Workshops Bring Together Scientists With Mainline Protestant and Catholic Leaders

Senior Program Associate Paul Arveson leading discussion at Science and Catholicism workshop | AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

It should come as no surprise that the interests and concerns of Mainline Protestants and Catholics in regard to science are as diverse as the groups themselves. Consistent with DoSER's findings in a series of workshops that brought scientists together with Evangelical Christian and Jewish leaders, meetings with these groups demonstrated that each community’s interests are informed by its unique worldview and engagement with sacred text and tradition.

Held at AAAS headquarters in Washington, DC, a January meeting with Mainline Protestant leaders and a February meeting with Catholic leaders included dynamic conversations designed to help AAAS envision and plan future engagement with these communities. The format also provided participants with opportunities for self-assessment about their denominations' engagement with science.

After brief introductory talks from Larry Golemon, Executive Director of the Washington Theological Consortium at the Mainline Protestant workshop and Fr. John Crossin, Executive Director of the Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, at the Catholic workshop, DoSER Senior Program Associate Paul Arveson led attendees through exercises that explored strengths, weaknesses, challenges, and opportunities for science engagement within their communities.

A Mainline Protestant participant said, “When I talk to our members about religion and science, their response is a jaded one. … ‘We know that evolution is compatible with scripture.’ In other words, they only see the important issue as differentiating themselves from the ‘evangelical view.’ Us and them. A good follow-up question for those members might be to ask if they have integrated the two (religion and science) in their own minds.”

“Finding a way to build up fellowship and confidence among Catholics working in the academic sciences is a useful and maybe even necessary precursor to having them be more active and public about their faith,” said a Catholic participant. “Too often they may feel alone or discouraged about being a believer in the sciences and afraid to speak publicly. Providing places and times to realize they are not alone and to encourage them in their faith and their work as scientists.”

Fruitful small group discussion led into collective conversation about how to improve relations between these religious communities and the broad scientific community. Participant suggestions included encouraging scientists and science organizations to increase their public outreach to religious communities and encouraging religious organizations to improve their engagement with science through denominational educational channels and dialogue with denominational leaders. Additionally, participants at the Mainline Protestant workshop advocated getting a “Mainline view of science and religion” into the media through letters to the editor, op-eds, and relationships with journalists. In this way, they said a broader view of religious attitudes toward science can reach the general public.

“Pastors should be encouraged through their denominational networks to identify the scientists in their congregations—not just the top-level scientists, but congregants in diverse STEM careers that could provide input on a variety of topics of interest—from the environment to use of technology to enhance the quality of life,” said a Mainline Protestant workshop participant.

“Enriching the education of pastors with science is key,” said another.

Along these lines, DoSER launched the Science for Seminaries project in fall 2014 to support 10 pilot seminaries that are incorporating science into their core curricula. Additionally, the Choicework Discussion Starter, “Same World, Different Worldviews,” was developed with Perceptions Project partner Public Agenda to aide productive dialogue about science both within and across communities.

Participants at these two workshops noted the importance of institutional investment in improving understanding between scientists and people of faith.

Catholic participants said working with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is vital, but so is outreach to local priests and lay leaders. “It is key to realize that the bishops are the ‘gatekeepers’ in the Roman Catholic tradition. If you want to affect ‘top-down’ change, you must find a way to engage both individual bishops and the USCCB,” said one participant.

“Communicating with scientific societies that this [kind of dialogue] is important," said a Mainline Protestant leader. "AAAS may have more influence to do that than a Mainline church person trying to do it on their own. AAAS can advocate for the third way voice.”

As the Perception Project winds down, AAAS will utilize the wealth of qualitative and quantitative data it has collective through this exciting three-year project to continue advancing science for the benefit of all people, including the majority of Americans who identify with a religious tradition.