In two previous posts, I covered the scientist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s scientific and political views. The third area I would like to focus on is religion, where we are on less stable ground. Dobzhansky’s views on religion were idiosyncratic and highly personal, and the extent to which he held to specific Orthodox doctrines is unclear. Although he was open about his sympathy for religion and his interest in philosophical issues, he kept much to himself, praying in a language his colleagues could not understand.
This has made his beliefs hard to parse. In “The Grand Old Man of Evolution,” Ernst Mayr remarked that Dobzhansky believed in a personal God, whereas Francisco Ayala (present with Dobzhansky when he died) maintained in his memoir that Dobzhansky did not. For his own part, Dobzhansky at times softened traditional dogmas, but he also wrote in Ultimate Concern that it was “no use” to pray to a “deistic clockmaker God.” Dobzhansky prayed often. So, how does one sort all this out?
Belief is only one part of religious life. While Dobzhansky’s beliefs were sometimes inscrutable, his practice was more overt. In an excellent essay on Dobzhansky included in Eminent Lives in Twentieth Century Science and Religion, Jitse M. Van der Meer chronicles the way Dobzhansky was influenced by Solovyov but also includes a deep dive into his diaries and journals to show that religion was a preoccupation throughout his life, not just as he approached death (as was sometimes thought). Dobzhansky did go to confession, although he did not appear to regard sin as significant as his colleagues would have expected (influenced as they were, even if they rejected it, by a more Protestant emphasis on depravity). As a consequence, he did not believe sin made it impossible to do good, maintaining his defense of human agency and freedom in the face of determinism (either scientific or theological).Continue reading