Man of Science, Man of Faith

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As the executive director of the non-profit BioLogos Foundation, biologist Darrel Falk struggles daily to strike a delicate balance between two forces: science and religion

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At a young age, Darrel Falk found himself living in two worlds.

"Growing up in an evangelical Christian household in western Canada, I used to think to myself, 'how did it happen that I was just born into the right religion?'" says Falk, now a professor of biology at Point Loma Nazarene University and executive director of the BioLogos Foundation, a Christian advocacy group founded by now-National Institute of Health director Francis Collins in 2007. Critical of intelligent design and running contrary to creationism, the organization promotes a theory of theistic evolution -- that God creates through the natural sciences, like evolution, and the Christian faith need not be in conflict with mainstream science. The foundation started as a resource for people like Falk, who "knew there was a discrepancy between what they were experiencing in church and what other people believed."

"We're not involved in political campaigns, or policy, or anything like that," says Falk. "For us, it's a grassroots movement."

To many (like, initially, myself -- a lapsed Reform Jew from Massachusetts with a very liberal upbringing), the foundation may sound like yet another agent fighting in the perpetual culture war between science and religion. The Biologos Foundation declares its mission to be "a spirited and gracious dialogue and a confidence in the harmony between science and faith." And it aims "to help the church develop a worldview that embraces both of these complex but complementary belief structures." The Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, strictly prohibited from lobbying or making political contributions. While its funding comes primarily from a number of individual donors, the largest and most questionable cash infusion came from a $151,920 grant from the John Templeton Foundation (often referred to as "God's Venture Capitalist" or a "conservative sugar daddy") in 2008, shortly after the organization's founding.

But don't expect to see BioLogos commenting on the 2012 Republican primary, or making a push for Bible study in public schools. The goal of the organization is not to thrust religion upon the secular masses, but to aid evangelical Christians reconciling their spirituality with the natural world of science.

With his background, Falk is a poster boy for BioLogos. During his youth, Falk became increasingly skeptical of the Bible as the literal word of God. "By the time I was 11, I was reading the New Testament, where it speaks in terms of the angels coming from the four corners of the Earth," he recalls. "It was almost too good to be true. I remember saying to someone 'angels came from the four corners from the Earth. Is the Bible implying it was flat?' I was living in two worlds: the Christian world, I world I wanted to live in and was beautiful, and this other world where things just didn't seem right."

Falk graduated from Simon Fraser University in 1968 with a B.A. in biology. As an undergraduate, he took courses in anthropology, genetics, physics, biology, and math. As his appetite for science grew, so did his skepticism with his faith.

"When I went into university, the doubts weren't that bad," Falk says. "Through my childhood years, I had thought to myself 'the world is so beautiful, how could it have happened by chance?' I believed so strongly that there had to be a God. But as time went by, through grad school and all, evolution helped me lose my faith. I walked away from Christianity."

BioLogos started out as a website for people like Falk, a resource for young scientists who grew up in evangelical or conservative Christian homes. The foundation's website serves as the primary forum for Christian scientists, and the group hosts a series of workshops in New York where dozens of doctors, theologians, scholars, and scientists have an open dialogue on pressing questions of science and faith.

BioLogos also runs professional development programs for private Christian high schools, targeting evangelical students with a passion for science. Falk emphasizes that, despite a few applications from public schools, BioLogos has no primary focus or influence on the public education system. "Although," he adds,"we do want Christian teachers in public schools to engage with us on issues of science and religion."

"We're not involved in political campaigns, or policy, or anything like that," says Falk. "For us, it's a grassroots movement. We want to be able to help people who have struggled with this topic, people who are internally conflicted with faith and scientific data."

BioLogos has drawn criticism from secular and religious organizations, from creationists and atheists alike. Ken Ham, a young-Earth creationist and advocate for the literal interpretation of Genesis, declared that "it is compromisers like [Francis] Collins who cause people to doubt and disbelieve the Bible -- causing them to walk away from the church." Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological seminary, says that BioLogos "wants to discredit evangelical objections to evolution and to convince the evangelical public that an acceptance of evolution is a means of furthering the gospel." University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne called the endeavor "the latest forcible endeavor to marry science and faith."

"In our culture, people look at science as a certain way of answering life's questions, and religion as another way, and those two worlds are totally separate," says Kathryn Applegate, program director at BioLogos. "How do we make the best sense of the world, given the data that we have? It's not about rigidly putting the pieces together, or committing to a certain way of thinking."

"We have to take away the plain reading. The idea of God literally creating is told in a way to be relevant, like a myth or legend. And if you look at it that way, you're on a slippery slope," Falk adds. "All it takes is being able to recognize the genre of the Scripture. The Old Testament is purely poetic: The stories are beautiful, and there's a very specific message -- Adam and Eve were alienated from God, from being naked and unashamed -- but they're still just beautiful stories."

In the end, the majority of the people who come to BioLogos looking for answers are people who find themselves where Falk was earlier in life: torn between the external world of empirical science and the personal world of faith and spirituality. "For me, one of the big, big frustrations through my post-doc studies and onwards was that I never thought I would fit into evangelicalism again," Falk says. "I felt that I could never go back to the world I grew up in and the world I loved."

Image: Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock.

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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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