Biologist Provides New Take On Religion

November 10, 1998

Anthropologists estimate that there have been as many as 100,000 different religions in the world through the ages.

Now, a biologist at Washington University in St. Louis has introduced a novel religious orientation with the publication of her book, "The Sacred Depths of Nature," Oxford University Press, fall 1998.

Ursula W. Goodenough, Ph.D., professor of biology in Arts and Sciences, introduces the concept of religious naturalism in her book, which interweaves traditional religious thought, myth and mysticism with the unraveling mysteries of science. Religious naturalism is based on our "scientific understanding of nature," Goodenough says, but it places this understanding within the framework of global religious thought. Central to Goodenough's approach is the conviction that whether or not people can agree on the existence of a personal god, science and religion both elicit a similar sense of awe, mystery and faith. And, she hopes, science and religion will be less antagonistic toward each other and more complementary.

Balancing act
The book explores the science behind evolution, emotions, neuroscience, the origins of life, sexuality and death, while relating them to familiar religious and cultural concepts. It is religious in tone, while agnostic over the existence of a supernatural god.

Thus, Goodenough successfully performs a balancing act of discussing religion and science to theists and non-theists alike.

Now, many a minister or rabbi might argue that they do a variation of that every weekend, but Goodenough, the daughter of the late Erwin R. Goodenough, a Methodist minister who became a well-known Yale professor of religion, accomplishes the task of explaining the natural world in 12 spare, lyrical chapters. Each chapter concludes with a reflection on the science. The reflections, which have the lilt, grace and resonance of poetry, are reminiscent of prayer book meditations, and possess the beauty of Old Testament psalms. Yet they are most often anecdotal, contemporary and worldly.

"I'm a religious naturalist," says Goodenough. "That's the best phrase to summarize my orientation. I see science as the process of finding out about nature, and one of my goals is to help people understand evolution. If there's one main reason for writing the book, it is to lower the bar on humankind's resistance to what's going on in nature.

"I believe that it's pretty hard to get a miracle going in real-time -- I can't buy the parting of the Red Sea, for instance, or Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. To me, a mouse is a miracle, and I spend lots of time explaining how a mouse or a molecule can help reveal multitudes about our world and about what we have attributed to our gods."

Goodenough is a renowned cell biologist, whose earlier textbook, "Genetics," is recognized as a classic in the field and has been through three editions and translated into five languages. She also has been "steeped in the religious idiom" for decades and has brought her five children up in religious naturalism, while also exposing them to the Presbyterian faith. She attends Sunday services, participating in the choir, liturgy, listening to the sermons and appreciating the ritual and art.

In Goodenough's forward she states: "Why are people religious? And then: Why am I not religious? What is being religious anyhow? What about the way I feel when I think about how cells work or creatures evolve? Doesn't that feel the same as when I'm listening to the St. Matthew Passion or standing in the nave of the Notre Dame Cathedral?"

Reaching out
As a church-goer she "came to understand how this tradition, as played out in a middle-class mostly white congregation, is able to elicit states of serious reflection, reverence, gratitude and penance. But all of it was happening in the context of ancient premises and a deep belief in the supernatural. What about the natural? Was it possible to feel such religious emotions in the context of a fully modern, up-to-the-minute understanding of Nature?" Though traditional religions fascinate her, Goodenough is not a believer in a personal god.

"I can't form a relationship with supernatural things, so I have to have relationships with mortal creatures," she says. "However, that impetus, I believe, is the same as belief in a personal god, and there's no reason to make a big deal about it. Some people find that they can have the supernatural experience, and others can't. Truly, I'm trying to reach out to both perspectives."

Whether describing neurons firing, the origins of cells or sex and self-awareness, Goodenough mostly refrains from using the human model to explain biology and evolution.

Here's an example, from Chapter Seven, devoted to self-awareness. "Is my cat conscious? Well, yes, I would say that she is: she takes in what she experiences and responds to it. Then how about a snail? Well, I'm not so sure. Part of the problem, of course, is that my cat seems a lot more like me than a snail, so all of my cat/snail judgments will be laden with antropocentrism.

"Granted such difficulties, I remain deeply convinced that my cat does not reflect on her self, on her own cathood, even though there is no obvious way to prove that this is so. Self-awareness is a trait that appears to have originated in the apes and has come to dominate human mentality. Awareness of our mental selves, our thoughts and feelings, awareness of awareness: we all know exactly what this means, even if none of us can describe it very well."

Belden C. Lane, Ph.D., professor of theological studies and American studies at St. Louis University, previewed "The Sacred Depths of Nature."

"There's a refreshing candor about Ursula Goodenough's wonderful embrace of mystery," Lane says. "Her gifts include two of the most important for any successful dialogue of science and religion -- an awareness that metaphor is our common language and a passion for knowing that's unafraid of taking risks. She has a great deal to teach us all in this book."

Goodenough anticipates that there will be some misinterpretations of her book and religious naturalism.

"I'll be happiest if this book will help people encounter and deconstruct their fear of science and their sense of alienation," Goodenough says. "Alienation, I believe, is a product of feeling that the scientific worldview is somehow depersonalizing and sterile. If I'm going to be misunderstood, it will be in a knee-jerk reaction that scientists are wandering into religion and saying, "All you have to do is understand science and then it will be obvious how we all should behave."

"But that take is patently false. I'm arguing that we should all come up with a global ethic that is informed by science, and then we will have a better understanding of who we are and how we fit in with the rest of nature."

Washington University in St. Louis

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