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Discussion Guide Aids Science/Religion Dialogue in Atlanta

Atlanta workshop participants grapple with scientific issues of common interest and concern | AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

If news headlines are any indication, relations between scientists and religious people are chilly at best and have little hope of warming. What can be done? Investigating perceptions to build understanding between scientific and evangelical Christian communities is a primary goal of DoSER’s Perceptions Project. As follow-up to a major nationwide survey on attitudes and perceptions of religious communities toward science (and of scientists toward them), the project has invited scientists and religious leaders together this year for face-to-face conversation in three key locations, most recently in Atlanta, Georgia, September 16-17. 

A key vehicle for workshop dialogue is a focus-group tested discussion guide that was created in collaboration with project partner Public Agenda, specialists in communication. The Choicework Discussion Starter for this project proposes three alternative discussion models for improving relations between these communities:

  • We can best improve relations by uncovering and affirming the shared values that guide individuals from both communities in their day-to-day lives.
  • We can best improve relations by actually working together on our common concerns
  • We can best improve relations by simplifying them so that the two communities can remain civil while each pursues its own ends.

The discussion starter "creates a level playing field for diverse participants by providing neutral background information about an issue; helps participants move past unproductive false dichotomies and encourage creative thinking by framing issues with three, rather than two, approaches to addressing a problem; and, makes areas of common ground and disagreement explicit by encouraging participants to select an approach that comes closest to their own perspective and allow everyone to articulate their perspective," said Isaac Rowlett, senior public engagement associate at Public Agenda. 

Jennifer Wiseman, DoSER, and Ravi Jayakaran, MAP International, demonstrate water filtration technique | AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

With the Ebola crisis raging, the Atlanta workshop included a timely focus on global health. Because Christian relief agencies have been at the forefront of the news about the crisis, participants could clearly acknowledge shared values and the benefits of working together on common causes. A presentation by Dr. Ravi Jayakaran, Vice President of the Christian health organization MAP International, highlighted this kind of collaboration. Jayakaran included a demonstration of a simple water filter developed with technology that can be easily shared with communities in need through the embedded missions of relief agencies.

However, other topics—human origins, evolution, stem cell research, and human sexuality—were identified as areas around which it will be more difficult to find agreement. Workshop participants haven’t always appreciated the three Choicework categories, but the discussion guide has helped frame discussion and has kept it from being derailed by these and other contentious issues. 

When talking about ways to minimize unnecessary conflict and improve relations between scientists and evangelicals (labels that overlap for more people than is commonly assumed), participants were asked to consider what the potential benefits are to each approach, what might work best for their particular communities, and what other approaches they might suggest. 

With the first option, common values such as service, compassion, and perseverance were discussed. With the second, avenues of possible collaboration—health, education, poverty, environmental stewardship, human rights—were outlined. The third category, summarized as “separate but civil,” seemed to appeal most when it came to areas of stalemated disagreement. 

Nonetheless, as with the two previous workshops –in Pasadena, California, and Golden, Colorado—participants said spending extended time together helped dismantle the stereotypes and prejudices they sometimes held toward the other group. But with Atlanta's high concentration of evangelicals who have considerable hesitation about certain kinds of science, conversations there included a higher level of conflict than in other regions of the country. 

One evangelical leader described the discussions as “highly polarized but genuine.” 

“[Scientists] exist in a foreign world to mine. They are as passionate about their beliefs as I am about mine. They are not intellectually superior, but just schooled in different areas. To some degree and to various degrees in different people, they are insulated and out of touch with the real world. In their areas of passion, they are not willing to openly consider opposing or even alternate views, but become very defensive and condescendingly aggressive,” said another.

“This is a challenging area and it will be slow and frustrating to make progress. However, I feel this is a very important area where there needs to be sincere attempts at reconciliation. Scientific issues have become such an important and central part of contemporary society that we need to do more to lessen the estrangement from religious communities. I am under no illusion that this will be easy, and it will at times be unpleasant for both sides,” said a scientist.

Ratcliff Lab scientist at Georgia Tech | AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

Conversation and relationships were enhanced by spending time together on field trips to the Ratcliff Lab and the McDonald Cancer Biology Lab at Georgia Institute of Technology and to a local mega-church. As with previous workshops, some evangelical leaders said this was their first up-close look at a working science lab. Likewise, several scientists said they had never been inside an evangelical mega-church.

“It is always helpful to humanize our discourse rather than follow the overwhelming tendency to dehumanize discussion,” said an evangelical leader.

“I think we all went away from the meeting with good feelings about each other. Face-to-face conversation with those who have beliefs that differ from our own has become increasingly rare in today's world. At least within this venue, I think it had some beneficial effect in reducing tensions but, beyond that, I am unsure,” said a scientist.

After a day-and-a-half of dialogue, some of the most strident participants from both communities were making tentative plans to launch a book club to continue wrestling with areas of disagreement. A pastor said he is planning a panel-discussion on science and faith at his church and hopes to include some participants from the Science Perceptions workshop. “We plan to have that be a launching pad for a 3-4 week seminar/discussion in the spring that will be open to the public,” he said.

Highlights and insights learned from these regional workshops will be presented as part of a national conference for scientists and religious leaders on March 13, 2015, in Washington DC.