05 December, 2010

What does the discovery of new life forms mean for God and faith?

By Jorge Reyes Figueras

The discovery in California by NASA scientists what is apparently an entirely new life form, a toxic arsenic bacteria rather than phosphorus, which is one of the six building blocks of all life on Earth, has set the scientific world on fire, threatening longstanding beliefs about biology and religious faith.

The discovery implies that life can spring forth unexpectedly on earth and even other planets in unexpected forms-- developments that seem to run counter to literal readings of biblical creation accounts.

"The polite thing to say is that discoveries such as this don't really impeach the credibility of established religion, but in truth of course they really do," David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association (AHA) said of this week's revelations about the microbes discovered in Lake Mono, California.

"The fact that life can spring forth in this way from nature, taken in context with what else we've learned in recent centuries about space and time, surely makes it less plausible that the human animal is the specially favored creation of all-powerful, all-knowing divinity," Niose said.

Another example of the war between science and religion?

It all depends.

The arsenic-based microbe discovery "sounds like a nice piece of work; we'll see where it goes from here," Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit and a planetary scientist at the Vatican Observatory, wrote in an e-mail to Politics Daily. "But," he added, "any scientific discovery that broadens our knowledge of creation, deepens our understanding of the Creator."

Consolmagno, who a few weeks ago made news for saying he'd be delighted to find intelligent life on other planets, is typical of religious believers who don't see faith and science as natural enemies.

Atheists who historically have seen belief and science as opponents in a warring duel-- with belief of any type as the problem, not the solution-- weren't buying the AHA's arguments about the discovery's importance.

"I regret to say that the American Humanists got the story wrong," PZ Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota and a famously trenchant critic of religion.   "They say 'a new form of life has been discovered that apparently evolved outside the scope of all previously discovered life on Earth,' and this is not correct: the bacteria studied share a common ancestor with us, and the novelty of the discovery was not the organism, but that this entirely earthly organism was capable of incorporating arsenic into its chemistry. So no, their claims of its significant impact on our understanding of the history of life on earth are overblown."

Faith, it seems, comes in many forms though.  And one thing about is faith is this, it can withstand any attacks no matter how strong is the evidence against it. 

Niose of the American Humanist Association did concede that it is "unlikely that this discovery will change the minds of those who insist on a literal interpretation of the Bible." He went on to add that, "to them, the world is about 6,000 years old and evolution is a hoax, and no amount of scientific evidence will change that. For the rest of us, however, this discovery is indeed profound, and it adds to the mountains of evidence that already point to the humanistic lifestance as being our best hope."

It remains to be seen what the implications of this recent discovery will have for a plethora of interrelated issues, such as life in other planets, the nature of the universe, and of course faith in God. What I can only say is that faith has thus far survived attempts to explain the universe in a naturalistic way seemingly devoid of any deity, and discoveries made by science in the last hundred years. And perhaps that is the nature faith, to believe in things unknown, to believe in things impossible, to have faith in a universe that seems to be, in fact, miraculous.