Surely, Mr. Darwin’s theory is none the worse, morally, for having some foundation in fact.
Asa Gray (1810-1888)
Coming into the discussion, I thought I pretty much knew. “This must be another branch of the natural sciences,” I thought, “just like natural history and natural philosophy, except from a religious perspective.” I figured a natural theologian would, say, study the geological remnants of the Flood, or analyze the biological implications of the Bible. I was on the right track as far as subject matter, but I had made a fundamental error. I was approaching the question as a 21st-century student of human evolutionary biology, so my focus was off-center. Natural theology is not a branch of science, but a branch of religion. The hot topic of the moment wasn’t natural theology; it was natural theology.
This realization felt like suddenly putting on prismatic goggles. I like to think of myself as a scientist, but I also like to think that, as far as scientists go, I’m pretty in touch with the social side of science. I spend significant time considering the implications of science for religion, for example. I understand that people come to the lab bench with a variety of agendas and baggage, and I’m familiar with the preference of many to examine nature through the lens of religion. Where I see a flood, for example, they might see The Flood. Where I see accident, they see providence. Where I see chance, they see design. I’m comfortable (if not thrilled) with this phenomenon. What didn’t occur to me, though, was the possibility of looking through the lens the other way. The point of natural theology wasn’t to study nature through the lens of religion; the point was to use nature as a lens through which to see God.
This probably shouldn’t have seemed as drastic to me as it did in the moment – especially since scientists today still use the language of religion to describe the profundity of nature. Cosmologist George Smoot, for example, described the feeling of mapping the cosmic microwave background leftover from the Big Bang as “like looking at God.” Physicists often talk about the God particle*, while Stephen Hawking has gone so far as to say that to develop a so-called theory of everything will be to “know the mind of God.” This sort of rhetoric, though, is a far cry from the sincerely religious drive behind much of nineteenth-century science. But if we’ve moved into a more secular phase of scientific history, then why do we still use the language of the church to describe the matter of matter? My best guess is that the feeling that draws many scientists to their studies actually borders on a religious experience. The religious and the non-religious alike are sensible of the same feelings we tend to associate with experiences of divinity – awe, inspiration, humility, exhilaration, comfort, wonder, love – but in response to different stimuli. Since religion is still the most widely accepted context for such experiences, religion provides the vocabulary for describing them. In fact, I’m not sure if science, art, or any other source of secular inspiration will ever replace religion as the linguistic paradigm for the feelings I’m referring to.