Untangling the Religion-Science Debate

News from the front: The war between science and religion has been greatly exaggerated. PBS's new documentary on the age-old debate, "Faith and Reason" (Sept. 11, 10-11 p.m.), demonstrates that much of the controversy has been misrepresented. The program outlines the science-religion dialogue with quiet authority, though the filmmaking itself is somewhat spare - no doubt suffering from small-budget syndrome.

The documentary's writer and host is Australian-born Margaret Wertheim, a science writer long interested in the intersection between science and culture. "A major impetus in the making of this film was to show people that the idea that science and religion have been enemies through a long history simply isn't true," Ms. Wertheim said in a recent interview. On the contrary, they have been intertwined, she says.

Historically, the program says, religion has not been as hostile to science as many people believe (at least not until the end of the 19th century when Charles Darwin wrote "The Origin of Species"), nor is science necessarily hostile to religious faith.

In fact, 12 centers for the study of religion and science have grown up around the world in the past few years to facilitate the growing dialogue between scientists and theologians.

"The second thing I wanted to do in the film was to show people that today there are religious believers who are pro-science - that one can be a first-rate scientist and still be a person of faith."

On the other hand, she adds that in the ongoing debate between religion and science, there are fundamentalists on both sides who are equally passionate in their denunciation of the other.

One of the scientists who speaks his mind is evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who is included in the program as a dissenting voice. He remarks that he can't understand why eminent scientists waste their time pursuing something (religion) he believes has never added to the human storehouse of wisdom.

But several of the scientists are Protestant or Roman Catholic pastors, among them: physicist Robert Russell, director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, Calif.; evolutionary biologist Arthur Peacocke, Anglican minister; and astronomer George Coyne, Catholic priest and director of the Vatican Observatory. These men say that their pursuit of science and their faith are inextricably bound together.

"If people had to choose between spirituality and science, I think in the long run science would lose," says Wertheim. "Look at what is happening in the Western world: There has been an explosion of bestsellers [on religious themes], and people are desperate for some sense of the spiritual in their lives."

Wertheim opens with a coherent history of Christianity's long-term relationship to science and clarifies certain inaccuracies in popular belief. For example, the program sets forth that Galileo was not threatened with death by the Inquisition.

The program is then divided into sections: evolution, genetics, cosmology, technology, and the future. In each section Wertheim lays out some of the ethical issues these subjects have raised and outlines where religion and science might clash. But she also wants people of faith to understand that they should be involved in the ethical discussions about these subjects. She also includes scientists who object to human cloning.

"You don't have to feel powerless," she says. "I wanted to show people of faith that they need to be involved in helping to guide technology in good ways. Being ignorant is not the way to go."

* M.S. Mason's e-mail address is: masonm@csps.com

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