Thoughts from the Science & Religion Forum Conference
I am writing this on the second day of the Science & Religion Forum conference. The conference this year is very much focussed on the dialogue between science and religion and the place of ‘science and religion’ as an academic (or theological) discipline.
The talks so far have been extremely interesting, encompassing the past, present and potential future of science and religion. Of particular interest was a lecture given on the first day of the conference by Dr Helen de Cruz on the challenges and opportunities that our understanding of human evolution presents to theology and the science-religion dialogue. From its beginnings, the theory of evolution has challenged the concept of human distinctiveness, that is, that we are completely different from and stand apart from other animals. Evolution tells us that we are a continuation of what has gone before and share both genes and anatomical/physiological structures with other animals. We are more like them (or they are more like us) than is sometimes comfortable.
The idea of human distinctiveness in the Christian tradition was derived from the accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, where the creation of human beings is a particular event separate from the creation of any other species. In Genesis 1, the creation narrative also says that human beings are made in the image of God, although it does not specify what this means. The Genesis narratives were never intended as ‘scientific’ accounts. They are theological. But this idea of humanity possessing the image of God, although a theological rather than scientific concept, does become problematic when contemplated in the light of evolutionary science; several questions arise (and were discussed in Dr de Cruz’s lecture and the questions that followed): at what point in the evolutionary development of humanity did we obtain the image of God; did other hominid species, such as Neanderthals, also possess the image of God; many of what were once thought of as the defining marks of humanity have now been identified in other animal species, so do they also possess in some way the image of God? If we believe that it is modern humans alone that possess the image of God, what then do we make of the fact that some groups of modern humans also carry DNA from Neanderthals as a result, not of common ancestry between the species but interbreeding? Is the image of God in these populations ‘diluted’?
Do any of these questions actually matter? This second day of the conference began with a very stimulating lecture from the Revd Professor Alister McGrath, in which he highlighted the importance of narrative in creating a coherent world-view. The stories that we tell about ourselves and the world both help to define us, shape our understanding of the world and influence our interactions with others. Although not specifically discussed during the conference, I believe that there is an interplay between these two lectures that deserves some reflection. Namely, the relationship between the narrative of human uniqueness and how this narrative is challenged by evolutionary biology.
The narrative of human uniqueness has been a powerful one and, in many instances, a destructive one. The idea that human beings are distinct and ‘superior’ to all other creatures and that being made in the image of God conveys privilege rather than, as I would argue, responsibility, on us has led many to see the world exclusively in terms of resources and commodities, and to deny that other sentient creatures possess emotional and cognitive capacities, which in turn has been used to justify all manner of cruel and abusive practices. For some, the narrative of human uniqueness has also shaped the way they engage with science and religion. Acknowledging the validity of the scientific evidence requires a reshaping of the narrative. For some, this is threatening, either emotionally, theologically or practically (necessitating, as it would, a re-evaluation of humanity’s relation to the rest of creation). I suspect that for these individuals, it is a reluctance to allow the narrative to be reshaped that creates a hostility towards science and a suspicion of meaningful dialogue between science and religion. Of course, this narrative reshaping goes both ways. If we take seriously the fact that human beings are made in the image of God, and that this confers on us a responsibility to interact with the world in a God- or Christ-like manner, then this must surely put constraints on science: doing not anything that we can do simply because we can do it, but pursuing science for the benefit not only of humanity but the flourishing of all creation. Allowing a reshaping of the scientific narrative acknowledges that science is not the only authoritative voice on what the world is like or what the world should be.