Working to reconcile science, religion

The Boston Globe, Feb. 8, 2003
By Rich Barlow

Godless atheists versus rubes in the pews: These are the stereotypes some religious believers and scientists harbor of each other. Karl Giberson’s creed, paraphrasing Rodgers and Hammerstein, is that the scientist and the cleric should be friends. A physicist and believer (Church of the Nazarene), Giberson edits Research News & Opportunities in Science and Theology, a monthly journal with offices in Quincy. Funded by the Templeton Foundation, and with 7,000 subscribers in several countries, the paper attempts something it says was first tried by St. Thomas Aquinas: reconciling religious doctrine with scientific knowledge.

Science values empiricism; religion values faith. Why should the two have any reconciliation?

The Enlightenment made a lot of promises that science was going to solve all of our problems. A combination of things in the 20th century — world wars, the emergence of evolution — raised questions about the ability of science to address the questions of human meaning. There’s a sense that science did not deliver on its promise. You have a scientifically informed search for meaning that’s occurring within religion now.

Can you cite benefits that have resulted from this collaboration?

The features of our universe that make life possible are surprisingly well-configured. Cosmologists like to imagine different universes where gravity might be weaker or stronger, the charge on the electron might be higher or lower, and so on. If you do that, those tiny changes lead to dramatic differences in the kind of universe you have. One explanation is that there’s a rational mind behind it, not necessarily any specific deity but a rational, hidden substructure to the universe. Another example would be the growing awareness that our genes influence our personalities. This interacts strongly with the concept of human nature, which figures into religious belief and how religious people should behave. Great religious thinkers like St. Augustine reflected on how deeply rooted his sinful nature was. Science has shed a lot of light on that and said yes, this is in our genes, contrary to the optimistic Enlightenment belief about human nature.Is it true that religious belief prolongs life?

There is no research that shows a particular collection of beliefs makes you live longer, so you can sit in a treehouse and recite the Rosary and you’ll live to be very old. But there is evidence that membership in a religious community is correlated with longevity, and there are social-science reasons why that would be the case — you have friends, the motivation to get out, a tremendous support structure, also the sense of optimism. The world is not as filled with despair for believers. Also correlated, religious people don’t abuse alcohol as much, they’re less likely to smoke.

One or more denominations oppose everything from stem cell research to genetic research. Do religion and science conflict sometimes in their goals?

Science is a broad field with lots of different people, and religion is the same way. Liberal religions are comfortable with science. You also have people trying to protect ancient ways of looking at the world, and they don’t want science to threaten those. The Catholic Church tends to be quite comfortable with evolution and cosmology. However, the Catholic Church takes strong positions on abortion and contraception. There isn’t any monolithic religion and monolithic science.

Are scientists, and the intelligentsia generally, biased against religion?

I think there is a prejudice. I think that’s not hard to understand because of the way extreme elements within religion behave and how they get covered in the media. Everytime somebody does something dramatically stupid, we all know about it. If you take a congregation of conservative people, you might have one guy who chained himself to an abortion clinic. But there might be 10 people that run a soup kitchen. And yet the only picture you get in the media is this guy who chained himself to the door . . . and the soup kitchen meanwhile goes on feeding hungry people.

Are there big stories that are taking up your time?

You and I are fortunate that we live in the Northeast. (At) the Nazarene college I teach at, we’re very open that evolution is a true theory, and that’s how we teach it. Our sister schools in more conservative parts of the country — this is a very live issue. The scientific community needs to respond diplomatically, rather than saying, ”There they go again, those morons waving their Bibles.” The second issue is faith-based organizations. There are a lot of serious problems, and one of them is the graying of the population. Parish nursing programs provide care at economical cost. If the government (asked), should we add three more nurses to Mass. General or subsidize parish nursing programs, if they choose the latter, they’ll do a lot more good. Another example is Chuck Colson’s program for prisoners. The probability that (participants) end up back in jail after release is incredibly small. You think, why doesn’t the government just give all the prisons to Chuck Colson? So what if all the prisoners become Christian?

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