Richard Smith Contributing writer
Each year, “Darwin Day” on Feb. 12 celebrates the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. At Roanoke College in particular, the celebration of Darwin is extended over a period of a few days. “Darwin Days” has been celebrated at the college for 9 years now, and this year Darwin Days fell from Feb. 14 to Feb. 17 in celebration of the legacy the scientist left behind.
Nevertheless, controversy surrounds Darwin and his theories of evolution. That is why, on Thursday, Feb. 16, an interdisciplinary panel was assembled in the college’s Pickle Lounge to deliberate on whether science and religion are compatible. The panel was organized by Dr. DB Poli of the college’s biology department. “The goal is really to introduce people to a man that’s often made into a demon in many cultures, mainly because of the ‘war’ of science and religion,” said Poli. “By bringing him to the conversation… what I’m trying to do is to get people to see the whole story, his [Darwin’s] story, as well as for them to realize how the different disciplines have been touched by a man who has been such a prolific thinker.”
The panel included Poli, Dr. Ned Wisnefske, Dr. Chris Lassiter and Dr. Matt Fleenor, and was moderated by the Rev. Dr. Paul Hinlicky. Each professor spoke for a few minutes on their own beliefs and studies, bringing their own scientific, religious and/or philosophical expertise into the panel.
The panel began with Wisnefkse’s statement and the event proceeded from there. Wisnefske looked at the issue of science vs. religion from the perspective of his various religious studies, saying that while theologians have made use of Darwin’s insights, there are nevertheless “limits” to what evolution can answer. Lassiter, on the other hand, spoke about his personal experiences, remarking on how he travelled to the Galapagos Islands to see for himself Darwin’s evidence for evolution. Nevertheless, he said that he is still religious despite his scientific studies and that he still keeps Bible verses in his wallet. Fleenor spoke in a similar light, saying that religion answered metaphysical questions for him while science answered questions of a physical nature. Speaking for himself, he said that metaphysics and physics are both valuable and could be weaved together to answer life’s essential questions.
Poli, however, was not so sure that science and religion could be reconciled. Poli became disenfranchised from religion over time, passing from a Roman Catholic faith to agnosticism and finally to atheism. The scientific method, for her, was the only thing that kept answering the questions of “why” that she had as she went through her education. She finally posed two questions: “have we outgrown religion as a species” and “is it [religion] getting in our way now?”
After each professor spoke, members of the panel asked questions among themselves before taking questions from members of the audience. The event was a full venue and seats were filled with students and other curious parties. A few questions about religion in school and the gaps between science and religion were addressed in the time left. With that, the panel was finished.
Audience members afterward stayed to ask professors questions individually. Most people seemed satisfied with the event and many learned new ways to think about the science vs. religion issue. “The points that all professors at the panel said really had some valid points to them,” said Frankchesco Leveratto, a student at Roanoke. “Dr. Poli… really gave me a new way of thinking of how I categorize myself in regards to other animals. I think it’s important to listen to the other side, listen to what sciences who don’t believe in God have to say as well as scientists who do believe in God have to say.”