February 28, 2000
Volume 52, No. 23
Discussions gain interest
By Elaine Justice
About a dozen faculty and a couple of students began gathering once a week last fall in small conference room on campus. They ate a simple, no-frills box lunch, then started talking about science and religion. They agreed it was their favorite thing they did all week-and they're still doing it.
The first Science and Religion Discussion Group, the brainchild of Gary Laderman in religion and P.V. Rao in physics, arose from--what else?--a conversation. The two professors discovered their mutual desire to bring science and religion together for discussion, study and ultimately a new undergraduate course that will premiere in spring 2001.
To help them frame the topic and plan the course, Laderman and Rao, with support and participation from Arri Eisen, director of the Science and Society Program of the Faculty Science Council, organized a faculty discussion group on science and religion. They invited participants from the sciences, social sciences and humanities, which proved to be a potent draw. More than 70 faculty responded to last fall's open invitation. "All these people wanted to talk about [science and religion] but had no forum," said Rao. That soon changed.
Under the auspices of the Science and Society Program, the group found an organizational umbrella and home, not to mention a website for posting upcoming topics and reading lists. The group comprised a dozen faculty from disciplines ranging from microbiology, chemistry and medicine to religion and liberal arts. Also participating were two undergraduate fellows with a special interest in the topic. "That hunger for talking about these things is out there but had not been tapped into," said Eisen. Until now.
At the very first session, Laderman and Rao decided to model what they hoped would become an honest and open exchange by reading their personal statements on how they came to be interested in the intersection of science and religion.
Their revelations were a powerful catalyst. Everyone in the group volunteered to write her or his own statement and read it aloud. "Hearing the others talk about the way their intellectual and biographical stories intermingled, in terms of what motivated them to be involved in this, was an opportunity to break down old conventions and open up new possibilities," Laderman said.
Eisen pointed out that faculty coming together to talk about their own views is rarer than it should be. "In many instances, faculty don't talk about what they believe--just about what other people are thinking or believe," Eisen said. Sharing one's own views, experiences or beliefs "is not something you're encouraged to do on an everyday basis."
Laderman admitted there is a gulf between religion and science. "But what we found in these conversations is there are all these great lines of common interests and similar kinds of questions from people who operate in these two fields," he said.
Faculty soon found themselves uncovering "a totally fascinating area of really challenging, interdisciplinary work," Laderman continued. Each participant poured over readings on subjects ranging from "Is ethics a subset of religion and of biology?" to "creation, evolution and consciousness."
The discussion group was originally slated to meet only during the fall semester, but its faculty participants decided to continue meeting this spring, Laderman said.
Meanwhile Laderman, Rao and Eisen have formed another discussion group with a new faculty cadre, again from diverse disciplines across campus. Laderman won't say how long the discussions will continue, just that the groups have fulfilled their mission: to be a catalyst for a new kind of interdisciplinary dialogue on campus.
One fruit of that dialogue will be day-long public forum Saturday, April 8, on "Perspectives on Suffering and Healing." Organized by Laderman, Eisen and Jennifer Obidah, assistant professor of educational studies, the forum will serve as another catalyst for science-religion exchange among graduate students and faculty from across the University.