The How and Why of Our World

OrganizedKhaos's picture

The How and Why:

Exploring the Relationship between Evolution and Religion


            This semester in my Evolution and Literature class at Bryn Mawr College, we have taken a look into Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Through the reading of this text our class had the opportunity to explore the subject of evolution, its implications in the realm of science and literature, as well as the various views that exist about the theory and the way in which it is taught. One area of discussion that really sparked curiosity and further inquiry for me is that of science, religion and the relationship, or lack thereof, which exists between the two areas.

            Science is defined through Oxford’s English Dictionary as, “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” This suggests that anything outside of the natural and physical world does not fall under the umbrella of science. With such an emphasis on the tangible and that which can be seen, it must be fair to assume that an area of study such as religion, “belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power,” falls very far from the natural and/or physical world ( But does that mean that a relationship between the two is nonexistent? And if it is, how does one go about learning, understanding and believing in both?

               Although Darwin’s theory of evolution falls within the discipline of science and all things natural and physical, for some reason, in all my years of learning about evolution, the topic of religion seems to come up even though it is barely mentioned or addressed in the text. In his book On the Origin of Species, Darwin explains that the large amounts of species inhabiting the Earth are a result repeated evolutionary branching from common ancestors. This initially came from observations he made with his own pigeons when he noted the variation among these birds. The variation occurred in wing span, beak size and other characteristic traits of the organisms (Darwin, 1859). This preview to the larger world of evolutionary theory that Darwin would soon describe to the world as domestic variation, focused very much on the biological evolution of organisms and appealed to many other scientists asking the same questions and noting similar observations. It seems from reading the Darwin’s text that science and religion are two separate realms when looking at evolution. But this can be stretched more generally to encapsulate the idea of science.

              Conflict between science and religion began before Charles Darwin revealed the Origin of the Species to the world (Greene & Haidt, 2002).  Creationists seem to believe that the theory of Darwin’s evolution contradicts the literal interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis in the Bible. This chapter explains how God created the Heavens, Earth and all the species on it in just six days (Lovgren, 2004). Thus, suggesting that all organisms came from a common ancestor seems to immediately spark a reaction from the group of people who believe in what is called Creationism.

              Though these two ideologies seem to be on opposite sides of the spectrum it is not actually the case for everyone or even scientists. As a Roman Catholic anthropology major interested in Health and the many ethical or moral issues that may play a role in my future career, I found it hard to believe that scientists such as Darwin and various in this day and age do not face some similar concerns in terms of the connected with religion and evolution. Though I learn about evolution and see the magnanimous amount of evidence and justification for the “truth” behind it, I find that my beliefs and convictions are never altered and though questioned from time to time have not changed.

               Evidence shows that that religion does in fact have a relationship to the happenings in science and the lives of the scientists. A quote that strikes me when looking into this topic is one from Albert Einstein, where he states that “science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind” (Lovgren, 2004). This article from National Geographic News describes how it may be the case that science answers the “how” questions while religion answers the larger scientifically unproven “why” questions. For example, one researcher suggests that “the religion is about ethics, or what you should do, while science is about what’s true,” others support the idea that “science is woefully inadequate in answering the ‘why’ questions” thus “there’s no way scientists can ever rule out religion” (Lovgren, 2004). I agree with the notion that religion plays a part in science and though some may be uncomfortable or may not accept the idea of a higher being, being responsible for those questions or bits of randomness that occur, I find that religion cannot be completely discarded in the realm of science.

                This notion of science and religion connectedness and my possible inability to separate the two has also been studied in terms of morals. Experiments and other psychological works have studied the way in which people’s decisions and points of view are often affected by their morals and beliefs (Steinfels, 2004). Haidt is well known for his article called “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail”. Haidt did research on scenarios that would evoke certain reactions from people that were deemed right or wrong by society (Haidt, 2000). What he found was that regardless of lack of consequences, public health issues or any danger from the subjects in the story, many people would make their decision and then rationalize it after. Even when, all areas of danger or possible reasoning for why the action may have been ‘wrong’ certain subjects still refused to change their views and decided that even though they had no good explanation as to why it was wrong “it just is” (Lovgren, 2004).

              This study and a few others by Haidt show that “people are capable of engaging in private moral reasoning” and with this stories like evolution can coexist without discarded that of Genesis or God and the Creation of the Earth (Haidt, 2003). People can point to times in their lives when they changed their minds on a moral issues just from going through the matter themselves but intuition and gut reactions occurs quickly and if asked the same question or another scenario at a later point once again the gut though having been taught something new mentally will still make that decision for them.

               According to the research I have found that one’s moral judgment may in fact be an inhibitor for accepting and learning new things but also that once passed the moral block two ideologies or beliefs can exist together. Thus in terms of religion and science they will always come up together due to the intuitions of opposites but they we as a society can’t have on without the other. It’s like the perfect mix of sweet and salty, a constant clash of taste that will continue to satisfy the realm of education and intellectuals who enjoy thinking outside the box and challenging the norm.


Steinfels, Peter. "Mixing Morals with Education." New York Times. June 2004: pp 1-3.

Lovgren, Stefan. "Evolution and Religion can coexist, scientists say." National Geographic News. October  2004: pp  1-3.

Haidt, Jonathan. “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment”. Psychology Review. University of Virginia. pp 1-35 October 31, 2000

Greene, Joshua and Haidt, Jonathan. How (and where) does moral judgment work? Trends in cognitive Science. Vol 6 : 12 December 2002. pp 517-523.

Oxford English Dictionary (online)




Anne Dalke's picture

"The Lame and the Blind"

So, Organized Khaos--

For starters, don't miss Ashley's paper, Juxtaposing Science and Religion, which draws both on the Einstein quote about this relationship beween the lame and the blind, and on the National Geographic distinction between the how and the why, the true and the ethical. In Ashley's paper, it seems very important  that these two sets of ideas not "clash"; a presumption of the need not to disagree seems to undergird her thinking. This strikes me as very different from your conclusion, that religion and science provide "a constant clash of taste that will continue to satisfy intellectuals who enjoy thinking outside the box and challenging the norm." So: I think the two of you should talk! (with a nudge that your talking here, on Serendip, would be of interest and use to us all....)

And here's a third potential correspondent for you both, vlopez, the author of The Quest for Truth: Science & Religion.

Because you cover much of the same territory, much of which I have to say in response to your paper I've already said to Ashley; so please be sure to read those comments.

I also have a few additional thoughts aimed @ the specifics of your essay:
it interests me that you begin w/ the "foundational" move to the OED, as your source for defining science and religion. That gives you a neat comparison between the study of the natural world and and awareness of what is beyond it, but it doesn't incorporate the conversations we've been having in this class. What's the operative definition of science that has emerged from our discussions? Is it limited to a study of the material world?

I'm also quite struck by the way in which you position yourself in this debate, "as a Roman Catholic anthropology major" whose "beliefs and convictions are never altered and have not changed." I'd be interested to hear more about how you've negotiated between what you characterize as "intuitions of opposites."

Finally, I'm very puzzled by what you do w/ Haidt's work, the punch line of which for me is that our moral judgment (our immediate "gut" reaction) inhibits us from accepting and learning new things, that we very rarely use reasoning to question our own attitudes or beliefs, and that this explains the bitterness, futility, and self-righteousness of most moral arguments. Within the terms he's described (and you reproduce): how can rubbing religion and science up against one another be a productive activity? How pass that "moral block"?

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