Born into the Science-Religion Debate

Van Talmage
7 min readJan 7, 2024

I was born into the Science-Religion debate. My father was raised by Christian missionaries to Korea. He became a research biologist. He married a woman who was raised by Hellfire-and-Damnation-Billy-Sunday-inspired Christian missionaries to China. This debate was the backdrop of his whole life.

My father went to a conservative Christian College and then to bible college (at the strong urging of his domineering father). When the bible college folded within six months, he took it as a sign. He went on to get a Ph.D. in biology and then had a distinguished career in academia (Rice University and UNC).

Early on (in the fifties), I remember him in debates on Science & Religion. His point (as best as I can remember) was that the Old Testament chronologies were basically on target if you looked at it from a symbolic point of view. We were Presbyterians in those days, which meant that an allegorical view of the early chapters in Genesis rather than literal creationism. (Presbyterians eventually split with mainliners still thinking God works with evolution, and evangelicals going more literal)

As a scientist, he clearly believed in evolution. We had a big text on Evolution in his home office, and I was into it as early as the 7th grade.

My father never was an active Christian, but just part of the culture in the fifties and sixties. You went to church because it was the thing to do. Science was his life.

However, he disliked all those hippies and the greening of America that showed up in the late sixties. He moved toward more religiosity later in his life. He didn’t support the theology, he thought prophesies like the Rapture were ‘bunkum’ (his word). But he believed that Christianity made a very positive contribution to our civilization. He disliked Democrats (inflation took his money) and eventually got swallowed by Fox News and (we couldn’t believe it) Glenn Beck.

But he was always a scientist, always a believer in evolution, adamant that humans were just mammals with advance skills, and always in mild conflict with my mother’s evangelical family.

He told me once:

“Religions can believe anything they want, as long as
they accept science and its truths”.

So I went to that Presbyterian church as a teenager but the attraction was social activity not religion. I stopped doing church in college. I remember a classmate early on talking about the existence of God (what?), and I remember writing a paper about the implausibility of God creating the universe 13 billion years ago and that same God being somehow connected to humans on a remote planet and fathering a child. I became quite skeptical of religious dogmatism.

Mostly I let the science-religion debate stay on hold while I got a family and career going. But then my evangelical aunt (Billy Sunday inspired parents) started sending me books on creationism and the truth of the bible. Because I did not like her material, and their arguments, I started reading beyond religious texts. You know, more substantive stuff (Dawkins, Dennett, E. O Wilson).

Back in the 80’s, I thought this discussion was mostly over. Science had won, religion was not needed to explain our existence or the evolution of biological life. Religion was a holdover from the cultural roots of our civilization, but its main thrust had been better explained by Science and the Big Bang/Evolution line of reasoning. The theology was wrong and needed rethinking.

But I was wrong by a long shot, the debate is raging bigger than ever. The scientist think its over, but the general population does not.

Here we are 40 years later and the Speaker of the House (number 3 in line for Presidency) is telling us the answers are in the Bible. And just now (January 2024), the Trumpers have produced a video claiming God sent Trump to save our country.

Politics has brought religion back into play in a big way.

So I have been wrestling with the science-religion debate all my life. Here is my conclusion:

Naturalism is a better answer than supernaturalism.

Naturalism (or materialism) is the scientific explanation that requires no supernatural beings. Supernaturalism is an explanation of our existence that does require the supernatural (beings which exist outside of our materialistic universe — i.e. god, devil, angel).

I think science looks at all religions as products of human culture. They came about from the desire of early hominoids to understand who we (humans) are, where we are, what is going on. Obviously they did not start with those questions. They started with something like ‘why the sun comes up?’. The simple question had a simple answer: Oh, the gods did it.

Notice that this question cannot even come up until the species had starting communicating, started naming objects, started to recognize themselves as an object and start to have some awareness of self and the surrounding world.

But once they got to ‘ gods doing things’, religion was on the way.

The time to go from the first god concepts (in primitive Homo sapiens) to the Hebrew Bible was 20000–70000 years. In that time ideas had evolved and origin stories had be formulated. Long before Abraham and Moses, primitive cultures had burial rites (afterlife) and shaman (religious leaders). Later religions were organized efforts to coordinate the overall matters such as general beliefs, salvation, sorrow and comfort, authority, and overall explanations of how we came to be. Since there was no science or world understanding in 2000 BC, the god-story was the best explanation and this became the basis for society.

Note that “religious” or “spiritual” quests are not just Christian. They are everywhere with many different interpretations.

A key concept here, left for later, is the movement of ideas through culture. “Ideas are physical” and they reside in the brains of individuals within our species. The cultural ideas of GOD spread throughout civilization because it was the best explanation that our ancestors had. Only after the Age of Enlightenment and folks like Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, did another plausible explanation arise that did not start with ‘God did it’.

The Christian religion came from the Hebrews as spelled out in the historical narrative of the Old Testament. Christian theology was culture’s explanation of what was going on, along with rules for society (which is the basis of “politics”).

I think religion has survived for two reasons:

The explanation of our existence, and
the practices and habits that help participants cope with existence.

I think the practices of religions can be good for people, even if the underlying theology or explanation is wrong. People like religious practices and thoughts because it makes them feel good (answer questions and give hope about salvation). It gives them strength in their lives. Finding Jesus or being born again is a real thing, as long you realize it something within the individual. It does not mean Jesus was the son of God, but it is helpful to some individuals to believe and act upon that.

As example, back awhile, I participated in large group hymn sings after Sunday evening service. The activity was very positive, feeling part of large group, using personal energy engaging in joyful activities. Being religious has positive enrichments to people’s lives. Even without a true theology, the activity of the group hymn sing made my life a little more enjoyable.

But the theology could easily be wrong (I think it is). God is not likely to be an entity, nor is there something called intelligent design that somehow preprogrammed all of this like a blueprint. Nor is it likely that Jesus was the son of God or of Virgin Birth. He probably was a radical Jewish priest (socialist!) that was crucified and he probably did talk about a new “kingdom of God”.

(As for the resurrection, I suspect a near death experience. He could have been taken from the cross in a coma and presumed death. He could have arisen after three days in a mortally wounded state and die from his injuries two week later. This has happened in wars when soldiers would be left for dead only to arise hours and maybe days later. If was such a near death experience happened to Jesus, the outside observers would have hailed it as a miracle and treated it EXACTLY as they did treat it).

In my science-religion understanding, science wins. I see three big question marks:

· Before the Big Bang

· Origins of Life

· Consciousness

By leaving these questions unanswered there is still room for theologies that contain an outside supernatural being. However, overtime even these questions will succumb to scientific investigation.

On ‘Before the Big Bang’: I see an infinite energy field (high intensity, ‘dark energy) in which some kind of subatomic spark turned energy into mass (E=mc2) and this started a reaction which lead to the hot Big Bang and the rest of cosmology.

On ‘Origins of Life’: I think the plausible mechanisms will eventually be determined. I do not think it is likely that we can recreate in a laboratory something that took nature millions of years. But I think it is clear that life arose because of the randomness of organic macromolecules which came together to form a metabolic process (carbon based structures in energy balance with the surrounding environment) that persisted through time.

On ‘Consciousness’: this discussion is ongoing. The mystery of consciousness has lead to theories of quantum actions in the brain. I think it, eventually, will be fully explained. My own theory is that something (consciousness) arose (skills, learning) because of our senses (particularly eyesight) and our use of sound to create language (which lead to labeling objects including self (awareness)).

We will leave this for another time, but my take is that everything is biological (naturalism).

Now, in sense, all this can be considered academic, or a matter of the curiosity about the how our world works. But how important is it in our daily lives? As a friend said to me recently: how important is it whether there was big bang or God. Either way we have to deal with problems of today (Trump!).

But the reason for still having debates on science and religion is that the rightwing and evangelicals have taken religion in the mainstream political discussion. ‘Christian Nationalism’ is a political movement trying to force a particular religion onto everyone else. If religion theology is wrong, the Christian Nationalism loses credibility. Hence the debate on science and religion is now a political agenda item.

My own hope is that we overcome this destructive political effort and that religions alter their theology so as provide for the spiritual needs (a cultural need for answers arising from a biological system) to the people without a false line of reasoning.

I end with my father’s point:

Religions can believe whatever they want as long as
they accept scientific truths.

And my own:

We definitely do not want a theocracy.

Van 1/7/24