Scientists Get Religion

June 17, 2010

WASHINGTON – Jennifer Wiseman is an astrophysicist and a Christian. Both of those elements will come into play in her new role with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where she aims to civilize the sometimes-divisive discourse between the broader scientific and religious communities.

Wednesday, AAAS played host to a discussion to introduce Wiseman as the new director of the association’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER), a program whose goal is to facilitate communication among communities that are sometimes depicted as disparate and often at odds with one another. Wiseman, head of NASA’s Laboratory for Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics at the Goddard Space Flight Center, has written and lectured about getting young Christians involved with science.

Speaking to a crowd of scientists, she said that the disciplines of science and religion have a lot to learn from one another.

“I sense a real interest in religious communities to hear about science, participate in the excitement of discovery, and integrate the study of nature into a sense of awe and stewardship,” Wiseman said. “Scientists and religious leaders in dialogue can play major positive roles in forging constructive public understanding.”

This discussion, she continued, is especially important in today’s world, where science and religion intersect on a daily basis. Some of the new topics in the science-religion dialogue she identified include the intelligent design movement, best-selling books by scientists taking on religion – or vice versa – and cooperative efforts between the two groups, focusing on issues like climate change and stem cell research.

Wiseman said it is incumbent on members of the scientific community to reach out to “the people who reach people,” or religious leaders. In this way, she said, scientists can help religious communities become more comfortable with science, and get scientists more comfortable with talking to religious communities about their work. For example, she noted that DoSER might work with religious leaders to bring more science into seminary education.

Facilitating such a conversation, however, is no easy task. Some of the scientists on hand to welcome Wiseman as head of the program noted that misconceptions about their general faith, or lack thereof, often go unchallenged. The stereotype that all scientists are atheists, they argue, hinders dialogue.

“There are plenty of scientists who have no problem being serious about their science and serious about their religion,” said William Phillips, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at the University of Maryland’s Joint Quantum Institute, and an active member of the United Methodist Church. “If DoSER can get that message out, then that’s a good start.”

This issue took center stage last year when Francis S. Collins was named the new head of the National Institutes of Health. Some in the scientific community took issue with Collins’s open profession of his faith and belief in God.

Phillips described this as little more than name-calling, noting his disgust that some of his fellow scientists would consider someone unfit to lead an organization like the NIH purely because of his or her belief in God. He countered that those who protested Collins’s appointment “obviously” had not met him or did not know his work.

“I would hope that one of the outcomes of a reinvigorated DoSER program is an environment in which a more civil discourse prevails,” Phillips said, before admitting that he thought “even this was a tall order.”

Other scientists on hand for Wiseman’s introduction took aim at “new atheism” – a more provocative brand of non-belief that takes aim at religious beliefs and whose rise is often associated with the works of scientists like Richard Dawkins and thinkers like Christopher Hitchens. They argued that these individuals make civil discourse between science and religion nearly impossible.

Howard Smith, senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a self-described observant Jew, defended the compatibility of his faith and scientific inquiry against attacks from “new atheists.”

“I strongly object to the notion that I need to compartmentalize my life," he said. “I do not have the absolute answers to science or religion.… I’m not religious because I’m ignorant. I’m religious because I’m in awe.”

In keeping with Wiseman’s message of being open with religious leaders, she invited one along to participate in the discussion.

David Anderson, pastor of Bridgeway Community Church, in Columbia, Md., told the roomful of scientists, that “comprehension begins with conversation.” Anderson, who also anchors a popular daily talk show on a local Christian radio station, said that “it is hard to demonize one another,” as scientists and religious leaders, when they come together for face-to-face dialogue.

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