American Unitarian Conference™
Promoting the American Unitarian Tradition
|Back to the American Unitarian page||
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.
God’s love be with you always.
in faith, freedom, and reason,
David R. Burton
American Unitarian Conference
© 2005 American Unitarian Conference™