Many of the letters and statements throughout the United States regarding the teaching of evolution in our schools still do not fully explored the roles of science and religion in our lives. Some of those statements see both science and religion as ends, set bodies of knowledge and truth.
Perhaps both of these perspectives primarily provide us with valuable means for understanding life and the universe around us.
Science is a method of inquiry, a process of learning from observation. It is about gathering information and trying to describe what is. The scientific method involves stating a hypothesis and designing an experiment to test the hypothesis which could be repeated by others at a later time.
Space program physicist Andrew Goldfinger, an Orthodox Jew, wrote about the relationship between science and religion in his book, Thinking about Creation. Goldfinger said that conscientious scientists don't speak of learning the truth, because theories have been known to collapse suddenly in the face of one more experiment. Yet, no scientific explanation should be referred to as "just a theory" when it is part of an attempt to better understand the physical world and how it works.
With regard to understanding the nature of the Earth's formation and distant past, Goldfinger claims that the best scientists can do is to observe the state of the universe and to develop theories that can be projected or extrapolated backward in time.
Religion takes a different approach to explaining and dealing with our existence. Religion offers us a moral compass. It tells us what ought to be and what we ought to do to improve the world. It is about using poetry, metaphor and prayer as a means to express wonder and gratitude. For example, my tradition provides me with blessings to recite when I see a rainbow (praising God who keeps promises and remembers covenants), a comet (praising God as the source of creation) and the ocean (praising God who made great seas). Many of the Psalms similarly voice amazement at the world and all that is in it. The story of creation in Genesis can fulfill that purpose as well.
One truth in this controversy is that people throughout the world interpret sacred texts in a variety of ways. Those who totally agree with creationism usually take a literal approach to the Bible. Yet, there are Jews and Christians who have, for centuries, searched for and discovered deeper meanings in a text, even in the story of creation.
In my heritage of biblical study, it is suggested that the first two chapters of Genesis teach that there is order in the universe, that creation is a process, and that we are God's partners in maintaining creation. Other religions may take similar approaches to their own stories of how the world came to be. This diversity of interpretation and the presence of many religions in our nation are the very reasons why Bible study belongs at home and within faith communities, or as a subject for interfaith discussion groups.
Each religious group, not the public schools, should have the primary responsibility to explain and interpret its own beliefs. In public schools, classes in literature, philosophy, history or comparative religion might appropriately teach about stories from various faith groups. However, teaching creation as science would move it out of the realm of poetry, wonder and gratitude and into a discipline where it does not belong.
Many people have suggested that this supposed conflict between science and religion is likely a political struggle for control, power and authority. Some people may feel a need to see external symbols of their faith displayed and to hear their particular beliefs declared not only in their homes and houses of worship, but in other public places as well.
I tell my congregants that the most important place to keep God is within their hearts, hopes and prayers. Putting issues related to God and religion in the midst of this conflict does nothing to express our sense of wonder and gratitude for the gifts of the world and our very existence.
Science will continue to serve as a means to explain what is and how we came to be. Religion at its best will continue to offer us a means to discover the paths that will lead us to become who we ought to be. Many religious believers and scientists will allow both their search for what is and their quest for what ought to be to guide the process of personal growth and change that is the very foundation of our lives. May we continue to use the best means available to us to evolve into the best human beings we can possibly become.