Science has a history of stepping on the toes of religious belief. Let's not forget that it wasn't until the 1990s that the Catholic church finally got around to apologizing for persecuting Galileo. Right now, some 40% of Americans are strict creationists – they don't think evolution ever happened. Nevermind that Darwinian evolution is the unifying theory of all modern biology – the Bahbul tells me ah'm special, not sum munkee thang!
This is always the time when more liberally-minded Christians like to remind us that there are other scientists, like Francis Collins and Ken Miller, who are accomplished evolutionary biologists and devout Christians. Science and faith need not be in conflict, so they say. In fact that's pretty much exactly what a few major scientific organizations are saying. These guys, whom we lovingly call "accommodationists", think that scientific knowledge reveals the glory of God's creation. How do they know that? Because they do, that's why. Checkmate, atheists!
But there are a couple of glaring issues here. The first is pragmatic: regardless of the fact that there are some theological liberals there are out there who fancy themselves more sophisticated than those science-denying conservative brutes, that doesn't change the 40% of Americans who think evolution is false for the profound reason that there are no references to it in a 4,000 year old fable about a magic tree and a talking snake. It doesn't change the fact that Ken Ham and his goofball sideshow The Creation Museum is trying to build a full-scale replica of Noah's Ark, because they believe that stuff actually happened.
The other is a little more nuanced. In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking describes a conference at the Vatican in the early 80s, in which numerous scientists were invited to lecture on cosmology. The Pope told them that it was fine to investigate what happened after the Big Bang, since that, y'know, glorifies God's creation (Why? Because it does!). But he said that they shouldn't try to figure out what happened before the Big Bang, since that was God's domain. Of course, coincidentally, Hawking's lecture was about that very topic. You see this kind of rigidity now – like the way William Lane Craig, who many Christians think is a really sophisticated philosopher, insists that the Big Bang is proof that the universe had a beginning. Accordingly, I've composed this open letter to cosmologists the world over who are investigating things like String Theory, the Cyclic Universe, the No Boundary Universe, and the Multiverse, all of which require us to go back before the Big Bang:
You can stop now. William Lane Craig figured it out. Thanks.
This kind of folly isn't reserved for Bill Craig. Francis Collins, outlining the six tenets of what he calls "Theistic Evolution" in his book The Language of God, says that God was hands-on until evolution started:
3. While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time.Collins is smart enough to know that evolution works totally by natural processes, and that there's no value in positing "guidance" by a Creator. But how would someone like Collins feel about the the fact that humans didn't have to exist? That our existence is lucky? That's what evolution tells us about all life – the phylogenetic tree could have gone a million different ways, but it just happened to give rise to the world we see. And what happens to Collins' tenets if and when we have a robust theory of abiogenesis? There's really only one possibility: God just gets pushed back into another gap. But what about things like a Cyclic Universe, String Theory, or the Multiverse? All of those ideas would make a Creator just as superfluous as evolution has made a meddling Designer, because there would be no "beginning" to the universe, no "moment of creation" that would logically imply a Creator. I can only speculate of course, but I imagine that Collins and other such liberally-minded believers would be more than a bit resistant to any ideas that would require them to re-think core tenets of their theology.
4. Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required.
Earlier today, I hopped on ScienceNOW to read a fascinating article about how smaller dinosaurs evolved into the lumbering beasts that tried to take over an amusement park and eat Jeff Goldblum. And sure enough, you can't throw a rock at an online article about evolution without hitting some religious idiot flooding the comment section with ignorant rants about carbon dating and missing links. I'm no evolutionary biologist, but I know enough about it that I'm flabbergasted by the sheer magnitude of stupidity that passes for creationist arguments. I've tried reasoning with these people, and it's a waste of time. As John Loftus says, it's hard to reason people out of beliefs they weren't reasoned into. Science is the epistemic method – the only method – that allows us to break free of vacuous claims of "revealed truth" and investigate reality for what it really is. As as long as people's cherished beliefs are in conflict with that reality, science and religion will always be butting heads.