Untangling the Religion-Science Debate

Moorad Alexanian (alexanian@UNCWIL.EDU)
Fri, 04 Sep 1998 08:50:04 -0500 (EST)



Untangling the

M.S. Mason
Arts and television writer of The
Christian Science Monitor

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

"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:

The URL for this page is:

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