The centuries-old debate between science and religion will be re-explored at Yale in this month’s Dwight H. Terry lecture series.
Distinguished historian of science Keith S. Thomson, a former dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, delivered the first of the four-part lecture series, entitled “Jefferson and Darwin: Science and Religion in Troubled Times,” Tuesday afternoon in the Whitney Humanities Center auditorium. The talks examine the inherent conflict between science and religion through two intellectual giants of the 18th and 19th century, Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin, who struggled to reconcile the two world views.
In Tuesday’s inaugural lecture, Thomson focused on the experiences of Thomas Jefferson, whose deistic beliefs compelled him to ignore scientific explanations to natural phenomena.
“Jefferson was just as confused as the rest of us,” Thomson said.
Well-versed in geology and orology, the study of mountains, Jefferson was convinced that a higher power was responsible for creating mountains and other feats of nature. Although Jefferson was fascinated by fossils, he never once used the word “fossil” in his writings, Thomson said. Jefferson also did not believe in animal extinction, Thomson added, because he could not grasp the idea that God would create animals and then completely destroy them.
Thomson opened Tuesday’s lecture by putting the debate between science and religion in a broad context. The crux of the problem, he said, is balancing new knowledge with previously held beliefs. As science rapidly produces new information and new ways of looking at the world, individuals must constantly try to accommodate and reconcile this knowledge with their prior convictions.
Thomson said he seeks to base his discussion on individual experiences by examining the lives of iconic figures. As a result, the debate is “much more accessible,” said Derek E.G. Briggs, director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
By examining the life of Jefferson, a man who attempted to foster conventional religious views onto science, Thomson concluded that there will always be difficulties reconciling the two.
“The lecture was very helpful in understanding Jefferson as a person in terms of his complexity, and exposing him as a man of contradictions,” Achutha Raman ’16 said.
Some attendees said they think that science and religion can coexist. Professor Dale Martin, Woolsey Professor in Religious Studies and the Interim Chair of the Terry Lectureship, said the two are separate discourses.
“It is not the job of Christian theology to question string theory, but on the other hand, science can’t address the fundamental issues theology addresses, either,” he added.
The next lecture in the Terry series will examine Charles Darwin and how his discoveries in science contributed to his agnostic beliefs, despite his Christian background. Titled “The Devil and Mr. Darwin: Creation and ‘The Origin,’” the lecture will take place at Whitney Humanities Center at 4:00 p.m. on Thurs. Oct. 11.
The Terry lecture series was established in 1905 by a gift from Dwight H. Terry of Bridgeport, Conn.