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President's Letter 6/2005


Dear American Unitarian:

There is a lot of debate lately between proponents of Darwinian evolution, Scientific Creationism and Intelligent Design that once again raises the question of the proper relationship between science and religion. Some, but by no means all, of this debate is occasioned by the issue of what should be taught in public schools, an issue I do not want to address. Instead, I would like to address the American Unitarian perspective on the origins of the universe and the human race and the relationship between science and religion.

American Unitarians are open to reason, the scientific enterprise and God. We hold that there is, in principle, no conflict between science and religion. We have done so for nearly two centuries. Both science and religion, after all, seek the truth about God and God’s creation. We occupy, in my view, an analytically correct middle ground that is very much underrepresented in the current debate.

Listening to or reading many proponents of Darwinian evolution, you would think that if a person acknowledges that evolution has indeed occurred, then ipso facto he or she must be a raving atheist who thinks any belief in the “supernatural” is pure superstition and delusion. Similarly, many proponents of Scientific Creationism or other strains of fundamentalism seem to think a person who acknowledges the work of Charles Darwin as progress toward scientific truth must be an atheist. This leads me to Intelligent Design. It is true that some proponents of Scientific Creationism have appropriated the term “Intelligent Design” to themselves and are closet religious fundamentalists. But it is also true that a growing number of scientists and other intellectuals are arguing something entirely different than the truth of the biblical account of creation.

They are arguing that evidence in our world makes it vastly more probable that the creation was a result of an intelligence rather than an entirely random series of events. Their arguments are manifold and cross many disciplines, including mathematics, physics, biochemistry, biology and the like. This sophisticated and scientific literature makes for fascinating reading.

Two basic approaches to these issues come to my mind that are consistent with American Unitarian principles. The first would hold that God created the universe and was a very careful creator, who designed the laws of nature just so, and it all worked out the way we see it, through a combination of chance and necessity (the laws of nature) and increasingly the actions of free and intelligent actors in the creation (us). Another way is to reexamine the distinction often drawn between the “natural” world (matter and energy) and the “supernatural” world. In this view, God is both transcendent and immanent, beyond the physical world but dwelling within and acting on the physical world as well. God is a part of the natural world. Therefore, understanding the natural world at its most fundamental and important level will eventually involve grappling with an understanding of God’s nature. This view does not involve rejecting science, reason or evidence. It does involve embracing a living, indwelling God who is the source of our freedom, of our moral sense and our aesthetic sense and a God who is potentially our sustainer and redeemer.

There are at least two ways of articulating this vision. The late physicist philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, and the philosopher of religion Charles Hartshorne, showed modern ways of positing this reality. The traditional Christian concept of an indwelling Holy Spirit shows another. The early American Unitarians, such as William Ellery Channing or James Freeman Clarke, adopted this approach.

My primary point is this: God is real. God has real effects, including human freedom, love, and morality. These things can be observed and felt and are not somehow less real or natural than things composed of matter or energy. It is time, I believe, to drop the hostility between science and religious faith and to reintegrate what used to be called natural philosophy and religion. We need to quit pretending that the two have nothing to do with one another, while understanding that they work in very different ways and only overlap to some degree. To complete that project successfully will require a science open to certain religious insights about reality, and a religious faith that is willing to embrace reason and scientific evidence.

We as American Unitarians are uniquely positioned to show the proper way down that path. When these issues arise, we should try to show a middle way—a way that I think most Americans intuitively accept, and a way that does not force our society into a false dichotomy.

May God’s love be with you always.

Yours in faith, freedom, and reason,

David R. Burton


American Unitarian Conference

© 2005 American Unitarian Conference