A New Spirit of Inquiry
The changing discourse around science and religion
By Amy Benson Brown

Join the discussion


Academic Exchange October/November 2000 Contents Page

Electromagnetism, Gravitation, and God's Continuous Indwelling"; "The Reception of Darwinism in the Islamic World"; "Chaos Theology."

Worlds colliding? In a sense, yes. These are just three of the papers presented this summer at Faith in the Future, a conference on science and religion sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The advent of such scholarship indicates a closing of the disciplinary distance between science and religion. Yet the scientists and humanists in this conversation walk a linguistic tightrope across disciplinary cultures and assumptions. Both the promise and pain of this dialogue lie in its exposure of the fundamental grounds of intellectual inquiry.

"The supposed gulf between science and religion, however, can be overcome when you begin to think about these questions in human terms," says Emory religion professor Gary Laderman.

The chance to foreground the human--to integrate the personal and the professional in intellectual inquiry--was vital to the success of last year's faculty lunch seminar on science and religion, organized by Laderman and physics professor P.V. Rao.

Their modest desire to think through issues underlying a course they plan to co-teach in 2001 struck a nerve at Emory that ran all the way from the medical school to the quad. Over seventy faculty responded to the group's invitation, and the fifteen or so who could fit around the lunch seminar table raved about the personal and professional value of the conversation. Each week, humanists, medical doctors, and other scientists discussed readings that mingled scientific questions and diverse spiritual traditions.

With the success of last spring's Burke Nicolson Symposium on Healing and Suffering, which bridged medical and religious approaches to health care, and with more events planned, this conversation is gaining momentum at Emory.
It also reflects a larger trend. The international discourse around science and religion has matured in recent years, growing beyond the familiar shibboleth of evolution. While the debate about the origins of life is nearly as old as life itself, the conversation between science and religion is finding new focus in topics urgent to contemporary life. These debates have even spilled into the popular realm, leading Newsweek to declare last year, "Science Finds God."

God, Postmodernism, and Money
Some argue that this dialogue is not only enabled but required by the post-modern spirit of our age. Though proclamations of the death of God may have begun this era, postmodernism ironically lays the groundwork for talk of a certain kind of resurrection.

A post-modern zietgeist is drawing once-estranged scholars to the same conference table. Aspects of that allure include the relinquishment of the idea of an unchanging "center" of disciplines, an embracing of truth with a small "t," and an openness to crossing intellectual boundaries. Up for discussion are the environment, health care, genetics, and artificial intelligence.

Venues for the conversation are growing in number as well as in social relevance and intellectual heft. An estimated one thousand college courses on topics in science and religion have sprung up across the country. Even medical schools are catching the fever. "Ten years ago, there were only three courses on spirituality in American medical schools. Now there are sixty," says Dave Hilton, special assistant to the dean of the chapel and religious life, who teaches a course on spirituality to medical students. And since 1995, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science has sponsored a Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, which funds research on ethics, publishes a series of books, and sponsors conferences like Faith in the Future.

While the possibilities and problems of living in a post-modern age may drive the intellectual content of this conversation, a little money-like one of the largest scholarly prizes in the world, for example-doesn't exactly hurt. When Wall Street financier John Templeton established the Templeton prize in 1972, he structured it to be always larger than the Nobel, which he felt slighted achievements in religion.

The Templeton Foundation also funds about 150 smaller projects, including Laderman and Rao's course, that further the study of moral and spiritual subjects. Templeton funds have also supported a course taught by Oxford religion professor Hoyt Oliver and a faith and health consortium run by the Carter Center. Just last spring, Emory's Living Links Center won Templeton funding for research on forgiveness, the first grant the foundation has ever awarded for nonhuman primate research.

The rise of research uniting science and religion has not been without controversy, though. Last spring, Case Western Reserve University physicist Lawrence Krauss accused the Templeton foundation of advancing a cross-disciplinary discussion with no suitably intellectual destination. In a Chronicle of Higher Education essay, Krauss railed against the foundation's work as "ill-conceived" and prey to "fundamentalist dogma" and "new-age mysticism."

There is a general trend in philanthropy, however, toward foundations taking the lead in building intellectual fields. "Whatever you think about Templeton," cautions Laderman, "you have to recognize that the energy produced here in Atlanta and across the nation is not some ploy by the foundation to make more people Christian. Transcending the supposed gulf between science and religion raises really valid, exciting, and essential questions."

Rao adds, "Let me make this clear: we did not start this with any idea of Templeton. The grant came along later."

A Year for Reconciliation?
If the specter of the fundamentalist bent on warping intellectual inquiry is perhaps a bogey man, what about the stereotype of the atheistic man of science?

"Even scientists who say they are agnostics usually have a moral or religious stance toward life and its meanings," says William Branch, director of Emory's Division of General Internal Medicine. A poll published in Scientific American last year found that about four out of every ten scientists believe in God, but that number drops dramatically as the academic prestige of the scientists rises. Over 90 percent of members of the National Academy of Science, for example, deny belief in God.

"At a Research I university," explains Emory biologist Arri Eisen, who directs the Program in Science and Society, which underwrote last year's lunch seminar, "any discussion outside the tenure and publishing box for a young professor is a risk." Branch adds: "The prevailing culture of medicine discourages doctors from entering religious discussion or even admitting their own spiritual or religious views. But this is changing."

When Branch and some colleagues collected stories from physicians about what they found most meaningful in their work for an American Journal of Medicine article, they discovered a surprising pattern in the doctors' reports. The doctors did not focus on making diagnoses, technical expertise, or the application of scientific theories. Meaning seemed to reside instead in the human context of medicine. "When the physician struggles to meet the needs of a suffering patient, he or she enters a moral, spiritual realm," Branch argues.

With the NIH now funding research into complementary medicine (a less inflammatory term for alternative medicine), pressure is mounting to develop medical practices that treat a patient's mind, body, and spirit. "I think we've reached the end of a pendulum swing, and people are beginning to realize we're missing something terribly important in our culture," observes Hilton.