Canada's science minister has stepped into the future of a democracy that no longer knows how to handle belief in God. His refusal to explain his beliefs on evolution in an interview with The Globe and Mail scored among the "most discussed" stories this week on the paper's website. This brought back a memory of the South Park episode Go God Go: In a religionless world, the animated pudgy stick figures, when irritated, curse "Oh my science," not "Oh my God."
If the vitriol against Gary Goodyear, the federal Minister of State for Science and Technology, has any merit, we just might be closer to that bizarre world than I thought. He's facing the worst of Canadian paranoia for standing his ground in stating that a science reporter's question about his Christian religion is not "appropriate." While amateur religionists are now having their say about his supposed incompetence, with some even demanding that an atheist take over the science portfolio, let's examine a few principles underlying the controversy.
First, how do we decide the line between politics and personal faith? This has evolved on a case-by-case basis under freedoms that include the right to hold and express religious beliefs while in public office. It's a balance of respect for differences that Canadians expect to be represented in our elected officials. All religions are free to exist in Canada, and like other rights protected in our Charter, they deserve to have expression.
Mr. Goodyear did not respond to my calls, so I'll guess at what underlies the shock he launched. He made a defensive stumble in an environment he assumed would not allow the breadth of questions needed to explore Christianity and science. He drew the line around his faith tightly, with what appears to be a "Don't ask, don't tell" policy. The fact that we cannot intelligently explore a science minister's personal beliefs in God because it's deemed political suicide in a sound-bite culture should alarm us all about the erosion of our freedoms. (It would be nice if we could get some notes on this from President Barack Obama, who, according to a group of pastors quoted by The New York Times this week, appears to rely on his Christian faith "for intellectual and spiritual succour.")
Second, why do we assume that belief in evolution and belief in God are incompatible? Probably because we are locked into the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial and modernistic views of Christianity. No writer among the many authors of the Bible claimed to be a scientist creating a textbook, yet God governing in a world of science is explored in its pages.
Last fall, the University of Victoria sponsored a lecture series on Theology in the Context of Science, delivered by Sir John Polkinghorne, a leading British theoretical physicist and first president of the International Society for Science and Religion. In an interview, he said that knowing God requires us to be truthful on two fronts - "truthful on the scientific front about what we know about the history of the Earth, and truthful about what we know from personal religious experience and the traditions in which we learn about God."
The two worlds need not be hostile strangers who can never cross paths in public, as renowned geneticist Francis Collins defends. A practising Christian, he is noted for his leadership of the Human Genome Project and his discoveries of disease genes such as cystic fibrosis. He writes of his faith and his views on science in The Language of God .
What about the question of ethics in science and how religious views might inform that ground? Since some atheists have been as predisposed to using their powers for ill as some theists, continuing to create a climate of hostility around God and science will only move us into the dark ages. Canada's Christian scientists gather at www.csca.ca and link with thousands of others whose boards include Nobel Prize winners. Perhaps it's time they invite our science minister to their table for a pep talk.
Lorna Dueck is executive producer of Listen Up TV.