When I traveled to the Third World Summit on Evolution as an ambassador for BioLogos, my main concern about making a faith/science presentation at a scientific conference was that I would be met with indifference. Most talks at these kinds of meetings are focused on highly technical and narrowly focused research; I had some apprehension that my message about the compatibility of evolution and religious faith “wouldn’t fit” the mold and would thus be ignored.
Any concerns I had about lack of interest in the intersections of faith and science were quickly put to rest by a speaker, Dr. Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C, on the very first morning of the conference. His presentation abstract, printed in the conference program, referred to religion as a “cultural pollutant” hindering scientific and social progress, so I knew the talk was going to be attention-grabbing. Paz-y-Miño-C presented public polling data about degrees of religious practice, scientific literacy, and acceptance of evolutionary theory in the United States and also globally. After reviewing the negative (as expected) correlations between the first category and the latter two, he advanced the hypothesis that science and faith are inherently in conflict because of incompatibility between scientific rationalism and belief in supernatural causation. To make his point even more clear, Paz-y-Miño-C followed his hypothesis with statements that “harmonious coexistence between science and religion is illusory” and “compatibility is impossible and coexistence brings antagonism.”
These bold claims clearly caught the attention of the audience; during the question and answer session one attendee said she did not think science could “win” sociologically if it was presented as a choice between science and religion. Dr. Paz-y-Miño-C quickly responded, “I think we can win.”
With that presentation setting the stage for any later conversations on the subject, I was eager to present my poster a couple days later. One of my first visitors was Dr. Paz-y-Miño-C himself, who stopped by my poster briefly. I was surprised to find out he was familiar with BioLogos and then disappointed (but not surprised) when he dismissed the BioLogos perspective as “still just creationism” and moved on to other posters. He was clearly not interested in a sustained discussion but I was heartened that many other attendees were.
The most frequent comments I received can be paraphrased as, “I’m not a believer, but I don’t understand why there has to be so much conflict and I hope BioLogos is successful.” Several people made reference to Paz-y-Miño-C’s talk but, notably, I do not recall anyone saying something complimentary about his hypothesis. While only one person explicitly told me she was a Christian, I found it interesting that many people I talked with mentioned some personal connection to religion, either because they were raised in a church or because other family members were believers. Attendees generally talked about religion with ambivalence, perhaps reflecting the complicated historical relationship between science and religion. (While many atheist scientists write effective and beautiful prose explaining difficult scientific concepts to the general public, they have largely ignored these historical complexities in favor of taking a hard stance against religion and other forms of supernatural belief).
I got the impression that the scientists at the conference, at least the ones who were not overtly hostile to religion, could be described as Non-overlapping Magisterium (aka NOMA) thinkers. The idea of NOMA, as originally proposed by the late evolutionary biologist, Stephen J. Gould, is that science and religion operate in distinct arenas of life and address fundamentally different questions; therefore, they do little to inform or influence each other. One scientist I talked to during the poster session told me he was a non-believer but mentioned that his wife, also a scientist, was a Christian. When I asked him how she dealt with faith/science issues, he responded, “She compartmentalizes well.” I wonder if his wife would give me the same response!
The popularity of the NOMA view in the scientific community is a challenge for BioLogos, as it is an appealing and simplistic solution to faith/science discussions. The harmony and integration that BioLogos seeks may be viewed as “upsetting the apple cart.” An illustration of this feeling is an interesting comment I received from one attendee, who expressed concern that BioLogos was in effect claiming evolutionary science for Christianity and thereby using scientific (and, by itself, agnostic) information to create further distinctions between religions.
I was actually surprised that I only met a single aggressive atheist at the conference. Although this is a community of people with which I am very familiar, I suppose my expectations were still influenced a little bit by the perceptions of many faithful Christians concerned about evolution. There is a widespread belief in churches that the community of professional evolutionary biologists contains (or even creates) large numbers of anti-religious scientists. This impression is understandable, given the prominence of a handful of strident atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, who have set themselves up as spokespersons for evolutionary biology and science in general. It is also true that survey numbers suggest this field contains a higher proportion of atheists than many other scientific disciplines. The evolutionary biologists at the conference openly discussed their agenda as a community, but it is not a religious one. This community seeks to improve scientific education since they feel they understand, better than anyone else, the consequences of low public acceptance of evolution. Paz-y-Miño-C’s combative approach to faith and science doesn’t seem to have much traction even within his own academic circles because the majority of scientists, even those who share his faith in philosophical naturalism and atheism, are more pragmatic about advancing their modest goal to increase public acceptance of evolution.
Latin American scientists at the meeting regularly discussed the need for improved scientific literacy in their countries and more effective outreach to increase acceptance of evolutionary biology. More than one speaker was alarmed at the growing influence conservative religious groups have in framing public discussion of evolution. For many years, it seems that the conflict over evolution in the United States was regarded by international academics as a curiosity, but scientists are now very interested in opposing outspoken creationist groups that are starting to appear in their own countries.
While it is still true that most Latin American countries are predominately Catholic (and that the Catholic Church is officially “pro-evolution”), missionaries from other religious groups skeptical of evolution (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists) have been very successful and their ideas are gaining traction in several areas of Latin America. However, the skepticism with which Dr. Paz-y-Miño-C’s ideas were received suggests that Latin American academics, even professed agnostics and atheists, are looking for a more constructive and conciliatory strategy when it comes to addressing creationist voices in their society.