Strange Bedfellows: Science and Religion

Author: Jeremy Manier ’92

Editor’s Note: Tension between science and religion has created acrimonious debate for centuries, and fodder for numerous explorations in this magazine — including an essay in our current issue calling to convert perennial disputes into a dialogue of mutual enrichment. The Magazine Classic below from 2002 addresses the issues of that time — stem cells, genomics, neuroscience — in the same spirit of open exploration and discussion.

Hours before President George W. Bush spoke from his Texas ranch last August to explain the administration’s new policy on funding for embryonic stem cell research, his aides told reporters that the momentous decision was comparable to sending troops to war.

The metaphor rang true for a controversy that had bitterly alienated the scientific community from religious leaders. Many people of faith – especially Catholics – held that research which destroys human embryos is always unacceptable. Biologists, who claimed no lesser love for human life, stressed that stem cells from embryos could bring treatments for diseases ranging from diabetes to Parkinson’s. Almost nightly, the two camps hashed out their differences in the primal scream debate format of cable news shows.

Such rancorous clashes between science and religion threaten to become more common. Although Bush tried to settle the stem cell dispute with a compromise – he allowed funding for only a limited number of cell colonies – common ground can be fleeting in an age when each week brings new claims of major scientific breakthroughs. These assertions have created the impression that religious values and doctrines are under siege on many fronts, often by scientists concerned less with moral niceties than with quickly cracking nature’s mysteries.

Neurologists poring over brain scan images have claimed to see the circuits that kick in when people experience moments of oneness with a divine presence. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, has described the effort to decode humanity’s genetic heritage in Biblical terms, as a new revelation of the book of life. Suddenly, we are told, the core of human nature and the recesses of the soul have been neatly numbered and laid out on a laboratory bench.

Yet much of the current alarm rests on false assumptions of how fast science truly has progressed. The embryonic stem cell work that spurred such public soul-searching by Bush has existed for just three years. The genome has been in hand for less than a year. Brain imaging of complex cognitive functions is in its infancy. These potentially troubling lines of research are so poorly understood that many of their implications for religion remain pure supposition.

In fact, dismay about the potentially dire theological implications of scientific breakthroughs is as old as science itself and has often withered in light of new evidence or changes in perspective. Galileo’s astronomical theories and ideas on the relationship between science and religion, once considered heretical, are now paid tribute in papal decrees. Human dissection, which the Catholic church banned in the Middle Ages, long ago became an essential tool at Catholic medical schools.

On other occasions – and with less public fanfare – researchers have come around to embrace positions that religious believers hold.

Scholars in theology and ecology recently have begun to trade ideas about moral approaches to tending the environment – an effort prodded along by David Lodge, a professor of biology at Notre Dame. Christian thinkers were some of the first to espouse equality among races in the 19th century, long before most scientists had abandoned the established theories of innate European superiority. Religious claims about the existence of soul and free will have helped shape debates over whether the mind is nothing more than a collection of firing neurons. Such wisdom can take centuries to filter and take root.

History suggests that religious beliefs and values will help guide the development of biology’s newest fields in the coming years, just as the flow of discoveries offers new insights for religious reflection. Many of the recent advances touch on enduring questions, such as the intricate ways in which biology shapes human character. But progress in research need not always complicate such issues – sometimes, it may speed their resolution. Even in the case of stem cells, new approaches that do not require the destruction of embryos could render the current debate moot within a decade or two. By that time, scientists and religious thinkers may wonder what all the talk of sending troops to war was about.

Theological issues might seem far removed from the goals of the Human Genome Project, officially finished in early 2001. The decade-long effort, which started by taking blood samples from a few volunteers, had the technically ambitious mission of analyzing all of their DNA – the molecule that holds the code for inherited traits. All three billion chemical components of the volunteers’ DNA were sequenced and stored in a vast computer database. Because humans share most of their DNA in common, the result gave a good sense of our species’ biological heritage.

All that DNA provides the code for some 30,000 separate genes – the smallest functional bits of DNA. Genes, in turn, affect everything from embryonic brain development to a person’s likelihood of developing heart disease. Medical researchers have sifted through the massive DNA databases for sequences linked to such conditions as Alzheimer’s disease and breast cancer. This knowledge could help experts devise forms of gene therapy to replace defective stretches of genetic code.

Yet scientists and politicians alike argue that cracking the genome has a significance far beyond medicine. One genetics researcher has said the dividend from the genome project will include “a change in our philosophical understanding of ourselves.” When the research teams announced that they had finished a rough draft of the genome, then-President Clinton proclaimed that the work amounted to a first look at “the language in which God created life.”

That’s a lot to claim for a field that, for all the ballyhoo, has managed to correct exactly one disease. A gene therapy trial by French researchers in 2000 succeeded in restoring normal immune systems to two infants with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disease, a rare ailment in which victims are born without working immune defenses. To be sure, genetic research already has uncovered the basic mechanisms of many other diseases and bodily functions, and no one doubts that such work will yield numerous other treatments. But in such a young discipline, what prompts the sort of overheated assessments that Clinton and others have routinely made?

Some of the blame may lie with journalists, like me, who cover scientific advances. I recently sat with about a dozen other reporters and listened as one of the leading figures in evolutionary biology chastised us for relaying speculative interpretations of genetic research findings. Richard Lewontin, a Harvard University professor, pointed to reams of news accounts beginning with such predictions as, “In a discovery that could one day lead to new treatments for diabetes . . .” Responsible science reporters are vigilant against such speculative reaches, which over-enthusiastic researchers often encourage. But the predictions that make it through to the public create the impression of a field further along than its real accomplishments would indicate.

The exaggerated claims also may arise from our distorted notions about how important genes themselves are. The genome project itself has fostered the misleading view that genes lie at the core of each person’s individuality.

The idea that genes embody an individual’s distinctness appeared to be one message of President Bush’s primetime speech on stem cell research last August. The president said that each human embryo is unique, “like a snowflake” – an analogy other writers have used to illustrate the unique complement of DNA that each embryo possesses. It’s almost as if genes had assumed the profile traditionally reserved for the soul – unique for each individual, complete from the moment of conception and potentially immortal (if placed in a freezer, in the case of DNA). But it might be better if the soul didn’t surrender its old job just yet.

One need look no further than a convention of identical twins to see a problem with the idea that genes form the foundation of our individuality. Such meetings often hold contests to see which twins are “most alike” – because even identical DNA endowments yield different people. Identical twins always have different fingerprints, the result of random movements of cells during embryonic development. The differences often extend to temperament, height, skin complexion, even sexual orientation.

Even at the miniscule level of the cell, genes do not have quite so dominant a role as we may imagine. The basic job of DNA is comparable to that of a library’s central database. Genes store a chemical code that the cell uses to make proteins, which in turn do things like build the cell’s structures, transport nutrients from outside the cell membrane – and make more copies of DNA. As the biologist Lewontin notes in his book It Ain’t Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions, DNA is an extremely passive and inert molecule; proteins do most of a cell’s real work.

Although we often describe DNA as self-replicating, that’s also not true. To make more of their kind, genes need a small army of other molecules that do the assembly. Such proteins, passed on in a mother’s egg, are no less vital to a developing embryo than its genetic complement. “We inherit not just genes made of DNA,” Lewontin writes, “but an intricate structure of cellular machinery made up of proteins.”

Genes may not even have a monopoly in their role as the cell’s organic library. Geneticist Susan Lindquist of MIT’s Whitehead Institute has found proteins in yeast that pass on traits in a different way than DNA does. The proteins, called prions, act as templates to change the shape of other proteins, thus altering those proteins’ functions. Lindquist believes the process amounts to an entirely new form of inheritance, one that does not require genes.

Improved genetic screening for conditions such as breast cancer or Huntington’s disease often is held out as a prime dividend from the genome project. Yet here, a little knowledge may be a bad thing. “What we’ll have more of is the ability to diagnose genetic disorders that we haven’t learned how to treat,” said Phillip Sloan, director of Notre Dame’s Program in Science, Technology and Values. That’s why many clinical researchers argued against the massive genome project in the late 1980s, claiming the resources would be better spent devising therapies for known genetic ailments such as cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs disease, Sloan said. The genome project may indirectly fuel the search for cures, by building knowledge about how genes interact. But for now, those immense databases are a testament to how little we know about genes.

Calling the newly transcribed human genome “the language in which God created life” is not just hubris – it’s bad science. We have barely begun to understand the twisting dance of proteins, the cell’s cathedral-like architecture, the subtle interactions between biology and culture. Surely all of those are part of God’s language, too.

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Distorting the state of knowledge in genomics can lead to needless theological consternation. But in embryonic stem cell research, similar overstatements have aggravated an already heated moral debate.

Embryonic stem cells typically come from embryos created when a couple attempts to conceive through in vitro fertilization. In such procedures, doctors generally end up creating more embryos than they can implant in the mother. The “leftover” embryos usually are frozen for future use or discarded. When used for research, cells from the destroyed embryos can be coaxed into forming many different cell types, from neurons to heart muscle cells. While scientists focus on the good such therapies might do for patients, many religious groups oppose this research because it requires the destruction of human embryos. Under Bush’s August compromise, federal funds are directed only to research on cells taken from embryos left over after IVF, after the parents have been fully informed about how the cells will be used.

Some scientists are convinced that embryonic stem cells will revolutionize therapies for replacing virtually any type of tissue. The reality is that no one knows if the cells would be helpful when transplanted into people. So far, embryonic stem cells have never yet been used in therapy for humans and have been tested on a very limited basis even in animals.

Some researchers have ventured into even murkier moral territory by trying to extract stem cells from cloned human embryos. Advanced Cell Technology, a Massachusetts biotech company, announced last November that its scientists had made the first cloned human embryos – a step, they claimed, toward stem cells tailor-made from a patient’s own cloned embryo. But the company could not get any of its embryonic “clones” to divide past the six-cell stage – too small to extract any stem cells. Far from heralding a brave new world of clones created for medical therapy, the research revealed how little scientists understand about the basic biology of cloning.

On the other side, the Bush administration used dubious figures to help justify the limits the president placed on federally funded embryonic research. Bush’s compromise permitted narrow use of federal funds for research on cell lines – groups of genetically identical cells – that were taken from embryos before 9 p.m., August 9, 2001. The intent was to cut off indirect support for the destruction of additional embryos. Yet many scientists complained that the decision left too few eligible cell lines – far fewer than the dozens of cell lines the Bush administration said existed.

Some of the stem cell controversy may stem from deep and longstanding differences in the way scientists and religious thinkers approach questions about the sanctity of life, said Sloan of Notre Dame. The Catholic tradition in particular tends to view the human soul in a way that seems alien to most scientists, as an immaterial entity, distinct from the physical world we can sense. Such dualism makes it natural for Catholics to speak of the special sanctity of human life, but it also violates the scientific need for a theory that can be tested in the real world.

The response by some scientists, Sloan said, is to embrace what he calls “the biophysical conception of life.”

“It’s a view of life as a particular physical state of matter,” Sloan said. “Life can be analyzed by the techniques of physical and biochemical science. So in this view, there’s nothing special about life at any stage other than its degree of complexity. There’s nothing special or sacred about human life as opposed to other kinds of life. That’s a long-term issue, and it’s not easily resolved.”

Many researchers see other values at stake in the stem cell debate. Harvey Bender, a Notre Dame genetics researcher who supports stem cell research, said one reason humans are a special form of life is that “humankind has been endowed with the capacity to understand what we do, how we do it, and to use our cerebral resources to technically better ourselves.” In that sense, he said, working on stem cells in the hope of one day saving lives is a uniquely human show of compassion.

“Since we have the biological technology to do this, it would be almost a sin not to aggressively learn all we can, and to ascertain what lies here,” Bender said.

The chasm that opened between scientists and religious leaders over the stem cell issue might seem too wide for any compromise to help. But such gaps have a way of narrowing. A decade ago, the pressing moral debate was over the use of fetal tissue from abortions to regenerate damaged brain cells or spinal tissue. Many of the moral issues were similar to those in the stem cell debate. Religious groups opposed the research because of its links to abortion. Scientists said the tissue offered a promising route to new treatments for such conditions as spinal cord injuries and Parkinson’s disease.

Clinical trials using fetal tissue continue today. Still, even some leaders in the field say they would have moral qualms about the widespread use of such tissue, because it would put researchers dedicated to preserving life in the business of procuring large numbers of aborted fetuses. They see the approach as an intermediate step toward more advanced therapies that do not involve the destruction of fetuses or embryos.

It’s entirely possible that the controversy over embryonic stem cells will recede in a similar way. Many universities and biotech companies are working on replicating the beneficial qualities of embryonic stem cells without destroying human embryos. The techniques being developed include embryonic stem cells taken from animals, stem cells procured from living adult tissue, and adult cells chemically reprogrammed in the laboratory to behave like embryonic stem cells. None of these approaches has yet shown the same promise as embryonic stem cells, but they have real potential – in a field that, for now, consists of nothing but potential.

Although they don’t violate specific moral precepts held by Catholics and other believers, other kinds of research produce a vague feeling of unease. They seem to intrude on some mystery of human nature – what most people think of as the soul. Just last year, a New York team claimed it had found the brain area responsible for humor; more recently, British researchers zeroed in on a single gene that appears to regulate the development of grammar and language in infants. The same methods that bring hope when they help find a gene linked to a serious disease like cystic fibrosis can be disconcerting when applied to the nuances of individual character.

One of the more ambitious efforts to plumb the soul’s secrets stems from recent work on the neural roots of religious experiences – what one Newsweek article dubbed “neurotheology.” Such work attempts to reveal in minute detail what happens in the brain during moments of intense spiritual reflection, when people feel most in touch with God. Yet the limits of that research show just how far brain science is from shedding meaningful light on the mind’s search for the divine.

In one project headed by neurologist Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania, researchers try to study the brain activity of Buddhists and Franciscan nuns during meditation. The research subjects sit in a secluded room, where they pray until they reach a moment of peak transcendence. At that point, the scientists inject a radioactive tracer that reveals patterns of blood flow in the brain, showing which areas are most active.

Newberg’s group has found that a small region toward the back of the brain that keeps track of spatial orientation goes silent at the height of prayer. This may correspond to a feeling meditators often have of being unhinged in space, at one with the rest of the world. Newberg calls it “a blurring of the self-other relationship.”

But do such findings tell us anything new about spirituality? The information about which brain areas are active during prayer only confirms what devout people have long described – an ecstatic feeling during prayer of being cut loose from the here and now. The Newsweek article on neurotheology concludes, “The fact that spiritual contemplation affects brain activity gives the experience a reality that psychologists and neuroscientists had long denied it.” Yet every experience or element of the imagination gets reflected in brain activity. The shocker would be if prayer registered no change on a brain scan.

Simply knowing which brain regions light up during activities such as praying or telling a joke yields precious little insight into the experiences themselves. Alasdair MacIntyre, a senior research professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, said he came to that conclusion after looking into whether neuroscience could help show how people learn essential virtues. For example, brain imaging studies have shed no light on the ways in which children learn how to strike the right balance of anger, without veering into rage or apathy.

“We know what area of the brain is activated when we become angry,” MacIntyre said. “We really don’t know much more than that.”

What if brain science could give a full account of spiritual communion? Would this suggest that such meditation has more to do with the interplay of neurotransmitters than with God?

Such questions are as old as the discipline of neurology. In 1902, the philosopher and psychologist William James addressed the problem in The Varieties of Religious Experience. Reducing the spiritual life to its stark biological foundations, James wrote, makes us feel “menaced and negated in the springs of our innermost life. Such cold-blooded assimilations threaten, we think, to undo our soul’s vital secrets, as if the same breath which should succeed in explaining their origin would simultaneously explain away their significance.”

What James saw was that the neurological foundations of religious experience have no bearing on the quality of the insights or teachings that flow from such moments – even in cases where the mystic seems to suffer from some mental disorder. Still less can science speak to whether the experiences are divinely inspired. The only real test is what kinds of religious messages such visions produce – just as the only test of a scientific genius is whether his or her theories work. To suppose otherwise, James wrote, “finishes up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out Saint Teresa as an hysteric, Saint Francis of Assisi as an hereditary degenerate.”

Neuroscience may one day contribute to our ideas about religious experience. But that will require theories that address the full scope of religious life and a broader perspective than color-coded brain scans or theological doctrines alone can provide.

One of the first steps, many philosophers believe, is to abandon the notion that the soul is a nonmaterial entity somehow tacked onto the body. The roots of human behavior in brain activity have been clear since at least the 19th century, when French neurologist Paul Broca established a link between language production and what is now called “Broca’s area” on the left side of the brain. Father Ernan McMullin, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Notre Dame, said Catholic thinkers may have to embrace a somewhat more materialist concept of the soul to catch up with the last century or two of brain research.

That doesn’t mean reducing the thought process to merely the sum of neurons firing in our brains – “hardly any philosophers agree with that,” McMullin said. Any adequate theory must admit that mystical and everyday experiences are real in some sense, though they stem from physical processes in the brain.

“It’s a question of finding an intermediate view,” he said. “You want to keep the language of desire, will and fear, but also show that the neural substrate is an essential part of our thought activity.”

In that spirit, biologists may want to take another look at Aristotle, who thought the soul lends structure to the body as a whole, not just the brain. Instead of focusing on what happens in the brain’s spatial orientation area during meditation, scientists should approach meditation as a function of the whole person, requiring constant chatter between brain and body. Indeed, there’s good reason to think that the rest of the body’s changes during such spiritual moments have a feedback effect on what happens in the brain, even as the brain’s activity guides our experience.

Only recently have some scientists started to appreciate how much the body as a whole contributes to aspects of human character previously linked to the brain alone. Dr. Antonio Damasio, a neurologist at the University of Iowa, has found that the areas of the brain linked to emotion are crucial for practical reasoning and decision-making. Patients with injuries to those brain regions tend to lead dissolute lives, heedless of the consequences of their decisions.

The remarkable implication is that good reason requires some degree of input from the body. That’s because emotion is inherently a visceral phenomenon, one that hinges on heart rates and hormones as much as brain activity. Psychologists have long known that a high heart rate, for example, can spur intense emotions on its own – though whether the person feels fear or joy depends upon the situation. The process is not a set sequence but what Damasio calls a “body loop,” involving seamless feedback between the mind and the rest of the body. Such signals, Damasio believes, shape everything from reasoning to consciousness and what James called “the springs of our innermost life.”

If neurology’s sudden spurt of interest in the whole human breathes new life into Aristotle, it wouldn’t be the first time that a scientific advance brought researchers closer to ideas long favored by religious thinkers. In the early 19th century, many of the most ardent advocates for the abolition of slavery were evangelical Christians – and some of their opponents were scientists who said the evidence showed that enslaved races were inherently inferior. Those racist ideas were expanded after the end of slavery by Francis Galton, the inventor of statistical correlation and the father of eugenics. Of course, many slaveholders tried to bolster the institution with religious arguments. But not until later in the 20th century did most scientists come to think of equality among races as a bedrock principle. One of the final proofs has come from the genome project, which has revealed how inconsequential are the genetic differences among people around the globe.

As Kenneth R. Miller points out in his book Finding Darwin’s God, the Big Bang theory of the universe’s origin was startling in part because it implied the sort of abrupt beginning to the cosmos that theology had always envisioned. Miller quotes the astrophysicist Robert Jastrow, who saw how the new cosmology might frustrate researchers conditioned to think that reason alone would reveal the mystery of creation. Such a scientist, Jastrow wrote, “has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

As young and incomplete as the fields of neuroscience, genomics and stem cells are, religious believers would be unwise to trust that such research will remain immature. One of the less persuasive theological responses to science is the “God of the gaps” – the failsafe argument that whatever aspects of the natural world science cannot fully explain must be tokens of God’s action. So we get a God who resides in the baffling complexity of blood clotting, unpredictable quantum events in physics or the absence of transitional forms between many species in the fossil record.

But it’s irrational to trust that science will fail, not to mention counterproductive. Any scientific theory that gives real insight into how meditation works or the biological roots of each person’s uniqueness will have to move far beyond today’s limited vocabulary of brain scans and gene sequences. Such comprehensive studies can only enrich a religious life.

The lesson of Galileo still speaks clearly. As Dava Sobel recounts in her book Galileo’s Daughter, Galileo ran afoul of the Catholic Church in 1633 in part because he firmly believed that science offered profound understanding of the divine order in the world. Pope Urban VIII held that an omnipotent God need not be bound by logical consistency and that each phenomenon in nature might have its own inscrutable cause.

Church thinking had come full circle by 1992, when Pope John Paul II publicly endorsed Galileo’s ideas about the potential of science to enlighten the faithful. In reversing his predecessor’s stand, the pope also set forth a wise course for a future sure to bring ever more provocative findings. “Intelligibility,” John Paul II said, “attested to by the marvelous discoveries of science and technology, leads us, in the last analysis, to that transcendent and primordial thought imprinted on all things.”

Jeremy Manier is a reporter specializing in science and medicine for the Chicago Tribune.