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Can Science and Religion Get Along?

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Can pastoral warnings of fire and brimstone be redirected toward a heating planet in the interest of preserving God's creation? Or are those who build creation museums hopeless ideologues whose Stone Age ideas should be buried once and for all?

Those were among the topics of discussion at a seminar here yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes ScienceNOW and ScienceInsider). Called "Evangelicals, Science, and Policy: Toward a Constructive Engagement," the symposium was controversial before it even began. In the weeks leading up it, several science bloggers decried AAAS for "pandering to superstition" and "selling out to Christians."

Yet 30% of American voters describe themselves as evangelicals, and the voices of this massive segment deserve to be heard, according to panel speaker James Childress, formerly of President Bill Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission, which informed the president on stem cell research, cloning, and human subjects research. "The fact that an opinion is religiously based is no reason to exclude it from policy discussions," he said, "but neither is it reason to patronize it."

Commenting on the panel and its critics, Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, which has campaigned successfully for the teaching of evolution in schools, objected to the "hijacking" of science for arguments about religion: for or against. "Nobody speaks for capital 'S' science, neither people of faith nor atheists," she said. "Science is religiously neutral. Whether you're religious or not, you use the same method and rationale in the way you do science, and if you don't, then you're stepping outside of science."

Childress argued that science policy discussions could even be bolstered by the inclusion of evangelical voices, and that it is important that evangelicals' ideas be tested and scrutinized by the public rather than just ignored. They've certainly been successful in making their voices heard in recent years—for example, over the question of what to do with the 400,000 frozen human embryos left over from in vitro fertilization with no viable future. Many, though not all, evangelicals fought hard against allowing these embryos to be used for research, slowing advances in the field.

That aside, scientists and evangelicals have managed to find common ground on issues such as climate change, agreeing on the moral imperative to preserve the planet. Panel speakers James McCarthy, a Harvard University professor and former AAAS president, and Richard Cizik, a former evangelical preacher, traveled to Alaska together in 2006 to see firsthand the effects of climate change. Accompanying them was a group of evangelical pastors, many of whom had previously rejected the idea of anthropogenic climate change. But these pastors were moved by the human beings who were losing their homes and livelihood as the seas reclaimed their land. Although some pastors reverted to their earlier climate change denial, Cizik turned his energies toward teaching Christians the truth about what he called the "twin Armageddons" of global warming and nuclear proliferation, ultimately losing his job after 30 years at the National Association of Evangelicals after defending gay rights and promoting climate change activism in an NPR interview in 2008.

A dynamic orator, Cizik said that climate change denialism by evangelicals was a "heresy committed against all of creation, nothing less than a monstrous wrong." He argued that unlike stem cell research, whose detractors' religious motivations are more clear, evangelicals who deny climate change are being deliberately misled by the religious right juggernaut. This political machine, he said, fears that once young evangelicals realize they have things in common with liberal academics, it will lose this voting bloc.

Creationism and climate change may have dominated religion-science feuds in the past, but neuroscience will be the great debate of the future, according to William Newsome, a neuroscientist and National Academy of Sciences member from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Advances in neurobiology and psychology continue to challenge our conceptions of self, mind, and free will, he said, and these advances have important ethical implications. If we are nothing but a bag of genes and chemicals, as Steven Pinker, Francis Crick, and others have famously written, do we bear responsibility for our own actions?

"I'm on Pinker's side, there's no ghost in the machine," Newsome said, rejecting the Christian notion of a moral soul. At the same time, he suggested, neuroscientists could take a cue from physicists in looking at natural systems as a whole rather than as a sum of their parts. Rather than trying to understand whether the human condition can be broken down into genes and quarks, he said, a big picture approach would contribute to more constructive engagements with evangelicals.

Despite all their success stories of engaging scientists and evangelicals to form common ground together, the panelists all agreed, as Cizik said, that "some people aren't worth your time." Ideologues will continue to exist, on both sides, and the political game is only too happy to perpetuate the fight, hijacking both science and religion for its own ends.

Follow our full coverage of AAAS 2011