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Connecting Scientific and Religious Communities: A DoSER Program Q&A

Jennifer Wiseman and Se Kim

Science doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Research and researchers are connected to society as a whole, and their findings shape how people view the world — and make complex decisions with deep moral and ethical dimensions.

Since 1995, the AAAS program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER) has been exploring those issues alongside members of various faith communities. DoSER connects researchers and rabbis, theologians and theoreticians, pastors and post-docs at multiple levels to promote communication and understanding among groups that are often portrayed as being at odds with one another.

Jennifer Wiseman, an astrophysicist, has led the program since 2010. Se Kim joined the AAAS and DoSER leadership in 2013 after working in epigenetics at Rice University in Houston. Together with DoSER’s dynamic and diversely skilled team, the program enables multiple projects and events that provide invigorating conversation on the broader societal implications of scientific advances. 

Q: DoSER is almost 25 years old. How has it evolved?

Wiseman: For about the last 10 years, the focus of DoSER has been to build science-based interactions with religious leaders and communities that would have the broadest positive impact across grassroots American society. This approach has affected some of the types of programming that we have taken on in recent years.  

One of the most interesting projects we've undertaken in the last few years was called The Perceptions Project. This was an effort to understand the underlying perceptions, right or wrong, that various religious communities have about science and scientists — and likewise the underlying perceptions that scientists have about various religious communities. These perceptions can often shadow the actual discussions about science discoveries and their implications in society. We conducted a national survey of scientists and a large swath of the American public about these perceptions and attitudes, and then we held workshops in several cities across the U.S., where we brought together local religious and science leaders. Participants spent a day-and-a-half having facilitated dialogue to get to know each other’s interests and concerns. The workshops were absolutely fantastic, and we were particularly taken by the enthusiasm both the scientists and religious leaders had for participating.

What we learned was that many of these people from both groups and various regions of the country wanted to get to know each other better, but just had no architecture for doing that. By providing meeting venues, we helped launch long-term relationships and dialogue at the local level, and it was much appreciated.

Another strong effort that we are now undertaking is called Science for Seminaries. This is the result of years of planning and recommendations from AAAS scientists and from the leaders of various religious denominations, who noted that reaching religious leaders with good science during their training would be a great way to eventually open the doors to better science dialogue within religious congregations, which are the primary contexts for contemplating identity and societal values for a large portion of the general public.

Many religious leaders get very little exposure to science during their training. So we began to work with the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), a group that accredits hundreds of Christian seminaries, to help seminary administrators and faculty find practical ways to bring interesting and relevant science – such as genetics, neuroscience, and cosmology – into their courses and educational programs, with AAAS providing science resources and science advisors. We’re now working with dozens of seminaries after a very successful pilot program. We have also done similar work with rabbinic training institutions.

Q: How have technological advances affected the program and what it covers? 

Wiseman: We are finding great interest among the diverse religious communities and ethical societies that we serve in a broad swath of science topics. Many people think that discussions with religious communities focus mainly on topics related to evolution. And indeed, many religious communities are interested in the evolutionary history of life, but we have found that for the most part the religious communities that we communicate with are quite interested in other topics, including genetics and what we’re learning about the genetic and epigenetic characteristics of human beings. They’re interested in the brain and recent advances in neuroscience and how that can impact human behavior and our choice-making abilities.

They're interested in ecology and environmental stewardship, and very much want to know what we’re learning about the environment and climate in particular, so that they can be more effective at serving communities around the world. Also, astronomy and cosmology are always topics of great interest and delight as people enjoy contemplating the beauty and dynamics of the universe. But they’re also intrigued by the idea that we are finding planets outside our solar system and even looking for life beyond Earth, and this has a lot of interesting philosophical implications for what it means for the significance of human life. All of these topics and more are of great interest to religious communities (which, by the way, often have scientists in their midst).

We also sponsor a popular series of public lectures and symposia that span topics from neuroscience to ecology to space exploration, bringing perspectives of scientists, ethicists, theologians, and science communicators together for rich dialogue on the broader implications of fascinating science. 

Q: What drew you toward this program?

Wiseman: I found that as I would speak to various public groups about what we’re discovering in astronomy, there was great interest in appreciating these discoveries and wanting to understand more. That is true for all kinds of public groups, but also includes religious communities who are particularly interested in “big picture” questions. Science feeds into those “big picture” contemplations, through many lenses, of what it means to be human. I've been very pleased to see how much passionate interest there is in these very diverse communities about what we're discovering in science, and their desire for positive conversations about the implications of that science and how it can be used for good.

Kim: I always knew that my skill set was in administration and public engagement. I wanted to make a broader impact for advancing science beyond the bench through engagement. AAAS is a longstanding, well-recognized science advocacy organization, and it was a real joy as a scientist to land here.

Q: What project do you think has had the most impact, or maybe sparks the most dialogue?  

Kim: Since I've been here, we administered the Perceptions Project, which Dr. Wiseman mentioned. I found that to be really powerful in opening up conversations, particularly when we brought together scientists with more conservative religious leaders. Some of the religious leaders had never visited a lab, and so it was really exciting for the scientists to open up their labs and offer these faith leaders an opportunity to see how science actually works. Likewise, scientists were appreciative of the chance to meet and get to know religious leaders in their own localities, hearing their values, interests, and concerns in a personal way.

As Dr. Wiseman also mentioned, the Science for Seminaries project integrates science into theological education with the understanding that people in faith communities often go to their religious leaders when they have questions about science. The small seed grants that AAAS offers to seminaries interested in integrating science allow them to be very proactive and to creatively incorporate diverse science topics into their courses and into broader campus or public events like science-themed book readings, speakers, lecture series, or fireside chats.

DoSER also supports scientists through the “Engaging Scientists in the Science and Religion Dialogue” project. This project is a result of the scientific community reaching out to DoSER about ways to communicate science and engage religious students and audiences on important issues in science. In collaboration with the AAAS Center for Public Engagement, DoSER has been hosting science communication workshops at meetings of professional scientific societies including the American Astronomical Society, American Geophysical Union, Society for Neuroscience, American Association for Physical Anthropology, and most recently the American Society for Human Genetics. DoSER is now taking these workshops to selected research university campuses that proposed to host them. The goal is to provide helpful guidance, resources, and tools to support scientists in their engagement with diverse audiences, including a new science communication booklet, which is available for download at no cost.

Q: There's been a lot more activism and a lot more outspokenness about the importance of science in recent years, but some of it may come off as abrasive. How has that played with the religious communities that DoSER engages?

Wiseman: People, including various religious groups, realize that science and technology affect every part of modern life, whether that's health care, agriculture, communications, education, or the environment. In that sense, science is definitely seen as not only relevant but critically important for the wellbeing of people around the world — and for religious communities, for the effectiveness of their ministries to serve people around the world. We also were pleased that many religious groups actually chose to be involved in things like the March for Science and were a visible presence in those marches. Many of these communities are interested in keeping science as an informed and positive component of their activities. 

What may be the biggest misperceptions that people who take part in these programs have going in?

Kim: Studies show that a large percentage of American society and particularly global society is religious or identifies as religiously affiliated. What helps a lot of us as scientists is seeing that religious communities are genuinely interested in science and recognize the value that science brings. It’s very encouraging to know that diverse publics can be beneficial partners in advancing science and science policy.

It also encourages religious communities to know that scientists are service oriented. One of the things that we learned from the Perceptions Project is that scientists are always willing to talk about what they’re working on, and they’re excited to share their research. They care about how that science is applied and how it is contributing to society. We found enthusiasm among religious communities to hear from scientists of all stripes about their research, and likewise an interest from scientists to engage with religious communities about interesting advances in science and technology, and how such resulting knowledge, relationships, and partnerships can foster greater service to the world.

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