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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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Religion and Science

Jessica Rosenberg

In both style and content, there are some passages of Ernst Mayr's What Evolution Is that stick out, catastrophic breaks from the uniformity of the rest of the book. The section on the "evolution of human ethics," in the "How Did Mankind Evolve?" chapter calls such attention to itself. With Mayr's seeming abhorrence of human emotion (rightly so, in a book on evolution, some might say), his explanation of human ethics is the only time when he deals with what people do with their evolved bodies that seems to separates us from other evolved creatures. As Mayr shows Darwin showed, every species feels natural selection pressure, but insofar as we know, humans are the only creatures that deserve their own ethics section.

This section is also the only time that Mayr speaks kindly about religion, acknowledging that "genuine ethics is the result of the thoughts of cultural leaders," (259). He cites the Old and New Testaments as examples of how people are taught to treat each other, rather than the home texts of ignorant creationists. Then there is the moment when Mayr grudgingly concedes, forcing himself to "appreciate it, the cultures of the Christian world do have ethical principles that are, on the whole, perfectly sound," (260).

Mayr's foray into human ethics, and whatever need he felt to write about it in the first place, illuminates an important relationship between religion and science. Religion and science, regardless of what their purest forms and purveyors define them as, are both used by people to explain things in life that are beyond our everyday grasp. Though we rarely pay attention to the nonevents, religion and science are, more often than not, not in conflict. Plenty of people believe in both gravity and God. But because they both serve similar functions of explication, neither discipline can ever truly ignore the other when there are discrepancies.

Religion is based in a belief that something bigger is in control, at least in some state of existence. Religion is, at its core, a belief in the supernatural. In this way, religion is fundamentally at odds with science. At its most basic, science is a set of observations. Science is most successful when it tests observations, revises and rewrites and examines. The supernatural does not need to be observed to be believed. Religion is often considered strongest when people do not need scrutiny, but rely on faith.

It has long been the job of many religions to explain to people why bad things exist. While bad is always subjective, most people agree on some things they need explanations for. And if there's some sort of supernatural thing going on in this world, if there's something out there, then the explanation of suffering is even more indispensable for us. Even if we understand death, even if we can understand the end of life to be the natural end to a cycle started at birth, more questions remain. Why do things have to hurt like they do? Why is there pair, suffering, hunger, torture, hurting in the world? Each religion explains these things through peoples' relationship to god. Stories such as Adam and Eve's fall, Noah's flood, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah serve as examples of God's relationship to human evil.

Meanwhile, science is at a lost with its much less well defined place to begin to explain. Religion doesn't need to explain goodness. Religions start from a place where human and supernatural interactions are central. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner explains that in Judaism, the oldest surviving monotheistic religion,
"Spiritual awareness begins with the fleeting epiphany that you, yourself, are connected to everything and that everything is connected to you. Throughout all Creation, just beneath the surface, joining each person to every other person and to every other thing in a luminous organism of sacred responsibility: invisible lines of connection."

From this place of connection, there is no need to explain goodness. Most people like to feel good and do not like to feel bad; kindness has no reason not to exist, its cruelty that needs explaining. Science, however, can make no such assumptions. Scientifically, both the good and the bad need explaining. When human preference is taken out of the equation, one is just as likely to exist as the other.

Science is also weighed down with the burden of proof. Religions, from an objective point of view (that is, from an agnostic point of view) need only to come up with a good story. Once enough people believe the story, once a religion travels a path from single fanatic, to small cult, to mainstream religion, it no longer matters whether there is any hard or actual evidence for religions claims; it is true because it is believed. Science is only believed once it is proved at least somewhat "true," (while, of course, truth doesn't exist.)

Both science and religion are benefited by the others' existence and continued exploration. Though not to be looked at in direct competition, something has indeed been gained for each as they have developed side by side in the modern world. Contending for peoples' consciousness has made both disciplines work harder and mean more. As science continues to widen its scope of observations, religion will also, perhaps inevitably question, grow, and evolve.


Ham, Ken; Safarti, Jonathan; Wieland, Carl. "The Origin of Bad." Christian Answers, Don Batten (ed). Adapted from The Revised and Expanded Answers Book. Master Books, 2000. URL =

Kushner, Lawrence. "Thought and Spirituality." The 12 Paths to Judaism. 1999. URL =

Okasha, Samir. "Biological Altruism." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2003 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). URL = .

Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York: Basic Books, 2001

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