Scientists, theologians ponder if biology and religion go together

OXFORD, England — When Charles Darwin published his landmark theory of evolution by natural selection in the 19th century, religious leaders were confronted with a powerful challenge to some of their oldest beliefs about the origins of life.

Then evolutionary theory was expanded with the insights of genetics, which gave further support for a scientific and secular view of how humans evolved.

Faith and tradition were forced further onto the defensive.

Now, exciting progress in biology in recent decades may be building up a third new phase in the scientific explanation of life, according to thinkers gathered at a University of Oxford conference last week (July 19-22).

Although this 21st-century wave has no single discovery to mark its arrival, new insights into developing technologies such as genetic engineering and human enhancement may end up giving another important boost to the belief that science has (or eventually will have) the answers to life’s mysteries.

Some scientists, theologians and philosophers see in this ever deeper knowledge of how genes work a possible alternative to the more reductive approach to evolution — one that brings in a broader view that also considers the influence of the environment.

Dr. Donovan Schaefer. (Credit: Photo courtesy of University of Oxford.)

Unlike the earlier views, which seemed to lead toward either agnosticism or atheism, the theologians see this “new biology” or “holistic biology” as more compatible with religious belief.

“We’ve added definition to the picture of evolution that has deepened and enriched our understanding of biological processes,” Donovan Schaefer, an Oxford lecturer in science and religion who co-organized the conference, told the opening session of the July 19-22 meeting.

But he added: “It would be naive to imagine that the grander questions about biology, religion, the humanities and evolutionary theory generally have been put to death.”

The achievements on their list include…

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