Common ground

Common ground

A conference tries to find consensus between faith and science  

By Christina Schweighofer 05/23/2013

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J ennifer Wiseman, senior project scientist for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, speaks at least two languages fluently — faith and science. During a recent lecture in Pasadena, the astronomer projected images of stars and galaxies onto a screen: milky twirls and white spirals, dots in red, yellow and blue, all before a night sky background. Alternating the pictures with slides showing quotes from the Bible’s Psalms — “The heavens declare the glory of God” — the astronomer wondered how faith and science might talk to one another. She made it clear that, for her, they can.

Wiseman’s presentation opened a recent conference at Fuller Seminary titled “Talk of God, Talk of Science” in which evangelical theologians and scientists pushed for a dialogue between religion and science. Other lecturers included historian Ronald Numbers, physicist Karl Giberson and Philip Clayton from the Claremont School of Theology. Their audience: 175 evangelical seminarians, preachers and scientists, most of them white, with men outnumbering women by a factor of about 5 to 1.

Fuller has a tradition of encouraging communication between fundamentalists who take the Bible literally and more science-oriented evangelicals, but recent developments make the effort urgent. The anti-science image of the evangelical churches with their widespread creationist beliefs is costing these institutions followers. Statistics show that the number of American “nones,” or people without any religious affiliation, is growing. Young people in particular are saying no to religion, because, among other reasons, they perceive churches as anti-science.

A passionate astronomer and a firm believer, NASA’s Wiseman did her best to translate between the realms of science and religion. Using the verbs “infer” and “glean” repeatedly, she described how her scientific knowledge in combination with her faith has led her to draw conclusions: The universe is beautiful, ergo God must love beauty; the universe is enormous in space and time, hence God must view time differently than we do; perfect physical laws underlie the universe, therefore a purpose must exist.

Theists followed Wiseman easily as she spoke in two languages. One of the few female and Asian audience members at the conference, Lang Shen, a Fuller student from China, told the Pasadena Weekly on the last day of the event that it had taught her “how important the work of scientists is.” Shen became a believer after moving to the US from Jiangsu Province to attend college. She plans to work as a journalist for a Christian broadcasting company. Explaining that her boyfriend is a scientist, the young woman said that she had often doubted how he and she could pursue their mission in life together but that she is hopeful now.

“My mind and eyes are open to see the beauty of science and religion working together,” she said.

The conference was intended to address what might be called an internal conflict within the evangelical community and, at least in the case of Shen, the lectures, seminars and panel discussions fell on receptive ears. They persuaded the young woman that a dialogue between science and religion is possible. But what about those who do not believe God exists in the first place?

Michael Shermer, publisher of Altadena-based Skeptic Magazine, told the Weekly that a dialogue between the two realms exists — he also used the word “debate” — but that science would have the final say.

“From the Middle Ages to now the frontiers between science and religion keep getting pushed back,” Shermer said. “Believers keep finding new areas that science has yet to explain. You don’t need God to explain the origins of the universe anymore. Two decades ago, it was a grand mystery. Now we are getting close to having some pretty good answers to those questions. The problem of hooking your faith to science and saying my faith is informed by science is — well, what are you going to do when [science] comes up with a coherent theory for the origins of whatever it is you’re claiming to still need God for?”

Shermer, who is agnostic and did not attend the conference, noted that while many people are believers and scientists, “that doesn’t mean [faith and science] are logically coherent or consistent.”

Shermer, who as a young man temporarily identified as a born-again Christian, added that religion has very little to say about empirical questions about the world “because it lacks a method for trying to understand the world,” he said. “The scientific method is the best tool we have.”

One of the speakers at the conference, Ronald Numbers, a historian of science, reminded the audience that the rules for doing science are under attack because of the rise of the intelligent design movement since the 1990s. The No. 1 rule for science since the 19th century has been “No appeals to God or Satan.” To be labeled as scientific, interpretations of facts must be testable via observation and experimentation. Supernatural explanations of phenomena are not scientific.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has never been challenged in a scientific way, and more than one US court has ruled that intelligent design and creationism are religious doctrines, not scientific theories. Fifty-five percent of American evangelicals still believe that humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, but younger people are more likely than their elders to embrace evolution.

The Barna Group, an evangelical polling firm in Ventura, has found that three out of 10 young Christians feel churches are “out of step with the scientific world we live in.” Almost one in four young Christians has been turned off by the creation versus evolution debate. Young adults interested in careers in the fields of engineering, medicine, science and mathematics — 50 percent of teenagers — often walk away from religion because they cannot see how the Bible relates to their life’s calling.

 At “Talk of God, Talk of Science,” more than one speaker encouraged evangelicals to take this trend seriously. Said Philip Clayton, dean of the Claremont School of Theology, “The church is in a fight for its life. We are losing the battle. The kids are not coming back.”

Physicist and writer Karl Giberson said that he is increasingly struck by how alienated college freshmen, with their passion for social justice, intellectual integrity and humility, feel when their churches call them to reject science and to be arrogant in their theology. “We are letting those young people down,” Giberson warned. “They can’t find a home and walk quietly out the back door.”

By the end of the conference, the push for a dialogue with science had become a call to engage young people.

“The attention is often given to the older people who yield the financial power and positions of authority, but the sort of powerless voices of the younger people deserve to be heard,” Giberson said.

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