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Does a New Life Form Mean God Is Dead?

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The discovery of what is apparently an entirely new form of life -- a bacteria based on toxic arsenic rather than phosphorus, one of the six building blocks of all life on Earth -- has set the scientific world abuzz, prompting White House inquiries to NASA and threatening to upend longstanding beliefs about biology.

But some say the announcement also signals an end to religious faith, or at least the beginning of the end, because it implies that life can spring forth unexpectedly on Earth or even on other planets, and in unexpected forms -- developments that seem to run counter to literal readings of biblical creation accounts.

"The polite thing to say is that discoveries such as this don't really impeach the credibility of established religion, but in truth of course they really do," David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association (AHA), a leading secularist organization, said of this week's revelations about the microbes discovered in Lake Mono in California.

"The fact that life can spring forth in this way from nature, taken in context with what else we've learned in recent centuries about space and time, surely makes it less plausible that the human animal is the specially favored creation of all-powerful, all-knowing divinity," Niose said.

Another shot in the Wars of Science and Religion?

Maybe not.

Jesus and Mary at the crossThe arsenic-based microbe discovery "sounds like a nice piece of work; we'll see where it goes from here," Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit and a planetary scientist at the Vatican Observatory, wrote in an e-mail to Politics Daily. (Yes, the Catholic Church was doing science long before Galileo.)

"But," he added, "any scientific discovery that broadens our knowledge of creation, deepens our understanding of the Creator."

Consolmagno, who a few weeks ago made news for saying he'd be delighted to find intelligent life on other planets, is typical of religious believers who don't see faith and science as natural enemies.

Even some vocal atheists who see belief and science as inevitable opponents -- with belief the problem, not the solution -- weren't buying the AHA's arguments about the discovery's importance.

"I regret to say that the American Humanists got the story wrong," PZ Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota and a famously trenchant critic of religion, told Politics Daily. Myers, who details his arguments at his blog, says the problem is their reading of the science.

"They say 'a new form of life has been discovered that apparently evolved outside the scope of all previously discovered life on Earth,' and this is not correct: the bacteria studied share a common ancestor with us, and the novelty of the discovery was not the organism, but that this entirely earthly organism was capable of incorporating arsenic into its chemistry. So no, their claims of its significant impact on our understanding of the history of life on Earth are overblown."

Myers does see a silver lining of sorts (at least from his non-believer's point of view) because the discovery "does represent an incremental increase in our understanding, just as science does every day."

"The point should be that the whole of science provides a direct challenge to religious belief, not that any one event is so definitive," Myers said.

Brother Guy would disagree with that assertion, but he pointed out that for the AHA and similar groups, "obviously this is no 'proof' since obviously they'd decided years ago, for whatever other reasons, that there was no God."

Faith, it seems, comes in many forms.

Niose of the American Humanist Association did concede that it is "unlikely that this discovery will change the minds of those who insist on a literal interpretation of the Bible."

"To them, the world is about 6,000 years old and evolution is a hoax, and no amount of scientific evidence will change that. For the rest of us, however, this discovery is indeed profound, and it adds to the mountains of evidence that already point to the humanistic lifestance as being our best hope."

Maybe the true test of the impact of the discovery will come in a few years time, when we can see whether there are more tourists visiting Lake Mono looking for the arsenic-eating bugs or more pilgrims checking out the full-scale replica of Noah's Ark that a well-known creationist group said this week it will build in northern Kentucky -- at a cost of $150 million, including taxpayer subsidies.

Given the success of the group's Creation Museum, which drew its millionth visitor last spring, it'd be wise not to bet against the Ark.

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It is not a "new" life form. It is only newly found. It has been there a while.

December 05 2010 at 11:37 AM

Mr. Niose needs to take Catholicism 101. Our Savior made ALL life, not just certain kinds of life!!

December 05 2010 at 11:36 AM

God said this was going to happen.

December 05 2010 at 11:35 AM

"Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise." - James Madison

December 05 2010 at 11:34 AM

I am neither a scientist nor a believer, but if one wants to create an artificial conflict between science and religion, developments over the last several decades have rocked the smug assumptions of scientism. Physicists examing the idea of entropy have difficulty avoiding the implication that the universe must have a beginning and an end. Separately, cosmologists have rejected the steady-state conception of the universe in favor of a "singularity", the big bang theory, which sounds suspiciously like ex nihilo creation. More recently, biologists, mathematicians, and information theorists have compellingly argued that the likelihood of life arising through chance and random selection is negligible, at best. That is, intellectual progress is undermining the dogma and bigotry of Niose, the secularist. The more reasonable non-believer Myers, the "famously trenchant critic of religion" disputes the conclusion of the "humanist", but matter-of-factly asserts that "the bacteria studied share a common ancestor with us". Think about that. The objective scientific rationalist evinces the reflexive unquestioned acceptance of a doctrine that, in comparison, makes the idea of a 6,000 year old earth seem almost plausible. As I said at the beginning, I am not a religious believer, but, realistically, how long can I hold out?

December 05 2010 at 11:32 AM

Could it be that God was a scientist, the first and was testing arsenic vs. phosphorus to base his life forms on and forgot to through away or clean the arsenic test tube when he decided to go with phosphorus. Are we not lucky he picked to go with phosphorus. We should that him instead of trying to figure this thing out. Lets just say he did both and picked one out over the other and have faith that he made the right choice. The way things are going in this world we might yet prove him wrong and capable of mistakes.

December 05 2010 at 11:31 AM

The human animal discovered this new life form - not the other way around. Thus, Niose's statement that it is now less plausible that the human animal is the specially favored creation of the creator, is contradictory. There is no logic to his statement (thank God he does not program computers). God has given us the ability to uncover and discover his many miracles of life, and will continue to do so. This is part of the wonderful blessing of free will.

December 05 2010 at 11:29 AM

"Just" discovering it doesn't mean it hasn't been there all along, it just means they haven't seen it before. Like usual, big announcements of a whole new species of weird fish never before seen, it's because they hadn't dived deep enough to see it! I bet if they checked my fridge they'd find all kinds of things growing that they've never seen before :o)

December 05 2010 at 11:28 AM

IF there is no God then all those who believe have only lost some time saying prayers. BUT if there IS God, then those who do not have lost EVERYTHING FOREVER.

December 05 2010 at 11:25 AM
PR Seasonal

This discovery means nothing to the average person. Show me a walking talking entity from another world and I will be impressed. I doubt very seriously that we will find self sustaining intelligent life somewhere in the universe that doesn't have opposable thumbs. Meaning they will look very much like us.

December 05 2010 at 11:21 AM

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