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By Robert J Asher


The Montréal Review, May 2012


"Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist" by Robert J Asher (Cambridge University Press, 2012)


'Evolution and Belief is a great read. There is a lot of serious science, there is sensible thinking about religion, and above all there is a humility before the big questions that comes from strength of intellect and purpose. I recommend it strongly.'

--Michael Ruse, Florida State University and author of "The Philosophy of Human Evolution and Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science"

'Rob Asher writes as a scientist who is also religious, as a great many are. His brief in this book is to show other believers how science is done and how real religious faith should not see it as a threat. The main thing, though, is that this is a really good book on evolution, particularly the evolution of mammals, with many wonderful insights that will be new to readers.'

--Kevin Padian, Museum of Paleontology, University of California, Berkeley


Many scientists are religious, and consider their beliefs to be entirely rational. On the other hand, a scientific worldview is sometimes claimed to be incompatible with religion, and under certain definitions of "science" and "religion", it probably is. For example, if religion requires a human-like, supernatural entity who interferes in the workings of nature like a mechanic might fix a car, then the two are not compatible. Given what we know about how our world functions, it's not rational to believe that stars hang from a metal firmament in the sky, that the Earth is 6000 years old, that human virgins give birth, or that decomposed cadavers can come back to life. Incorporating such claims into your religious identity does not make them true.

"Religion" encompasses a wide spectrum of belief and philosophy, and is not synonymous with the literal claims of specific, human traditions. As someone who believes in the existence of God, I qualify as religious. In my view, God is evident in the laws of nature and in the existence of rationality itself. My belief does not derive from claims for nature-defying miracles in human-mediated scripture. There have been schools of thought within most religious traditions that do not glorify the supernatural and reject the view that where nature works, God doesn't---a view, by the way, endorsed by many fundamentalists and atheists alike. If "god" can act through nature, and if "science" is recognized as the subset of rationality that it is, then the two are eminently compatible.

Over 1500 years ago, St. Augustine warned that conflicts between interpretations of religious texts and our understanding of natural law can make religion look bad, particularly when certain interpretations are dogmatically promoted. Hence, there is a longstanding precedent in the Judeo-Christian tradition against dogmatism, despite the unfortunate fact that many of religion's advocates do not promote tolerance. A spontaneous failure of natural law (or "miracle") by which some believers define their faith (and some atheists ridicule it) should be seen as an artifact of ignorance, rather than something intrinsic to an object or event. Sixteenth century Aztecs made the mistake of elevating their ignorance about Spanish horses and pikemen to the divine; that (plus smallpox and a few angry local neighbors) led to the collapse of their civilization. To revere phenomena because they seem inexplicable makes the same mistake. Conversely, the vista of the Grand Canyon should not be considered less divine because we understand erosion; wine is no less sweet when we know that fermentation intervenes between it and water. In my view, the fact that rationality seems to work at all is a legitimate basis for worship; ignorance about nature is not.

"In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist" wrote Charles Darwin near the end of his life. He was by no means a traditional Christian, but in the Origin of Species he was at pains to emphasize its compatibility with religion. Overall, Darwin was relatively modest about the scope of evolutionary biology, which concerns the diversification of Life after it started. Darwinian evolution does not concern Life's origin or the existence of God, yet the perception that it does is widespread. This makes it harder for many decent people to appreciate just how compelling the evidence is for evolution. Darwin made many predictions about what later scientists would find regarding patterns in the fossil record, development, and anatomy among species, and we know today that patterns of genetic diversity match his predictions as well. In my book Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist, I review how science has proven him correct in the essential details and emphasize how biological complexity has arisen from natural processes. Recognizing these processes as unrelated to a human-like intelligence does not deny the existence of God. We can no more justify atheism due to evolution than claim the non-existence of Thomas Edison due to electricity. I reiterate Darwin's own argument that his theory presents a mechanism by which Life has diversified, representing a cause which says nothing about any potential agency behind it. Evolutionary biology---along with the natural sciences in general---does contradict superstition, but it does not rule out belief in God.

One of the challenges we face as a society is to honestly identify the conflicts between religion and science, and help draw the line between belief and superstition. In the case of Christian faith, a good starting point is to recognise the obvious benevolence of scripture; for example, do not slander others (Matthew 15), be humble (Romans 3) and truthful (Matthew 5). These passages are no less sublime because of others that seem to condone snake handling (Mark 16), misogyny and primogeniture (Deuteronomy 21). At least some Judeo-Christian scriptures---written by many different human authors over the course of several centuries---seem genuinely timeless and inspired; other passages seem more intertwined with the local time and culture in which they were written. Every generation of Christians (and those of other faiths) will grapple with such texts, some reasonably suggesting that maybe the 'objectionable' ones don't mean what we think they mean. Like any other human endeavour, religious interpretation should be accorded the capacity for reflection and correction as we learn more about ourselves and our cosmos. Like any other natural science, evolutionary biology is a part of this process.


* Some of this text was derived from an essay posted on the University of Cambridge website.


Robert J. Asher is a paleontologist specializing in mammals and the author of "Evolution and Belief" (Cambridge University Press, April 2012). Raised in upstate New York, he is a former Curator of Mammals at the Berlin Natural History Museum and Frick Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History. Currently, he is the Curator of Vertebrates in the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. Over the past two decades, his research in paleobiology has taken him to Argentina, Britain, Canada, Kenya, Madagascar, Mongolia, South Africa, Spain, the United States and Venezuela. His regularly publishes scientific articles in leading journals including PNAS, Science and Nature.




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