George Coyne: 'Science Does Not Need God. Or Does It?

Father George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory, presented the following speech “Science Does Not Need God, or Does It? A Catholic Scientist Looks at Evolution,” at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Fla., Jan. 31:

Father George Coyne wrote:


I would essentially like to share with you two convictions in this presentation: (1) that the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, while evoking a God of power and might, a designer God, actually belittles God, makes her/him too small and paltry; (2) that our scientific understanding of the universe, untainted by religious considerations, provides for those who believe in God a marvelous opportunity to reflect upon their beliefs. Please note carefully that I distinguish, and will continue to do so in this presentation, that science and religion are totally separate human pursuits. Science is completely neutral with respect to theistic or atheistic implications which may be drawn from scientific results.

George Coyne also addresses what he sees as a tragic moment in the relationship of the Catholic church to science: namely the errors in Cardinal Schönborn’s comments in the New York Times.

The most recent episode in the relationship of the Catholic Church to science, a tragic one as I see it, is the affirmation by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in his article in the New York Times, 7 July 2005, that neo-Darwinian evolution is not compatible with Catholic doctrine and he opts for Intelligent Design. To my estimation, the cardinal is in error on at least five fundamental issues, among others: (1) the scientific theory of evolution, as all scientific theories, is completely neutral with respect to religious thinking; (2) the message of John Paul II, which I have just referred to and which is dismissed by the cardinal as “rather vague and unimportant,” is a fundamental church teaching which significantly advances the evolution debate; (3) neo-Darwinian evolution is not in the words of the cardinal: “an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection;” (4) the apparent directionality seen by science in the evolutionary process does not require a designer; (5) Intelligent Design is not science despite the cardinal’s statement that “neo-Darwinism and the multi-verse hypothesis in cosmology [were] invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science.

Father Coyne expressed his concerns earlier in this interview

So why does there seem to be a persistent retreat in the Church from attempts to establish a dialogue with the community of scientists, religious believers or otherwise? There appears to exist a nagging fear in the Church that a universe, which science has established as evolving for 13.7 x 1 billion years since the Big Bang and in which life, beginning in its most primitive forms at about 12 x 1 billion years from the Big Bang, evolved through a process of random genetic mutations and natural selection, escapes God’s dominion. That fear is groundless. Science is completely neutral with respect to philosophical or theological implications that may be drawn from its conclusions. Those conclusions are always subject to improvement. That is why science is such an interesting adventure and scientists curiously interesting creatures. But for someone to deny the best of today’s science on religious grounds is to live in that groundless fear just mentioned

Father Coyne’s position on “Intelligent Design” is quite clear

The director of the Vatican Observatory has lashed out at proponents of the theory of Intelligent Design, the Italian news service ANSA reports.

“Intelligent design isn’t science, even if it pretends to be,” said Father George Coyne. He said that if the theory is introduced in schools, it should be taught in religion classes, not science classes. ANSA reported that the Jesuit priest made his remarks at a conference in Florence.

Fortunately, Father Coyne does not stand alone in his opinion, a Vatican newspaper

After months of mixed messages from Pope Benedict XVI and his aides, the Vatican directly addressed the issue in the Tuesday (Jan. 17) edition of L’Osservatore Romano by reaffirming Catholic support for the science behind Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

In an editorial by Fiorenzo Facchini, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Bologna, Italy, the newspaper said proponents of intelligent design improperly blurred the lines between science and faith to make their case that certain forms of biological life are too complex to have evolved through Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

“If the model proposed by Darwin is held to be inadequate, one should look for another model. But it is not correct methodology to stray from the field of science pretending to do science,” Facchini wrote.

Views expressed in L’Osservatore do not affect church doctrine, but the newspaper is thought to reflect Vatican thinking because its content is published with official approval.

Even Schonborn has shifted (or clarified) his position

In a recent interview with Beliefnet in the Austrian capital, Schönborn set out his sometimes misunderstood views, clearly distinguishing between evolution and what he calls “evolutionism.” He explained that while he believes that God is the intelligent designer of the universe, his position on evolution springs from a philosophical rather than a scientific standpoint. His main concern, he said, was not to denigrate evolution as a natural process but to criticize atheistic materialism [the idea that only matter, not spirit, exists] as the dominant philosophy of today’s secular societies.

And Kenneth Miller, Professor of Biology at Brown University and the author of ‘Finding Darwin’s God.’, argued that

The theory of evolution is not inherently atheistic. A random natural process can fall within God’s plan for creation.