Scholar Says Religion And Science Can Co-Exist

In the latest installment of Faith Matters, host Michel Martin talks about the realities of science and mystery of faith with Francisco Ayala. He's a professor of biology and philosophy at the University of California, Irvine who just won the Templeton Prize — an honor that goes to a living person who makes an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual. Ayala is a former Dominican priest.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we hear from you about the hot stories of the week. It's our backtalk conversation. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. For Christians around the world, this is holy week. This is the week that Jesus began his final walk on earth. Today, Good Friday, is the day, according to the faith, when Jesus was crucified, died and was buried. And Easter Sunday celebrates his resurrection. This is the pivotal event in Christianity, but for many in the modern world, absurd, impossible to believe. And yet, millions upon millions do.

And so for many, this is the crucial conflict between faith and science. How can we acknowledge the realities of science and still embrace the mystery of faith that for many lies at the core of their being?

Our next guest may be able to offer some insight about that. He is Francisco Ayala. He is a professor of biology and philosophy at the University of California at Irvine. He's a former Dominican priest. He is also the latest winner of the Templeton Prize. That annual honor goes to a living person who, quote, "has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery or practical works," unquote. And Professor Ayala joins us now. Welcome, congratulations to you.

Professor FRANCISCO AYALA (Biology and Philosophy, University of California Irvine; Winner, Templeton Prize): Thank you very much. It is nice to be here.

MARTIN: Now, in your statement accepting the prize, you declared that, quote, "Science and religious beliefs need not be in contradiction if they are properly understood. They cannot be in contradiction." Clearly you have written much about this subject. But as briefly as you can, how can they not be in contradiction?

Prof. AYALA: One way of explaining my views is that we may consider science and religion as two windows through which we look at the world. The world is one and the same. But what we see through those windows is different. You know, science has to do with the expansion of galaxies and movement of the continents and the origin of organisms and adaptations. Religion has to do with our relationship to our creator and to each other, with the purpose and meaning of life, with moral values that govern our lives. So, they deal with different subjects so that no need to contradict each other.

MARTIN: What I hear you saying is that religion is about the why. Science may be about the how. But some say religion does explain the origin of life. And I think that that should be taken, literally, according to scripture and taught literally.

Prof. AYALA: Well, statements that are made about the origin of life are scientific matters. And statements that are about them should be based on scientific evidence. Now, the sacred book, the Bible, in particular, uses descriptions to make the religious message understood. But I think it's a mistake on theologians going back to the very beginning of Christianity and the commentaries to the Bible have said that the Bible should be seen as a book of religion or as San Agustin put it, it's a book to tell us how to go to go to heaven, not how the heavens were made. That's for science.

MARTIN: Have you ever had your faith tested by your work?

Prof. AYALA: I don't think that every scientific research contradicts earliest beliefs, so long as those religious beliefs lead to religious truths. And science has nothing to tell me about the purpose of life or the meaning of the word or, as I said, our relationship with a creator and to each other of identical values. This is the same science, but there's no reason why scientific knowledge should challenge religious faith, no. There are a few scientists, it's more minority, who articulate the different position, but that's not based on their sciences, it's based on a philosophical materialism.

They believe that all what exists is matter and these spiritual values or moral values or religious values have no standing. But that is later justified by science as the scientific statements made by religious authorities on base of literal interpretations of the Bible, for example.

MARTIN: Why do you think it is that after decades now of grappling with scientific information and discovery about the way the universe functions, about the origin of the universe, that we still have not come to peace with this?

Prof. AYALA: Well, a good number of people in United States (unintelligible) have not come to peace with science, and that is based on poor scientific location and typically poor religious education. I would go farther, you know, I would say that for people who understand the consequences of their faith and that understand science, it is how the statements that are made contrary to science by proponents of so-called creationism or intelligent design, those are statements.

Although they are made in good faith usually, but they are contrary to the religious faith. Science is compatible with belief an impotent and benevolent God, creationism is missing out, because if all organisms were designed by God, God will have a lot to account for. You know, the world is full of cruelty and then we have earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. It's much better to explain those things as the result of natural processes than accuse them today, particularly the sign of the creator.

MARTIN: So, finally, I wanted to ask, I wanted to end with a question that's not exactly spiritual, the Templeton Prize comes with a rather generous award, as I understand it. It's about $1.5 million. Have you thought about what you're going to do with it?

Prof. AYALA: Yes. I will leave it all to charity. Like scholarships for students at the university, for example, and others. So I will give it away and I feel so much better by doing so.

MARTIN: Did you at least have a lovely glass of wine or something to celebrate?

Prof. AYALA: Oh yes, more than one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Francisco Ayala is the winner of the 2010 Templeton Prize. He's also a professor of biology and philosophy at the University of California at Irvine. And he was kind enough to join us from their studios on campus. Professor Ayala, I thank you so much for speaking with us. Congratulations, and happy Easter to you.

Prof. AYALA: Thank you very much. It has been a pleasure. Happy Easter to you, too.

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