Last week, while on a trip to London and Copenhagen to present research on autism and ethics, I visited Westminster Abbey, one of the holiest sites in the Church of England. The Abbey, founded in the year 960, has been the coronation site for British Monarchs dating back to 1066 and is the burial place of 17 kings and queens, including Queen Elizabeth I and her arch-enemy Mary Queen of Scots. For Royals buffs, it was also the site of the wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton in April and, sadly, the location of Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997.
Westminster Abbey is also the final resting place and home to memorial stones of other celebrated Britons, from politicians to poets, including a memorial to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and the gravesites of the author Charles Dickens, the poet Rudyard Kipling, the actor Laurence Olivier, and the composer George Frideric Handel (a naturalized Briton). Also buried in the Abbey is the great physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton (readers of The Da Vinci Code will already know this).
Just a few feet from Newton’s gravesite rests who I think it is safe to say is the most controversial figure in modern science: Charles Darwin, author of The Origin of Species and the father of the theory of evolution. That Darwin, a self-proclaimed agnostic, rests in such a prominent church not only honors his legacy but shows that science and faith are not necessarily mutually exclusive; they can coexist!
Just a week after Darwin’s funeral, the Bishop of Carlisle, Henry Goodwin, delivered a memorial sermon in the Abbey during which he said:
I think that the interment of the remains of Mr. Darwin in Westminster Abbey is in accordance with the judgment of the wisest of his countrymen… It would have been unfortunate if anything had occurred to give weight and currency to the foolish notion which some have diligently propagated, but for which Mr. Darwin was not responsible, that there is a necessary conflict between a knowledge of Nature and a belief in God.
So by now, reading a public health blog, you must be wondering where this is all going. How do we circle back to public health in the context of Darwin, faith, and science?
Well, public health can be successful when people of faith and people of science come together to identify and redress health challenges. This isn’t simply about religions ministering and providing services to the poor and dispossessed (important services that many religions provide). It is also about acknowledging the role that faith plays in the lives of many, and building collaborations between public health scientists and religious institutions to find novel ways to reach populations that often do not end up in the health care system until they have acute medical problems.
The Faith and Spiritual Affairs Unit in the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health does this work locally, particularly as it concerns addiction and general behavioral health. Exactly a year ago, some of the city’s most prominent pastors kicked off a campaign to screen for HIV in black churches and elsewhere. This is a great example of religion and science working well together, keeping more people healthy, and sending an important message.
Unfortunately in the United States it is increasingly common for Darwin and science more generally to be devalued by those who see their beliefs as being at odds with scientific thought. Exhibit A is the role played by some strains of American evangelicalism in politics. With a majority of candidates for the Republican presidential nomination either believers in creationism or dismissive of evolutionary theory as “just a theory that’s out there,” and a Gallup poll from last year showing that 40% of Americans believe that “God created humans in present form,” it is clear that Darwin does not get the same amount of understanding and affection in the U.S. as he has elsewhere. This is because Darwin is guilty of what his biographer David Quamman identified, in The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, as “alerting humans to the fact that we don’t occupy central position in the universe.”
Resolving conflicts between scientific findings and religious traditions or, more specifically, between scientifically validated public health needs and religious values, remains an ongoing concern. Points of disagreement persist on matters of contraception, sex education, sexual behavior, and vaccination (think about controversies around the HPV vaccine).
One thing is clear from my visit to Westminster: those who in 1882 welcomed Darwin into the Abbey, despite the way his work challenged a religious worldview, were far more sophisticated in understanding the relationship between scientific thought and faith than we are here today.
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