The debate regarding the nature of the relationship between faith and science seems to have exploded into the popular consciousness this year. Fueled in part by the publication of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, major articles and essays have appeared in abundance throughout both the academic and the mainstream press. Recently, the editors of Holy Cross Magazine invited a group from the campus community to discuss the question, “What are the tensions and the harmonies inherent in a life given to both science and faith?” Participating in the forum were Robert Bellin, assistant professor of biology; Rev. William Clark, S.J., assistant professor of religious studies; Mark Freeman, professor of psychology; Robert Garvey, associate professor of physics; Eileen Geoghegan ’07, co-chair, biology student advisory committee; Andrew D. Hwang, associate professor of mathematics; James Kee, associate professor of English; Matthew Koss, associate professor of physics; and Mary Lee Ledbetter, professor of biology. The moderator for the discussion was Jack Hitt, a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine, GQ, This American Life. Hitt has written about the conflicts and accords between faith and science previously for The New York Times. He is also the author of the book, Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim's Route into Spain (1994).
Hitt: Let’s begin with this scenario: I am the president of Holy Cross, and I have just received a call from an alumnus who told me that the winner of this year’s Westinghouse Award in Scientific Achievement is his son. The son is considering application to the College. But the young man is concerned that there might be too much religion involved in the sciences here. How would I respond to that?
Koss: I would tell this prospective student to attend any science class, at any time, and see what goes on. And what he will see is a science class being rigorously engaged.
Freeman: When I first considered teaching at Holy Cross, my predictable concern, especially as a non-Catholic, was: is this going to be a parochial place? But coming to campus and meeting people, I was immediately able to dispel most of those concerns. In fact, I’ve generally found the College to be quite the opposite. At Holy Cross, you can address anything that you would address at secular institutions. But, in addition, there are people here who take religion seriously, and this has allowed a set of issues, concerns and questions to be put on the table—issues that are not as easily pursued elsewhere.
Koss: Even as an atheist, I take religion seriously. And I’m willing to participate in those discussions.
Bellin: Even as a Catholic, I had some of the same kind of questions about coming to a Catholic institution as a scientist. About how the College is perceived and how much interplay there is between the two. But the fact is that, at least in doctrine—and, I think, in practice, for the most part—the Church is not fighting against the teaching of evolutionary biology.
Hitt: Well, as it turns out, our genius high school applicant is doing research that involves stem cells …
Garvey: Then I’d say his main concern at Holy Cross should be that he spent too much time on his science project and not enough time being the editor of the school paper and finding work for the homeless and joining the glee club. [laughter] To me, the ideal would be that a student comes to Holy Cross and learns not only the Church’s teaching about stem cells, but that he encounters a course or two that would address the whole issue of medical technology and how it affects what it means to be a human being. Why are we so obsessed with having to have that technology? There’s the question of how technology is often an attempt to deny that we ever die.
Koss: I don’t want any student to come to me—or anyone else—and say, “What should be my opinion about stem cell research?” If there is any orthodoxy to science, it’s that all orthodoxies need to be constantly reevaluated and questioned. So what I hope that students at Holy Cross get is to start thinking about such issues in terms of three questions: How do I know this? Why do I believe this? What is the evidence for this? Then they can take the position of the Church, or they can take my position, or they can take the position of the American Physical Society, whatever it is, and start to think about how that decision was arrived at, and whether it works for them and how it works and how it doesn’t work. It’s a continuing process.
Kee: One of the best things about a place like Holy Cross is that it exists along the borders of various institutions and traditions and practices. In other words, as a contemporary academic institution it is deeply committed to scientific research in all of its various forms. And as a religiously affiliated institution, its primary task is what is traditionally called “faith seeking understanding.” It’s not enough simply to lay out what the Church’s teaching is on the problematic cases of research involving embryonic stem cells; it’s articulating a whole vision of reality that underlies that particular interpretation of the origins of life. On the other side of the equation, it means looking clearly at some of the assumptions on which scientific method is based and the kind of interpretation of reality that science proceeds on. There are powerful philosophical arguments saying that modern science is more deeply technological than it is pure. And this is a place where dialogue among a variety of people needs to be carried out, exploring these questions. That’s our primary task.
Freeman: On such issues, our job is not to steer students per se. Our job is to allow them to make the most comprehensive and thoughtful assessment of a given complex issue that they possibly can.
Hwang: At a liberal arts college, we have a unique opportunity for dialogue between faculty with widely differing areas of expertise. It’s much easier for a student to obtain a variety of perspectives at Holy Cross than at a large research university, where our hypothetical 16-year-old would find departments sequestered by subject.
Faith & Science: A Forum, continued>>>