Divinity School embraces science

In the Middle Ages, the solution to the clash between religion and science was easy: Heretics were burned at the stake.

In the 21st century, discussion of ways to reconcile the two fields has taken the place of more medieval methods. Confronting a variety of issues involving the intersection of spirituality and scientific study, “Naturalizing the Spiritual: Lessons from Cognitive Science,” — a lecture to be given today at the Yale Divinity School — will join a host of other seminars, discussion groups and speakers that make up the school’s Initiative in Religion, Science and Technology.

Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge said the Initiative, which was created in 2005, aims to develop understanding between two branches of knowledge that can benefit from synergy.

“Religion has something to contribute to the scientific understanding of the biosphere and how the finger of God is present in it,” Attridge said. “But it is also important for religion to be informed by the scientific world.”

Divinity School students and those involved with the Initiative said religion and science can work together to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing humanity.

Program coordinator James van Pelt said he hopes the Initiative is on its way to becoming a permanent institution, with its own staff and budget. The ultimate goal of the Initiative, van Pelt said, is to follow in the footsteps of the Yale Bioethics Center — an interdisciplinary division of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies that deals with issues of morality in science.

“The Bioethics Center also started off as an initiative,” he said. “It then became a project, and now it is a center. We would like to do the same with IRTS.”

The Initiative is funded by a $25,000 grant from the Templeton Foundation, an organization dedicated to funding religion and science-related projects around the world. The organization’s founder, noted businessman and philanthropist Sir John Templeton ’34, believed religious studies could be corroborated by scientific evidence — although such a collaboration is not one of the explicit aims of IRTS.

Some of the topics covered in Initiative programs include the spiritual implications of cognitive science, the moral dimension of environmental problems, health and healing, and the origins of life and bioethics.

Van Pelt said there has long been tension between religion and science, especially since Darwin developed his theory of evolution. Despite the historical conflict between the two, however, it is still possible to amalgamate the two perspectives, van Pelt said, pointing out that Darwin himself was religious.

“Evolution relies on a random progress toward species better adapted to the environment,” he said. “In religion, this randomness is not meaningless, but an expression of divine will.”

The Initiative does not focus solely on how to reconcile the apparent contradictions between religion and science — it also emphasizes the necessity of cooperation in searching for ways to resolve challenges facing humanity.

The Initiative is tackling environmental problems, too. Divinity School professor and Initiative co-director Willis Jenkins said it is important to call basic social values into question when dealing with the environment.

While some people view the world as an instrumental bin of resources, Jenkins said, others see it through a spiritual lens, or as a mother or a father.

Different sects of Christianity have different views of the environment, which leads to a variety of approaches to environmental protection, Jenkins said. For example, evangelical Protestants see themselves as stewards of the earth, while other branches of Christianity see the human as one part of a larger cosmic community.

“Maybe religion can … be the solution, if we make the environment morally urgent as a religious community,” Jenkins said.

As part of the Initiative, Jenkins will teach a Divinity School seminar — “Environmental Ethics in Theory and Practice” — in the spring.

The Initiative also explores how scientific medicine can be used in tandem with a spiritual understanding of healing.

Yale School of Medicine professor and Episcopal chaplain Nihal de Lannerole said while the medical school does not usually incorporate religious themes into its courses, he does not want to rule out the possibility of healing through a spiritual approach. He said he hopes the Initiative will help develop dialogue between doctors and religious scholars about the overlap of the two branches of study.

“Medicine and religion are not incompatible,” he said. “They are two different paths to discovering truths about human life, its origins and reproduction.”

Philosophy of science doctorate student Neil Arner DIV ’07 said religion can in fact play a crucial role in the practice of medicine. Since doctors often face tough ethical dilemmas in their practices, Arner said, it is important for medical students to be educated about moral and religious issues. Often, when families are faced with decisions such as when to end life support, they turn to pastors or other religious leaders.

Still, within the medical world, many see religion as “a man who has drunk 12 beers and talks a lot of nonsense,” Arner said.

“But in all that rambling, he might occasionally stumble upon a necessary and undeniable truth,” he said.

While seminars in the Initiative are intended for Divinity School students, lectures and discussions are open to the entire Yale community.

Josh Au ’08, president of Yale Students for Christ and a molecular, cellular and developmental biology major, said that, although he has not heard of the Initiative, he thinks it confronts important issues.

“As we discover more about the complexities of the cell and biological systems, I think we learn more about our Creator God,” he wrote in an e-mail. “And as we seek God, it would be natural to want to learn more about his creation.”

But Joe Oh ’09, another member of Yale students for Christ, said he does not think there is any conflict between religion and science, and he does not think the issue needs to be discussed at length.

“People who think there is conflict between religion and science are not Christian — I think they are mainly atheists,” he said.

Van Pelt said the Initiative represents an increased effort by the Divinity School to reach out to other disciplines at the University. While Attridge said the school remains loyal to its fundamental mission of educating religious leaders of the Christian world, only 55 percent of students currently enrolled are in the Master of Divinity program to be trained as religious leaders — down from 80 percent in the 1970s. The remainder do not plan to become ordained.

While Attridge said the Initiative is important because religion needs to be “informed by the scientific world,” he said the core mission of the Divinity School is not threatened by the development of science.

“Science is a threat only for people with naive and inadequate faith,” Attridge said. “That was a problem in the Middle Ages. We are beyond that.”

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