Scientific and Religious Communities Can Work Cooperatively, Speakers Say

It’s often assumed that scientists are not spiritual, that the religious community is uniformed about and uninterested in science, and that science and religion are simply incompatible.

That’s hardly the case, said speakers in a panel discussion organized by the AAAS program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER), but respectful communication between scientific and religious communities often falls short. Panelists, who included scientists and religious leaders, spoke about their own experiences and suggested approaches for constructive dialogue and activities between the two communities.

“As we get close and face to face with each other, we realize that actually there’s a lot that we have in common,” said David Anderson, founder and lead pastor of the Bridgeway Community Church in Columbia, Maryland. Anderson was one of the panelists in a discussion held at AAAS on 16 June.

David Anderson
David Anderson

Anderson told the AAAS audience, which was mainly comprised of members of the scientific community, that science is there to inform whereas religion is there to inspire. “Can you imagine what would happen if those two communities came together?” he asked.

The DoSER program, established in 1995, promotes communication between the scientific and religious communities for the benefit of both science and society as part of the association’s public engagement activities. The program is funded by grants from the John Templeton Foundation and Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. NASA astrophysicist Jennifer Wiseman joined AAAS as the director of DoSER this spring.

Jennifer Wiseman
Jennifer Wiseman

Scientific dialogue often involves “a public that in some sense is motivated with religious and ethical values in mind and that wants to know how developments in science and technology fit in to these larger frameworks,” said Wiseman, who also leads the Laboratory for Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“We have interesting science. We have interesting questions about the ethics of science and the use of technology. And we have interesting questions about how these things fit into our other value systems that we as a society have,” Wiseman said.

In his introductory remarks at the event, AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner emphasized that scientific contributions made for the improvement of society can only work if society itself is receptive to scientific contributions, and that requires “a genuine dialogue and exchange of views.”

“Everything we do at AAAS is at the intersection of science and society,” said Leshner, who is also publisher of the journal Science. “The scientific community has much to learn from the rest of society.”

In a 15 June entry on the Huffington Post, Leshner discussed the importance of a civil discourse between scientific and religious communities. “Increased civil dialogue between scientists and religious leaders suggests a path toward common ground, whether the topic is human origins or climate change,” Leshner wrote.

DoSER’s activities include workshops, public lectures, and conferences and publications, such as The Evolution Dialogues: Science, Christianity, and the Quest for Understanding and Exploring the Origin, Extent, and Future of Life: Philosophical, Ethical and Theological Perspectives.

Wiseman told the AAAS audience about her experiences describing her studies on the formation of stars and planetary systems with the general public. She said people are fascinated by the science and often ask her about the broader implications: “What does it mean that stars are still forming? What does it mean that we have a universe that’s still active? Could there be life elsewhere? What is the fate of the universe? What do scientists believe? Do scientists believe in God?”

It’s not just astronomy that captures the public interest, Wiseman said. Data from other fields—such as neuroscience, genetic mapping and cell biology—are prompting people to discuss how the scientific findings fit with or inform their world views, including their religious views. Wiseman said that she believes “that science is a marvelous tool for studying nature, but it doesn’t address all of the questions that religion seeks to address.”

Astrophysicist Howard Smith told the AAAS audience, “I am religious not because I am in ignorance, but because I am in awe.” Smith is a senior astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Smith is also an observant Jew. More than 70% of Americans consider themselves religious, he said. In his book, Let There Be Light, Smith describes how studies of the universe as a whole—a branch of astronomy known as cosmology—complement the Jewish teachings of Kabbalah. Each of them reflects ethics, free will, and the holiness of life, he said.

“I hope my ideas are always in process, even if they change and aren’t always final or absolute,” Smith said. “It’s uplifting to be a seeker. Religion and science are fundamental aspects of a search for meaning.”

William Phillips
William Phillips

Physicist William Phillips—a 1997 Nobel laureate in physics—grew up in a family that attended Sunday school and said grace at meals and prayers at bedtime. He said it’s a “big misconception” that scientists cannot be people of serious religious faith. “There are plenty of scientists who are serious about their science and serious about their faith,” said Phillips, a Methodist and a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Phillips is also a physics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Phillips expressed concern that the science and religion discussion has become less civil in recent times. “I would hope that an outcome of the re-invigorated DoSER program will be more civil discourse,” he said. The media, too, can help by discussing the similarities in science and religion rather than focusing on the animosities, he noted.

Richard Potts, curator of the Hall of Human Origins at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., discussed reactions to the museum’s new “Human Origins” exhibit. The exhibit explores human evolution and the question, “What does it mean to be human?” It is intended to make the science approachable and meaningful and to encourage conversation with the public, he said.

Richard Potts
Richard Potts

Potts, a paleoanthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, said that the exhibit does not present a science versus religion conflict for many people who visit the museum.

In contrast, many public surveys emphasize conflict between religion and science, he said, perhaps because of the wording of the polling questions. Many of the polling questions situate “aspects of science in a framework of belief,” Potts said. The questions force people to make a choice between religion and science.

“What we’ve found is the general public who go onto our Web site or come to our exhibition wish for a more nuanced approach such that they can be excited about the discoveries of science while enabling themselves to enrich their religious understandings of the world,” Potts said.

Teachers and school groups who come from conservative Christian schools where evolution is not taught are among the visitors to the “Human Origins” exhibit who wish for a more nuanced approach to science and religion, he said.

But what about people who believe that science and religion will always be in opposition? When asked this question by an audience member, Phillips said that some people who fall into that category—including some of those called “New Atheists”—have made science and religion discourse less civil.

He said that one aspect of the movement that “bothers” him is that New Atheists often “present a cartoon version of what a person of faith is.” But that version is rarely applicable, said Phillips. A better way of promoting a civil and constructive conversation between scientific and religious communities is by “making it clear that there are plenty of us who don’t fit into that mold,” he said of people of faith.

The AAAS event focused on positive ideas for interaction and cooperation. Panelists offered several practical suggestions, including a plea to discourage the stereotypes that all scientists are not religious and that religious people are ignorant of science. Phillips said that he “couldn’t walk across the floor of his church without bumping into several other scientists!”

“Scientists—religious and non-religious—continually work together on scientific collaborations, enjoying cooperation and a common goal,” Wiseman said. Ending the perpetuation of the false model of inherent “conflict” between science and religious faith would be a great help in fostering positive interaction and understanding, even while challenging questions remain, she said.

Panelists also recommended greater cooperation between religious and scientific communities on societal problems affecting everyone, such as climate change and the development of technology to alleviate poverty. And, panelists said that the “e” for ethics in DoSER’s name could be a place where the two communities can join to work toward a common goal.

“You don’t have to be a religious person to be an ethical person,” Wiseman said. Ethics, the love of discovery, and the desire to address societal problems can be “the glue that brings scientists of many different religious or non-religious perspectives into productive dialogue with religious communities, with something to work on together.”


Watch a video of the 16 June DoSER event

Learn more about AAAS’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion

Watch a video of DoSER Director Jennifer Wiseman talking about her background and her hopes for the AAAS program