Promoting the Dialog Between Science and Religion

Making Sense of Biology

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution, Theodosius Dobzhansky (1973). The American Biology Teacher, 35(3), 125-129.


Promoting the Dialog Between Science and Religion


Given the recent furor caused by the publication of Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion 2008, one may be surprised that any evolutionary biologist would be invested in promoting a dialog between science and religion.  Actually, a significant percentage of evolutionary biologists have no difficulty discussing their views in a respectful way with people of faith (and I happen to be one of them.)  In this sense I recommend, Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God 1999, as starting point for those interested in this topic.


This dialog has important consequences for those who are interested in redressing the underrepresentation of minorities in science.  There is a large fraction of religiously devout African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians.  An unwillingness to engage in the science and religion dialog will mean that you will have limited effectiveness in working to reverse underrepresentation in science in these communities.


In this regard, I was recently asked to deliver the keynote address on the 118th anniversary of the founding of Historic St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Ohio.  The parishioners asked me to address an important issue in the ongoing role of the urban church.  What follows was my address:


The International Year of Science and the Historic Church


Dr. Joseph L. Graves Jr.

Dean, Division of University Studies & Professor Biological Sciences

Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Section G: Biological Sciences, North Carolina A&T State University


Preamble: How shall I be judged?


First let me state that it is a great honor to have been asked to deliver this address on the event of the 118th Anniversary of the Historic St. Andrew’s Church.  I have lectured in some of the great university halls of the world, Harvard, Edinburgh, and Oxford and I have spoken before many different congregations (from Unitarian to Baptist.) Indeed, I have two cousins who are Baptist ministers and I promise that my remarks today will not emulate theirs with respect to time.  I have been interviewed by correspondents in print and video media.  In all these venues I have endeavored to adhere to a simple principle: speak the truth, as best I know it.  This practice has not always made me popular; indeed I have often been ridiculed and vilified.  I cannot even predict how your congregation will respond to these few words I will humbly offer today.  However, I have never expected everyone to agree with my vision.  My abiding hope is that while I my views may not be always favorably received by the great princes among men, that they will always be heard favorably by those they oppress.  In this way I hope to serve God. 


The International Year of Science


The year 2009 has been christened: “The International Year of Science.” This is to commemorate the following historical events:


The 400th anniversary of the publication of Johannes Kepler’s first two Laws of Planetary Motion.


The 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of a telescope to study the skies.

The 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th Anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln who  founded  the National Academy of Sciences, as well as creating the Land grant system of agricultural colleges through signing the Morrill Act.

The 100th anniversary of the discovery of the Burgess Shale by the paleontologist Charles D. Walcott.

In historical context it should be recognized that many practitioners of Christianity rejected these scientific advances.  For example, the Holy Roman Church rejected Galileo’s observations gained by use of the telescope.  Galileo viewed craters and other “imperfections” on the surface of the moon.  Church dogma was that the moon had to be unblemished and perfect.  The church also rejected the Copernican model of the solar system (Sun at the center.)  Galileo was imprisoned and threatened with Excommunication for exposing the idea that the Earth moved and not the Sun.  It is rumored that at his trial in which he repudiated the Copernican view that he whispered to the Bishop “and yet it moves…”

Yet no scientist has been more misunderstood and reviled than Charles Darwin.  Darwin did not invent the concept of organic evolution.  The Catholic scientist Jean Baptiste Lamarck advanced an evolutionary scheme 50 years before Darwin.  For Lamarck the creator had imbued all living things with an innate capacity for self-improvement.  Lamarck’s mechanism of change was the “inheritance of acquired characteristics.” When English scientists demonstrated that Lamarck’s mechanism was wrong, they turned against the notion that species could change. 

In 1859 Charles Darwin proposed the means by which new species are formed, “descent with modification” by the means of natural selection.  In the Origin of Species, Darwin makes no claims about how life began.  His focus was on how new species arise, given that life exists.  Again, despite popular misconception, religious condemnation of his idea was not universal. 

In England, theological response to Darwin depended upon how you viewed the role of God in the natural universe.  Some claimed that God’s role was more direct and outlined literally in scripture; whereas others claimed that God’s role in the universe is mediated by natural laws and that scripture as applied to nature must be “symbolic.” As evidence of the fact that Darwin was not so reviled by the Church of England, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, alongside other state heroes and great scientists.

Finally, around the same time that Darwin was working out the Origin of Species, Gregor Mendel worked out the laws of heredity.  Gregor Mendel was a Catholic Priest of the Augustinian Order.  He was trained in mathematics and biology at the University of Vienna under Professor Franz Unger.  Mendel was convinced that evolution was true and did his experiments to demonstrate how evolution occurred through genetic change.

The examples I have just given of Galileo, Lamarck, Darwin, and Mendel are to illustrate that there is nothing inherently anti-religious in science.  Unfortunately there are many Christian practitioners who have been advancing this false argument.  For example, Darwin’s reception by the religious community in America was and still is mainly negative.  In our country, the majority of Protestants are Biblical literalists and fundamentalists.   About 53% of all religious people in America are Protestant and of these 62% belong to Biblical literalist congregations. Biblical literalists believe that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old and that life was created in six twenty-four hour days.  This view is called special creationism.  Sociological research indicates that education, class, and geographic factors correlate with adherence to creationism.  It is also likely that acceptance of this view is strongly influenced by the ethnicity/socially-constructed race of the respondent.

African Americans generally belong to more fundamentalist/Biblical literalist Christian denominations.  For example, 85% of African Americans report themselves as Christian, with membership in Protestant denominations at 78% (15% evangelical, 4% mainline, and 59% historically black churches.) Only 5% of African Americans report as Catholics, 1% as Jehovah Witnesses, 1.5% as Mormons and other Christians.)  If we assumed that all the Catholics followed the Papal edict concerning evolution, then based on these figures, we should expect less than 10% of African Americans to have no religious objection to evolution. This percentage would be the lowest for any American ethnic group except for American Indians (lower than European Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans.)

Anti-science orientation and low performance of African Americans

One’s willingness to accept the scientific evidence that validates evolutionary biology is the acid-test for one’s ability to reason scientifically.    For example, in 1897 W.E.B. DuBois, one of the greatest African American thinkers of the 19th and early 20th century wrote an essay on the Conservation of Races.  This essay spoke to the notion that humans were much more alike than they were different.  He based the scientific aspect of this argument on Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man published in 1871.

The data I have just mentioned suggests that few African Americans pass this test, in part because of the predominance of Biblical literalist religious practice in our community.  Clearly not all Christians are literalists and those voicing no religious objection to evolution include:

  1. Catholic Church: Pope John Paul II Message to the Pontifical Academy 1996.
  2. United Presbyterian Church USA 1982
  3. Lutheran World Federation Statement 1965
  4. The General Convention of the Episcopal Church Resolution on Evolution 1982

I have worked with representatives of these denominations to defend science education.  In 2001 I helped lead a consortium of scientific and religious organizations to protect the teaching of evolution in the Arizona Public Schools. 

At present there are few professional scientists in the African American community.  Only 3% of Ph.D. level scientists are African American.  Many disciplines have never produced an African American (I was the first African American in evolutionary biology, 1988.)  Between the years of 1996 – 2005, the percentage of Ph. Ds earned by African Americans in math, physics, astronomy, chemistry, and biological sciences were 2.5, 2.0, 0.9, 3.5, and 3.0% respectively.  The lack of African American scientists means that many churches do not have any members who are scientists and therefore might possibly serve as role models for African American youth.

Overall, the United States is not performing well in science. The international ranking of the United States is now 12th of 19 modern industrialized nations on the TIMMS assessment.  Within the United States, measures of science proficiency indicate that African Americans are 23.1% lower than that of European- and Asian Americans on the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress. 

Why is it important to champion scientific careers and general literacy?


I have participated in the American Association for the Advancement of Science Dialog Between Science and Religion.  This dialog included scientists, philosophers, and theologians representing many different religious faiths and denominations.  The dialog concluded that there is no necessary reason for science and religion to be at odds.  Science and the scientific method focus on phenomena in nature.  The method of science, observation, hypothesis, experiment, and theory-formation are of no use in religious reasoning.  Conversely, religious thinking which focuses on our relationship to God (which by definition is a supernatural concept) plays no role in evaluating scientific investigation.  Confusing scientific and religious investigation demeans them both.

More than any time in our species history, scientific investigation will impact our economic and social well-being. Real harm is occurring to the African American community because of its scientific illiteracy and superstitious beliefs.  For example, some fundamentalists believe that the HIV virus is a curse upon homosexuals authored by God.  Others believe that HIV is a genetically engineered virus designed to specifically kill African Americans.  In the case of the former belief, homosexuals are shunned by many in the African American community.  In response to this, many of these homosexuals have adopted the so-called “down-low” life style.  As “down-low” individuals they practice even more risky sexual behavior, therefore hastening the spread of the disease.  Thus because of this false belief, people are dying who might not have died otherwise.  The latter belief perpetuates the “victim” mentality that still operates in broad sectors of the African American community.  Victim belief strips individuals of responsibility for their own actions, since the government and society are “out to get them.”

We also know that unscientific thinking perpetuates racism.    The majority of American college students have little education regarding human biology.  For example, a 1992 poll that found that significant number of college students believed that the color of a person’s skin depended on whether God favored or punished their ancestors.  Researchers at Arizona State University found that 18.4% of their undergraduates agreed with or were not sure that dark skin resulted from God’s curse.  

No one in the congregation should think that I am giving scientists a free pass on this issue.  I continue to rebut pseudoscientific claims about race authored by reputed scientists and medical practitioners.  My most recent publication will appear in the Review of Black Political Economy and will focus on the false use of race in biomedical research.  On Friday night last I received a call from one of my colleagues about just such an article that has been published in the journal Medical Hypotheses. So long as there is ongoing racial inequality in America, the few African Americans trained in this arena will never be idle.

Why must the church help end the false polarization between science and religion?

The answer to this question is not simple, but well worth considering.  In an article entitled: Black Theology in American Religion, Professor James Cone wrote about a major difference in the way European- and African American theology developed through American history.  Cone argued that African Americans focused on “the true meaning of the gospel as God’s liberation of the oppressed from bondage.”  We saw the embodiment of African American theology in the civil rights movement, especially in the form of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.  Dr. King organized his ideas around the concept of love, justice, liberation, hope and redemptive suffering.  He also operated in the certainty of the notion that God had not left his world in the hands of evil men.

It is in the latter sense that I may disagree with Dr. King.  I argue that God left his world in the hands of men (and women), but men who have the capacity to choose to do great evil or great good.  Unfortunately our history has been dominated by individuals and groups choosing to inflict great evil on their neighbors.  It is important to understand that in the 21st century much of that evil may be inflicted via the medium of science and technology.  Therefore it is imperative that historically underserved people be a part of the process to help men choose to do “good” with the science.

Ironically, the question of whether evil or good is done resides in the hands of those who are having evil perpetrated upon them and those who stand by and watch evil being perpetrated. Case in point, the Civil Rights movement helped to advance the cause of all oppressed Americans.  This occurred only when African Americans refused to be treated as second class citizens.  For example, in 1960, four freshmen students at North Carolina A&T College sat down at a Woolworth’s counter in downtown Greensboro and began the student sit-in movement.  We commemorate the 50th anniversary of their actions in January 2010.  Much is written about their courage, but less is written about the women of the White Women’s College of North Carolina (today known as UNC Greensboro.)  Many of these women braved insults and threats of physical violence from the Klan to march cross town and sit-in with the A&T students.  They did not sit idly by.

Some scholars are arguing that many of the gains of that movement are being lost.  While the first non-European Americans sit in the White House, increasing levels of poverty, ignorance, violence, and disease plaque the African American community.  This has occurred due to the decline in the African American middle class, which historically included health professionals, lawyers, entrepreneurs, business professionals, and clergy. 

I argue that in the 21st century it is imperative that this middle class include an increasing number of research scientists.  It is precisely here where African American churches could play a crucial role.  This will only occur however if these churches recognize the importance of scientific inquiry and that training our youth to pursue this profession does not threaten religion. 

Indeed, it is precisely here where the most progressive denominations such as the Episcopalians may have their greatest impact.  Assaults on the teaching of science need to be exposed for what they are, not science versus religion, but actually theological debates upon the nature of God.  Fundamentalists would have us deny the evidence of our senses and logic.  They portray God as a charlatan or joker.  This is not my vision of the Supreme Being capable of authoring all the rules of nature.  God would not provide us with a rational mind, and then tell us not to us it!

It is absolutely essential that African Americans be involved in shaping the policies around emerging scientific issues.  Some of these, such as climate change, could lead to the increased suffering of millions, if not the very extinction of our species. 

What practical things might the church do?

The hour is late and the task is large.  I certainly do not argue that African American churches by themselves will be able to solve the achievement gap in science alone.  However, there are many positive things that can be done (and some of these things are already being done.)

  1. Any program that the church maintains which helps kids stay in school could produce a future scientist.
  2. If you have members of your congregation that are trained in mathematics, then they could tutor children who need help.  Math is the gateway skill for careers in science.
  3. Expose your youth to great scientists and the importance of their discoveries.  These should include (but not be limited to) African Americans such as Dr. George Washington Carver, Earnest Everett Just, or current day profiles such as Jim Gates, or Fatimah Jackson.
  4. Start a chess club and get involved/start other academic competitions such as Math and Science Olympiad.  Make sure that your local newspaper and television stations cover these competitions.  Place notes in your newsletter honoring students who succeed in these venues or who maintain strong grades in science.
  5. Start a math/science scholarship program – even if you only send one child to college that is one is more than would have gone otherwise.
  6. Begin a parenting class for young couples – include information about best practices on how to help young children learn.


This is by no means an exhaustive list.  However implementing any of these things will improve the situation.

In conclusion, I would like to leave you considering the past and future roles of the African American church.  There is an ongoing theological debate concerning how much the church should be concerned with the issues of social justice?  My own take, as with that of Professor Cone, is that the most unique feature of African American churches has been their answer.  The conditions of slavery and Jim Crow meant that the African American church could not avoid focusing on these issues.  The concerns in 2009 are new, but the focus is old.

Congratulations to the Congregation of Historic St. Andrews Church on this your 118th Anniversary in helping to make the world a better place as you provide spiritual comfort and guidance for all those who enter your halls.


Dr. Joseph L. Graves Jr.

November 29, 2009.


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Joseph Graves

About Joseph Graves

Dr. Joseph Graves, Jr. received his Ph.D. in Environmental, Evolutionary and Systematic Biology from Wayne State University in 1988. In 1994 he was elected a Fellow of the Council of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS.) In April 2002, he received the ASU-West award for Scholarly Research and Creative Activity. His research concerns the evolutionary genetics of postponed aging and biological concepts of race in humans, with over sixty papers and book chapters published, and had appeared in six documentary films and numerous television interviews on these general topics. He has been a Principal Investigator on grants from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and the Arizona Disease Research Commission. His books on the biology of race are entitled: The Emperor's New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium, Rutgers University Press, 2001, 2005 and The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America, Dutton Press, 2004, 2005. A summary of Dr. Graves’s research career can be found on Wikipedia, and he is also featured in the ABC-CLIO volume on Outstanding African American scientists. In November 2007, he was featured in the CNN Anderson Cooper 360 program on Dr. James Watson. He has served as a member of the external advisory board for the National Human Genome Center at Howard University. In January 2006, he became a member of the “New Genetics and the African Slave Trade” working group of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute of Harvard University, chaired by professors Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Hammonds. He is currently serving on the Senior Advisory Board for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) at Duke University. He has been an active participant in the struggle to protect and improve the teaching of science, particularly evolutionary biology in the public schools. In 2007, he became a member of the inaugural editorial board of Evolution: Education and Outreach, published by Springer-Verlag. He has been a leader in addressing the under representation of minorities in science careers, having directed successful programs in California and Arizona. He currently serves as a member of the board of the Guilford Education Alliance. From 2005 – 2009, he has been a leading force in aiding underserved youth in Greensboro via the YMCA chess program.
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