Scientists, Religious Leaders Build Understanding at AAAS Southwest/Rocky Mountain Meeting

TULSA, Oklahoma—When the news media describe the cultural tension between science and religion, they often use the metaphors of war, where two sides are fighting and only one can emerge victorious. But a small group of scientists, religious leaders, and educators who gathered here Saturday afternoon sought to break that template and to find the language of constructive engagement.

Throughout a half-day’s discussion, there was no mistaking that science and religion often have different orientations and speak a different idiom. But at a featured event on the opening day of AAAS Southwestern and Rocky Mountain Division’s annual meeting, participants expressed common interests and a willingness to pursue them.

The symposium was “really important,” said organizer Aaron J. Place, a biologist at Northwestern Oklahoma State University. “We want to bring the dialogue into the public eye and generate discussion—‘Hey, there are scientists talking about religious issues, and they’re not saying bad things, and there are some religious people talking about the importance of science, and they’re saying it works with their religious viewpoints.”

“We believe this kind of dialogue will be good,” agreed Dominic Halsmer, dean of science and engineering at Oral Roberts University, a Christian university in Tulsa. “Both inside the Christian community and outside the Christian community, we’re hoping this kind of thing will bring healing and reconciliation.”

Dominic Halsmer

Dominic Halsmer

The AAAS Southwest and Rocky Mountain Division (SWARM) convened its 86th annual meeting this year at the University of Tulsa. Over the course of five days, from 31 March-4 April, it scheduled 20 symposia, 10 general sessions, two plenary talks, and a poster session with nearly 90 entries. The meeting is being held jointly with the university’s 15th annual Student Research Colloquium and the 10th Annual University of Oklahoma-Tulsa Research Forum.

The meeting’s 2012 theme is “Science & Technology at the Crossroads,” and for many in the region’s science and engineering community, there was a sharp point to the timing.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, based in Washington, D.C., recently gave Oklahoma’s science education standards a failing grade. And as the meeting opened, Oklahoma lawmakers were advancing a plan that would allow state schools to offer teachings that attacked the broad scientific consensus on evolution and climate change; that generated a blitz of opposition from state and national science and education organizations (including AAAS).

The half-day symposium was intriguing precisely because of this tension. But though the group was small, the discussion defied simplification and continually challenged stereotypes: It featured a range of Christian researchers, a conservative Christian who was firmly critical of those who reject science, and a biologist who described himself as a former creationist. One physiology professor and staunch defender of evolution science told the story of a student this semester who carries a 6-foot wooden cross everywhere he goes—and yet, the student’s grades are near the top of the class.

And from all of this diversity came a strong commitment to engagement and dialogue, even when it’s difficult.

Heart of the Bible Belt

Oklahoma is in the heart of America’s Bible Belt, and the evidence suggests that evolution science still has difficulty winning wide public acceptance here.

Aaron J. Place

Matthew Lovern, an associate professor in the Department of Zoology at Oklahoma State University, conducted an informal survey of attitudes on evolution among his students in 2008. Among 134 respondents, over half said that it was incompatible with their religious beliefs or that it wrongly casts humans as descendants of apes.

But the national figures may not be so different. Place, whose scientific research focuses on rattlesnakes, cited a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that found 82% of Americans call religion somewhat or very important in their lives. About 30% believe in the literal truth of the Bible. Lovern cited a 2006 study showing that among 34 North American and European nations, the United States ranks 33rd in its acceptance of human evolution.

And yet, Place said, other polls show strong, enduring respect for scientists and a widespread recognition that science has improved life in medicine and other fields. And one poll, he said, found that 61% of respondents feel no conflict between science and their religious views.

His conclusion: While news reports sell conflict and irreconcilable differences, the truth is that Christians are diverse and open to science, and many scientists are Christians. That represents a clear possibility for improved relations.

Human Evolution: Random or Purposeful?

Despite the optimism that characterized the discussion, creationism and Intelligent Design are a critical point of disagreement between science and some conservative religious groups. The discussion of that topic was mostly indirect at the AAAS symposium, but still, the split was evident.

Intelligent Design can be described as the recent conjecture that biological systems are too complex to be explained naturally, and that the hand of an intelligent designer is clear in nature. Science, and many religious scientists, reject that as a non-scientific premise; they view natural processes, including random genetic mutations, as explaining the “how” of nature. Some religions and religious scientists embrace “theistic evolution” or “evolutionary creation,” in which evolution is a divine process, consistent with a God responsible for the cosmos, even with its seeming flaws and inefficiencies. In that view, religious faith addresses the “why” and “who” questions of meaning and purpose that reach beyond the purview of science.

Doren Recker, director of the philosophy department at Oklahoma State University and an expert in the philosophy of science, said that for some Christians, evolution is a theology-science disagreement that cannot be resolved.

“If you’re talking about teaching science in a public school classroom, I don’t know that they will come to agreement,” he said. But, he added: “This isn’t a fight between science and religion. It’s between science and a particular religious view that all religions do not hold.”

Recker characterized the scientific approach to dispute as settling a bet. “Testing is the key,” he said. If one side can’t prove its assertion—if it can’t win the bet—then “we’re back to value beliefs—and it’s not clear how we settle the bet.”

Halsmer studied aerospace engineering at Purdue University and mechanical engineering at UCLA. He described how God summoned Roberts, a charismatic Christian evangelist, to build a university that would promote healing. Engineers, and increasingly biologists and others, recognize the value of reverse-engineering to understand complex systems, to reveal their deep workings.

From an engineering perspective, Halsmer said, “I can tell you that I am dumbfounded at the fabulous engineering that we see, for example, in human beings. Regardless of how these systems came about, from an engineer’s perspective, I’m very curious to know how you end up with fabulous engineering without an engineer.”

“Either these systems were accidental or they were on purpose. Let me put it that way—aren’t those your only two options, basically?”

And in his view, the empirical methods of science might not be broad enough to explore the deeper issues. “But I feel we have to ask the deeper questions—not only how these systems work, but why they work, and where they come from, and what’s the purpose behind these systems, if such a purpose exists.

“Maybe we don’t have to call it science—that’s fine.”

Stanley Rice

Stanley Rice

Biologist Stanley Rice, the author of “Life of Earth” and several other books, disagreed with Halsmer’s premise. The human design that results from natural selection—from evolution—is full of flaws and inefficiencies, some of them lethal, he said.

“Natural selection itself is a merciless process that seems incompatible with a loving God that rules the universe,” said Rice, a professor at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. “Natural selection, without mercy, kills individuals, mostly fetuses and babies, that have a mutation.”

Wearing a Darwin-esque bowler and burgundy scarf for his presentation, Rice said that in earlier years, when he was a creationist, he justified the pain and misery of disease, disability, or self-destructive impulses as God’s way of challenging humans to better themselves through adversity.

“But many mutations have severe effects that cannot offer an evolutionary benefit under any conceivable set of circumstances,” Rice said. “Proponents of intelligent design insist that the complexity of the human genome and the physical bodies that the genes encode had to be designed by an intelligent creator. What they do not discuss is that a lot of the apparent design in the human genome confers affliction rather than benefit. That is, the intelligent designer, if there is one, has no discernible purpose, and is as likely to afflict as to bless the human race.”

Halsmer welcomed their analysis, saying it is valuable because it requires religious people to think more deeply about their beliefs.

But if there are conflicts that persist for some, what recourse is there? Recker’s answer: “You can believe that supernatural entities exist, and still hold that science must proceed using naturalistic methods. And that’s what many, many scientists who are also religious do.”

Good Fences, Good Neighbors?

But that implies a boundary between science and religion, a border, that all sides must respect. Stephen Jay Gould, the late, eminent biologist and historian, called the two realms “nonoverlapping magisteria.” Recker borrowed a homespun line from poet Robert Frost to describe it: “Good fences make good neighbors.” But he and other participants at the SWARM symposium stressed that it’s natural for neighbors to meet at the fence to chat about the neighborhood and their mutual interests.

Halsmer offered broad evidence that many Christians are more frequently having that discussion within their own schools and congregations.

For example, Baptist-affiliated Samford University in Alabama has just created a new undergraduate major in science and religion.

Ted Metzler

Ted Metzler

Boston University is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, and it has a graduate program in religion, philosophy, and science. Oklahoma City University has the same affiliation, and officials have discussed a similar program, said Ted Metzler, director of the Darrell W. Hughes Program for Religion and Science Dialogue at the university’s Wimberly School of Religion.

Oral Roberts has an active chapter of American Scientific Affiliation, the international network of Christians in the sciences. Many science and engineering faculty guest-lecture in theology classes, he said. And there are hybrid courses such as philosophy of science. Halsmer teaches a class in the history of quantitative thought, “which looks at mathematics and the interesting metaphysical implications of mathematics.”

They’re also taking science into schools and churches. And recently he was involved with a project at a Tulsa church on God’s work and nature.

“We want to maintain a fruitful dialogue with all groups, even those groups that seem to maybe be lagging behind a little bit in some of these areas,” Halsmer explained. “You know, we can be gracious, but at the same time we have to be honest about what the evidence says, and continue with this kind of research we have going on in scientific issues.”

Science Literacy Benefits Everyone

In the secular world, such initiatives might be called public education and engagement, with science literacy as the goal—and on that point, Halsmer’s views appear to overlap with those of scientists like Lovern.

The public school educators at the AAAS symposium said that students usually receive little or no education in evolution before they arrive at college; often, they arrive with half-formed suspicions but little real understanding.

Almost inevitably, then, students will ask professors about evolution—sometimes with hostility, sometimes looking for a professor’s personal views.

“I get a little squeamish when a student asks me, ‘What do you believe?’” Place said. “I can’t really say in class. It doesn’t take much for a student to go back to my dean and say ‘Dr. Place is indoctrinating us’.”

Lovern, in his mammalian physiology class, takes a direct approach, regularly weaving lessons about evolution into his lectures.

He explains the basics of science, physiology, and evolution, and why evolution is relevant to a physiology course. Evolution science uses an evidence-based approach, just like other fields of science. “I really, really hit that science and religion do not necessarily conflict… There doesn’t have to be a conflict—the majority of faiths accept scientific progress, and evolution specifically.”

Over the course of a semester, he’ll regularly loop back to discuss questions about evolution and intelligent design. “There may be an intelligent designer,” he says, “but intelligent design isn’t science. We’re not going to advance by saying, ‘I don’t know how that could’ve been done, it looks too complicated, so therefore [the designer did it].’ That’s a science-killer rather than a science-starter.”

But that may suggest a new set of issues for educators: How do you reach students much earlier, before they get to college? And how do you convey these lessons in an effective way to the students who will become religious leaders?

“Not many of those who will go on to become pastors enroll in these classes,” Metzler said. “It seems to me that if you don’t make the about-to-be-leaders of the religious community aware of this concern, you’re not going to get it passed on.”

Which leads to questions that may be among the most challenging of all: How does the science community communicate with the religious community? How does it build trust?

J.F. Wickey is the pastor of CrossWalk United Church of Christ in Enid, Oklahoma. On Tuesdays he leads discussions with “a bunch of old liberal Christians, who are used to this.” But when dealing with other audiences, it’s more difficult.

“A lot of pastors are afraid to deal with these questions in their congregations because it seems we don’t teach young people critical thinking,” he said. “Critical thinkers ask questions. Science is about asking questions. Theology—good, solid, reflected on—is about asking questions. Faith is about asking questions. But when kids get shot down for asking questions, that’s when they learn to either ignore the faith entirely, because it has made itself irrelevant, or they embrace wholeheartedly a young-earth creationist world-view that is extremely difficult to shake.

“We have an enormous amount of scientific knowledge that has just emerged in the past hundred years. I live in Alva, Oklahoma, and sometimes it’s hard to believe there’s anything more than 50 miles away. But we’re asking people to accept an observable universe of 13.7 billion light years, that’s 14 billion years old, that’s expanding faster and faster because there’s this energy that we can’t see. I’m sorry, cosmology is just crazy.”

Halsmer’s advice: Work directly with churches. Choose pastors and congregations who are open to a dialogue with science. Send experts in a given field, and all the better if they are church members.

“The congregations may be mixed… (and) some may be a waste of time,” he said. “But we have done a couple of two-night science and faith seminars at a local church, and have talked about evidence for an old earth, we’ve talked about the evidence for evolution—and the congregations were largely appreciative.” From there, he added, positive reviews spread to other churches.

Matthew Lovern

Matthew Lovern

Over time, some suggested, it may be valuable to develop liaisons who have knowledge or authority in both science and religion to bring the communities into more constructive engagement. Halsmer also urged both sides to embrace “epistemological humility,” a willingness to ask questions, to listen, and reflect.

Lovern may have an idea of how that would unfold in practice.

“What I’ve found, over the course of the eight years I’ve been teaching this class, is that there are definitely some kids who are unreceptive… and they write angry evaluations. But there are a lot of people who get it and appreciate that ‘I can reconcile my faith, which is very important to me, with the way science works.”

“They are the minority, but they will forever stand out in my mind. It does happen—and it’s very pleasing.”

Links

See the full program for the 86th annual meeting of the AAAS Southwestern and Rocky Mountain Division (SWARM).

Learn more about the SWARM division and the association’s three other regional divisions.

Learn more about AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion.