02/02/2012 01:53 pm ET | Updated Apr 03, 2012

'Religious' Scientists and the Legacy of Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens could inflict substantial rhetorical pain upon his opponents in debate and in print. Much like Steve Martin's character (a sadistic dentist) in the 1986 film adaptation of "Little Shop of Horrors," he was exceedingly good at dispensing discomfort. I like to flatter myself in thinking that had Hitchens lived long enough to consider the title of my book, "Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist," he would have regarded me (briefly) as an aspiring opponent. Like any author, I have various fantasies regarding the reception of my book, involving polished performances at high-profile lectures and debates. My fantasy regarding Hitchens, however, is rather different in that he makes me look completely foolish. And like Bill Murray's character (a masochistic patient) in "Little Shop," I relish every second of being roughed up by Christopher Hitchens.

It saddens me deeply that I will never have this honor. Worse, I will never again read something new from him about politics, literature or philosophy. Of course he would have had only scorn for the "religious" adjective some scientists -- including me -- use to describe ourselves. Yet there is one aspect of Hitchens' legacy that I think parallels a literary juxtaposition such as "religious paleontologist," something that he demonstrated more effectively than probably any other writer of the last 50 years: understanding the perplexing issues of our time does not benefit from a one-dimensional spectrum of opinions between left and right.

He despised the politics of Henry Kissinger about as much as he did religion, and wrote eloquently and forcefully against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Yet he was not at all a pacifist, and famously supported the Bush-Blair intervention in Iraq. On other issues his attitudes were similarly nuanced: he recognized the status of a human fetus as "alive," yet did not demand curtailing a woman's rights over her own body. Like any reasonable person, he viewed charity toward the impoverished as a good thing, but harshly critiqued Mother Theresa for her lamentable glorification of poverty itself. Christopher Hitchens judged politics using his principles of liberty and reason, and thereby articulated a more consistent philosophy across many complex issues than anyone of recent memory -- far more consistent than a superficial rendering of left vs. right would allow.

Which brings me to the phrase "religious paleontologist." You might interpret this as an oxymoron, perhaps like "astrological surgeon." However, I chose this particular combination in an effort to rescue the adjective "religious" (which I am) from synonymy with "superstitious" (which I am not). The laws of nature and the cosmos make it rational (but not scientific) to view God as the agency behind them, and the trappings of human cults and fundamentalism neither negate nor flow inexorably from this belief. In other words, there is a line between superstition and religion, one which Hitchens didn't emphasize, but which is of considerable importance in making science accessible to the public. The best scientists are those who realize just how narrowly "science" must be applied to understand something about our cosmos. Asking a manageable question given our human limitations of perception and time is essential to scientific success. Something overly grand, like "what is the answer to the universe," yields a nonsensical answer: "42."

As Douglas Adams pointed out, the real challenge is coming up with a good question or two. Like Christopher Hitchens, Adams was a brilliant (and deceased) atheist author who regarded religious scientists with, at best, some concern. Regardless, this does not change the fact that grand questions about our existence can still legitimately be asked, even if in so doing we cannot expect the same level of empirical precision we receive from scientific answers. For example, how has life diversified after it began? Evolution via descent with modification. Are the Earth's continents mobile? Plate tectonics. To answer the question "why do we exist?" with "to emulate God's love" is to be entirely unscientific. Yet I think this answer is rational, as do philosophers and theologians ranging from Aquinas to Polkinghorne. "Science" is a specific, human endeavor, not a limitless enterprise for answering everything, and we would do well to give it a well-defined home within the larger sphere of rationality.

Even if Hitchens would never have used the term "religion" in the positive sense in which I see it, he set an example by which the nuances behind such concepts can be evaluated on their own merits, rather than defaulting to awful tribal dichotomies such as conservative vs. liberal. One such "religious" nuance (which by the way has a very clear scriptural basis), is epitomized by a favorite poet of his, John Donne. He amazingly summed up in 1623 how I felt in 2011 about losing a man I've never met:

"Each man's death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee."

Robert J. Asher is a paleontologist specializing in mammals and the author of Evolution and Belief (Cambridge University Press, April 2012). Raised in upstate New York, he is a former Curator of Mammals at the Berlin Natural History Museum and Frick Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History. Currently, he is the Curator of Vertebrates in the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. Over the past two decades, his research in paleobiology has taken him to Argentina, Britain, Canada, Kenya, Madagascar, Mongolia, South Africa, Spain, the United States, and Venezuela. His regularly publishes scientific articles in leading journals including PNAS, Science, and Nature.