Indeed, as an undergraduate at Brown in the late '60s, Miller says, he "walked away from the church — what I thought was its absolute nonsense — a couple of times." But two men brought him back into the fold.
The first was Brown's Catholic chaplain, Father Howard O'Shea, a charismatic Franciscan who ambled about the campus in well-worn sandals. "I went to college in the sixties — age of rebellion, hippies, anti-war stuff — and I was influenced by that," Miller says. "But Howard O'Shea made the point that faith itself is an act of rebellion against a secular society — and he attracted a lot of people that way."
His other redeemer was Thomas Merton, a poet, activist, and Trappist monk the budding biologist came upon in a poetry class. Merton's autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, which had stirred a small religious revival among disillusioned World War II veterans some 20 years previous, had a particularly strong influence.
The monk's story of coming of age in the secular orbit of Columbia University seemed a strong parallel to Miller's experience at Brown. But it was Merton's intellectual prowess that had the strongest pull; that helped lay the groundwork for Miller's reconciliation project.
"One of the things I got from Merton," Miller says, "was that faith isn't just for the stupid and the gullible."
FINDING DARWIN'S GOD
Miller's effort to bridge science and the Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam began, in earnest, with the publication of Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (1999).
That book and Miller's follow-up, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul (2008) offer uncompromising critiques of creationism — and intelligent design (ID) in particular. The author's approach: take the ID argument seriously and then dismantle it, piece by piece, with a combination of convincing science and accessible prose.
In Only a Theory, for instance, he devotes considerable space to the bacterial flagellum, a clever little motor that pushes bacteria around the digestive system. ID advocates have argued that it is so intricate, so masterful, it must have been created by a designer. But Miller shows how the flagellum, like most products of evolution, looks more like something cobbled together from so many odds and ends.
Those kinds of arguments have inspired plenty of consternation in creationist circles. One post on an ID blog reads, simply, "Ken Miller — A Wasted Life?" But the biologist has provoked a more public debate with his second major claim: science, viewed by so many churchgoers as a mortal threat to religion, does not exclude a belief in God.
Miller leans, first, on biologist Stephen Jay Gould's florid contention that the two realms are "non-overlapping magisteria." Religion, Miller argues, addresses questions of purpose and meaning that science simply cannot approach.
But the cell biologist also makes explicitly scientific arguments: maintaining, for instance, that quantum indeterminacy — the ultimately unpredictable outcome of physical events — could allow God to intervene in subtle, undetectable ways.
This sort of sly intervention, he argues, is vital to the Creator's project: if God were to re-grow limbs for amputees, for instance — if God were to perform the sort of miracles demanded by atheists as proof of his existence — the consequences would be disastrous.