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