“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”
— Matthew 22.21
I had the misfortune recently of stumbling across a movie documentary, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” narrated by Ben Stein, as I was channel-surfing with my eldest daughter following the evening news. The movie’s basic premise was to expose the scientific communities’ conspiracy to prevent intelligent design “theory” to be taught in America’s public schools and presented as science in publicly-funded museums. This was accomplished through a dizzying array of disturbing Nazi images and eugenics references that were confusingly related to fantasy elitist, freedom-of-speech crushing, atheist, Darwinians who have killed God with the Theory of Evolution.
To say the least, I found the movie somewhat biased. Granted, I am not the film critic for U.S. Medicine, but the confusion engendered in my high school- aged daughter from this thinly- veiled attack on science, masquerading as a documentary film, concerned me greatly. On the other hand, it did provide me with the unique opportunity to discuss the difference between science and religion with my bright (frighteningly so) daughter.
I had a favorite professor in college chemistry who began my first semester of physical chemistry by stating, “I am here to describe ‘how’ atoms and molecules interact to form the physical world. If you are interested in ‘why’ they do so, well, you are in the wrong class.” This basic depiction of the fundamental differences between science and philosophy/religion has served me well throughout my federal medicine career. Science is the physical world, viewed through the lens of empiricism and ruled by the scientific method to explain ‘how’ things work. Religion and philosophy deal with existence, are beyond empirical analysis and dwell with questions of ‘why’ things are. Admittedly, I have been a student of science and a follower of its rules my entire professional life. I am not a religious man. Even so, I would not presume to place science as superior or inferior to religion, just fundamentally different. What disturbed me so much about the movie “Expelled” was its suggestion that scientists despise religion.
Certainly the Theory of Evolution, so elegantly presented in Charles Darwin’s 1859 book, “On the Origin of Species,” forms a foundation for the practice of modern medicine. Empirical evidence for how evolution has influenced life on this planet abounds. It quite literally, if you will, is in our DNA. The study of evolution is certainly worthy of a science class where young minds begin the journey of scientific inquiry that leads eventually to a professional medical degree. The explanation for how nature works, provided by the Theory of Evolution, is a powerful tool in the science of medicine.
I have also experienced that side of medicine that defies empirical explanation — like the unshakable faith of Father Patrick Kenny, or “Father Pat,” to those who worked at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He seemed incapable of sadness and always lifted others’ spirits with just a “Hello,” and his ever-present grin. Father Pat was no scientist, but no less vital to the daily function of the hospital in providing compassionate care to the sick and injured. Like many other medical scientists at Walter Reed, I was keenly aware of the loss sustained by our community when Father Pat passed away on November 25, 2009, in the hospital he so faithfully served. From my perspective, there was no conflict between Father Pat’s healing arts sustained in faith and mine maintained in science. In fact, what I observed was synergy in our efforts.
The tragedy of “Expelled” is its utter failure in helping the layperson, our patients, to understand the difference between the “how” of science and the “why” of religion. Instead, through shocking images of our troubled 20th century and unfounded demagoguery, the film pits science against religion. Even more fantastically, the film ends with the ridiculous suggestion that Darwin’s theories led to Hitler’s Nazi regime and the suffering of countless thousands.
As federal medicine providers, we must be aware of the disinformation that our patients are bombarded with daily in our information focused society. I have always maintained that it is not enough to just prescribe and recommend to our patients on how to achieve health; we must also educate them on the science that supports these recommendations. We must also acknowledge when our patients’ needs transcend our science and show equal respect to their beliefs. Part of being a good provider is the understanding of what is Caesar’s, and what is not, and having the wisdom to help our patients appreciate the difference.