DENVER — The recent blockbuster movie "Contact" pictured a passionate scientist who confronted some of the challenges of faith while searching for extraterrestrial life. The film, based on Carl Sagan's novel, can be seen as an attempt to reconcile science and religion.
Efforts at bridging the two disciplines have gotten a boost at colleges across the country as scientists are coming closer to discovering the origins of the universe - a province historically belonging to religion.
Professors of science and of religion have begun designing courses to open up a dialogue that few institutions would have encouraged just a few years ago. They are teaming up or venturing alone (albeit gingerly) into each other's territories.
"We are moving to a place where we don't have to see science and religion in conflict," says Robert Cave, a chemist who teaches a combined course at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif.
Professors give various reasons for this adventurous curriculum development.
* Americans live increasingly fragmented lives, and many religious and scientific thinkers see a need to integrate the values and insights by which they live.
* While living in an age of science, most Americans still believe in God.
* And, certainly not least, the John Templeton Foundation has, since 1995, been giving grants to encourage scholars around the world to open a discourse between religion and science. One hundred $10,000 grants are awarded annually for the best course proposals on science and religion.
Several of the courses at American schools are being taught by professors who have received Templeton awards, although many winners have actually been teaching science and religion for years.
The teachers' goals differ, and the courses cover various aspects of the interaction between religion and science.
At Harvey Mudd, for example, Dr. Cave team-teaches "Science and Religion in the Western Tradition" with Richard Olsen of the Humanities Department. Joel Primack, a cosmologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, teaches "The Spiritual Role of Cosmologies in Various Cultures" with his wife, Nancy Abrams, an anthropologist.
Donald Lopez, a professor of Asian languages, will teach "Buddhism and Science" in the spring at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. And William Dean teaches "Science, Religion, and American Culture" at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
Hubble telescope's influence
Dr. Primack attributes the current popularity of these courses to the heavy coverage of the Hubble space telescope and to television series such as "Stephen Hawkings Universe" and "The Astronomers," which have sparked the public's interest in cosmology. The study of the origins of the universe inevitably leads to questions of faith.
"People realize we are closing in on how the universe got started," he says. "That is how it looks to me as a professional cosmologist."
Primack and Dr. Abrams teach their students, few of whom are science majors, not only what science says about the origins of the universe but what various cultures and religions teach about it. They include the version set forth in Genesis.
"We've always had more students than we had room for," says Primack, who has been teaching the course for five years. He notes that each year he's been given a bigger classroom and has still had to turn many students away.
Primack is himself a man of faith. Having been raised in the Jewish tradition and believing there is one God, he is always looking for the unifying principle of the universe.
"I've always thought of religion and science as compatible and even necessary for each other ever since I was a child," he says.
Even his Bar Mitzvah speech was on religion and science. "I had read Einstein's book 'Out of My Later Years,' and in his essay on science and religion he says, 'Religion without science is blind, and science without religion is lame.' Einstein also said that he never met a true scientist who wasn't religious - who doesn't have a deep sense of the mystery of the universe, and who doesn't feel awe before the universe."
Throughout history, science has been a religious phenomenon, Primack says. It was pursued as a calling, it was the work of people who were trained in religion. Science came into conflict with religion when certain scientists (like Galileo) challenged the Ptolemaic version of the universe on which the medieval church had built so much of its doctrine: the earth at the center of the universe, around which revolve the sun and planets.
"In the modern world, all the liberal Christian churches have emphasized that there is no conflict between religion and science," says Primack. "And many have embraced science." In the last five years, Primack has been increasingly invited to speak to religious groups, and for the past 15 years has been deeply involved with the Bi-National Science Foundation in Israel.
Cave, who is himself a Presbyterian, notes: "There may be some more openness on the part of scientists to religious ideas. And I think the past tension between science and religion has helped revise some religious ideas - some of those beliefs we used to hold so strongly, maybe aren't the essential elements of faith.
"A modest example is a literal interpretation of Genesis 2 [the story of Adam and Eve]. A lot of Christians have come to believe that a literal interpretation wasn't necessarily the essence of that document, and there's no reason not to see it in harmony with a more modern explanation of the origin of the universe."
Cave points out that at other schools, many students who come from a religious orientation may see science as a challenge to faith. But at Harvey Mudd, all the students are scientists and engineers. "We need to help them see that other thought forms, other ways of knowing can be valid and can make important comments on other aspects of life," he says.
Yet only a few science students are willing to take the class. There is still widespread indifference toward or outright prejudice against organized religion among many science students, who may identify all Christians with the fundamentalists' denial of Darwinian evolution, he says.
Prejudice against religion persists
For many, science really substitutes for religion. "And it's just as intolerant," says Cave. "They are young and pumped up, at the very beginning of their careers, and they don't see their intolerance. It's one of the things we work on. But students do wrestle with [these questions]. And it's important to them to know that there are faculty members with religious faith."
He adds that there is no statistical difference between the number of scientists who believe in God now and those who believed in the early 1900s. The percentage has hovered between 39 and 41 percent.
"Every inquiry makes assumptions about the nature of the world," says Professor Dean of the Iliff School of Theology. "Perhaps the two most powerful forces in the contemporary world are science and religion.... These [two disciplines] are in one sense world views. The best reason for these courses is to ask if these two worlds are mutually consistent - very often, these two are roped off from each other in a classic dualism.... The world view of each is at risk. But if the dialogue is serious, you've got to be able to give and to learn from either side."
Robert Herrmann, a biochemist at Gordon University, heads the Religion and Science project of the Templeton Foundation. He says that there has been an increase in the number of these courses since the Templeton Foundation entered the arena.
One of the things the foundation is trying to achieve is the creation of a network among the professors who teach these courses.
When nonscience teachers head a course, he says, "We do argue that people should know some philosophy and history of science, and we are probably less sophisticated about how they handle their theology - we don't tell them what theology they should emphasize."
CHRISTIAN BELIEF IN A POSTMODERN WORLD: THE WEALTH OF ONVICTION
By Allen Diogenes
Westminister/John Knox, 1989
RELIGION IN AN AGE OF SCIENCE
By Ian Barbour
Harper Collins College Div., 1990
SCIENCE AND RELIGION: SOME HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES
By John H. Brooke
Cambridge University Press, 1991
GOD AND THE NEW PHYSICS
By Paul Davies
Simon & Schuster, 1983
THE MIND OF GOD: THE SCIENTIFIC BASIS FOR A RATIONAL WORLD
By Paul Davies, Simon & Schuster Touchstone, 1992
THE PROMISE OF NATURE, ECOLOGY, AND COSMIC PURPOSE
By John F. Haught
Paulist Press, 1993
THE HUMAN FACTOR: EVOLUTION, CULTURE AND RELIGION
By Philip Hefner
Fortress Press, 1993
THE FAITH OF A PHYSICIST: REFLECTIONS OF A BOTTOM-UP THINKER
By John Polkinghorne
Princeton University Press, 1994
Source: John Templeton Foundation