are only three possible hypotheses for the fact that we are here: (1) Our actual universe happens to have the characteristics it does, and we evolved to fit the environment that resulted here on Earth. Collins claims that, on this hypothesis, our existence would be very improbable. (2) There are very many universes (a “multiverse”) with different characteristics. In this case it is quite probable that a few of these universes would have characteristics similar to those of our universe. So our existence in this case is much less improbable than according to the first hypothesis. (3) There is one universe that was designed by an intelligent creator so that
we would evolve, making our existence again relatively probable. Collins rejects the first hypothesis on the basis that it gives a very low probability to the actual fact that we exist. He rejects the second as “strain[ing] credulity.” That leaves the third hypothesis.

This whole argument rests on a faulty understanding of probabilistic reasoning. The probabilities associated with the first and second hypotheses assume an initial uniform distribution of infinitesimal probabilities over all combinations of parameters. That would give the existence of any one possible universe, such as our own, an infinitesimal probability, which is the supposition of the first hypothesis. It would then take an infinity of universes to yield a high probability that one of these possible universes is like ours, as claimed in the second hypothesis. The fundamental problem is that cosmological theory provides no basis whatsoever for the initial assumption of a uniform probability distribution or, for that matter, any distribution whatsoever, over the parameters in question.

To put this criticism more generally, nothing is probable or improbable by itself. The probability of any event is relative to an initial setup and the specification of possible outcomes. Given an appropriate situation, any event can be shown to be highly improbable relative to that situation. For example, relative to their situation at birth, it is highly improbable that anyone should be reading this article just at this moment and in their current location. The bottom line, then, is that Collins has not provided credible grounds for rejecting the scientifically preferred first hypothesis, namely, that humans evolved to fit the environment of the universe as it happens to be.

When it comes to biology, Collins’s views are scientifically orthodox. Regarding evolutionary theory, he says: “No serious biologist today doubts the theory of evolution to explain the marvelous complexity and diversity of life” (p. 99). Later he adds, “Truly it can be said that not only biology but medicine would be impossible to understand without the theory of evolution” (p. 133). He rejects the creationist’s distinction between macro- and microevolution, saying, “The distinction between macroevolution and microevolution is . . . rather arbitrary; larger changes that result in new species are a result of a succession of smaller incremental steps” (p. 132). He is contemptuous of Young Earth creationism, asking, “Can faith in a loving God be built on a foundation of lies about nature?” (p. 176). He concludes: “Young Earth Creationism has reached a point of intellectual bankruptcy, both in its science and in its theology” (p. 177). He is not much more tolerant of Intelligent Design, saying, “Ultimately a ‘God of the gaps’ religion runs a huge risk of simply discrediting faith. We must not repeat this mistake in the current era. Intelligent Design fits into this discouraging tradition, and faces the same ultimate demise” (p. 193).

In several places, Collins insists that God must exist “outside the natural world” (p. 30), “outside of space and time” (p. 67), or “outside of nature” (p. 165). Collins’s motivation for wanting to place God outside space and time is clear. He wants there to be no conflict between his science and his faith. Science clearly operates only inside space and time. His goal of reconciling science and faith is stated clearly at the beginning of the book. “In my view there is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us. Science’s domain is to explore nature. God’s domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science” (p. 6). His book inadvertently shows how difficult it is to maintain the desired separation.

Reflections/Hypotheses

One cannot draw reliable conclusions from two cases, but they can be used to formulate hypotheses for further study. Here are three suggestions.

In these two cases, the sources of religious belief for these scientists are separate from their science. It is not the case that pursuing their science led them to believe there must be a god or even led them to consider the possibility. Rather, their belief came from other life experiences, here either growing up in a very religious family environment or some later personal experiences. That leaves these scientists in the position of trying to reconcile two apparently conflicting aspects of their lives. The difficulty of this task often leads to contradiction: offering scientific arguments for supernaturalism, such as fine-tuning, while also arguing that science and religion operate in separate realms. One can’t have it both ways.

Scientists are often criticized for offering opinions about matters in areas outside their scientific specialties. Gingerich and Collins are both subject to such criticism. Being an astronomer, Gingerich is better positioned than most religiously oriented scientists to invoke ideas from cosmology. He is not an expert in quantum theory or probability theory. He has no special understanding of evolutionary theory or genetics. Collins’s position is even more problematic. His main arguments for the existence of a creator god are drawn from areas where his own expertise is weakest. He is no expert on the Moral Law or on the anthropology of human belief systems. Nor is he an expert in cosmology or probability theory. Where he is an expert, in evolutionary theory and genetics, his views are little different from those of his secular colleagues. And, of course, neither Gingerich nor Collins has any credentials in theology.

Finally, one might ask what role religious scientists play in the general conflict between secular and religious approaches to our political and social lives, both individually and collectively. Here one should not be too quick to dismiss them as enemies of a secular society. Gingerich is an urbane man who is a gifted teacher and a collector of seashells. Collins once spent some time caring for patients at a mission hospital in a small African village. These are not bad people. Both reject the antiscientific positions of Creation Science and Intelligent Design. As both scientists and Christians, their objections to these movements may carry more weight in religious circles than the objections of secular scientists. Indeed it would not be surprising if one of their aims in writing their books was to distance themselves from these movements.

On the other hand, scientists who write such books must be to some extent motivated by a desire to proclaim their faith. But once books are published, the character and motivations of the authors cease to be relevant. It is the uses to which others put the books that matters. Here one can be pretty sure that more radical critics of secular cosmology and evolutionary theory will ignore the rejections and focus on the fact that these established scientists are theists. Theologians and others not versed in the sciences will be all too prone to take the views of these scientists as representing sound scientific arguments for theism. So, from a secular point of view, one can argue that these scientists do more harm to science than good.

Ronald N. Giere

Ronald N. Giere is professor emeritus of philosophy and a member and former director of the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Minnesota. In addition to many papers on the philosophy of science, he is the author of Understanding Scientific Reason (5th edition 2006), Explaining Science: A Cognitive Approach (1998), Science without Laws (1999), and Scientific Perspectivism (2006).


My focus in this article is not on science and religion in the abstract but on scientists and their particular religious views. In secular circles, mention of sc ientists and religious faith typically calls to mind prominent scientists who have been critical of religion: Richard Dawkins, Steven Weinberg, and Carl Sagan come to mind. Here …

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