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?
The 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.