Will the church support good science in the public square?

Will the church support good science in the public square?I’m sure if you have spent any time on social media lately, you have seen that T-shirt advertisement. You know the one that says “Science is not a liberal conspiracy.” Even some of the educators in my church have shared the post. It seems that just like religion, science too can become a political lightning rod.

So if you also missed this on Facebook, the March for Science is taking place across the U.S. and around the globe on April 22, which is Earth Day. With marches scheduled in more than 100 cities, the Washington, D.C., march on the public mall and teach-in is only a small part of a much larger event.

According to organizers: “It’s not about scientists or politicians, it is about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world. Nevertheless, the march has generated a great deal of conversation around whether or not scientists should involve themselves in politics. In the face of an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery, we might ask instead: can we afford not to speak out in its defense?”

Even as some churches celebrate Evolution Weekend this month, will those same congregations and pastors also participate in the March for Science?

Prior to President Donald Trump’s inauguration, AAAS President Barbara Schaal in an editorial published in Science, urged the President to include credible scientists in his administration — at all levels and in all federal agencies. She wrote: “For policies to be successful, we must first understand the current state of knowledge … The practices of science — open dialogue, publication, scrutiny and replication — help validate results, allowing our understanding of the world around us to grow and change.”

AAAS officials add that in the last several years there have been a number of instances where science contributed to public policy. One example is in forensics, where new studies have led to a better  understanding of information provided by DNA, fingerprints and the composition of bullets.

Concerns remain though that the new administration does not value science-based evidence, especially  in the area of climate change and environmental policy. These are issues that define political boundaries and where those involved in the faith and science dialogue have a unique role to play.

AAAS has made it a point to also work with religious leaders in lifting up science education, particularly through its DoSER program. This month in Covalence we take a closer look at the Science for Seminaries program that wrapped up last year. It seemed to be a successful and engaging project that will have a lasting impact on not only the seminarians but also the institutions that they attend.

The original question remains, though, as to whether seminarians, church members, or clergy will actively take part in public events such as the March for Science, just as they did for the Women’s March in January. It will be particularly interesting to see if some of those seminarian students that participated in the new coursework will feel compelled to take on a ‘teach-in’ of their own – showing that religion and science have a shared role in promoting positive relationships for the public good. Such an effort is of increasing importance as scientific initiatives increasingly may overlap with social justice issues, such as education and population displacement as a result of climate change.

So lace up your shoes, design your signs and hit the streets in the support of science. More information can be found at https://www.marchforscience.com.

Susan Barreto, Editor

Exploring the final scientific frontier – the religious mind

Exploring the final scientific frontier – the religious mind

Credit: cc by Silver Blue via Flickr

It just stands to reason that what we almost know the least about scientifically to some degree is the closest to us — our own minds. It is something neuroscience has been trying to uncover in recent decades and in particular there is still plenty of curiosity as to whether we are hardwired for religion or if religion has changed “our wiring” for the better.

While these questions remain intriguing, the answers are still elusive. This month we are looking at the mind/body connection through the lens of mental illness. There are many struggling with mental illness today both in the pews and in our communities. In many instances individuals have discovered the support that only a church family can give. Studying trends more broadly, there are scientists who are taking a greater interest in the connections between faith and brain activity, in addition to the recent University of Utah. In some ways, these studies’ findings may be interesting from the standpoint of showing the physicality of meditation or prayer, but in other ways they seem to lessen the uniqueness of the experience by comparing it to brain reward centers that light up during sex or gambling.

Could simply lighting up the right reward center in the brain, help those struggling with mental illness? Could it also trigger a spiritual experience?  Brain chemistry is indeed addressed in treating some aspects of mental illnesses such as bipolar depression and schizophrenia.

It is also worth asking what the scientists hope to accomplish with their research on religious experience. Do they hope to find proof that God’s love is located in a specific part of one’s brain or are they seeking to “cheapen” the experience by comparing it to other rewarding activities?

It seems that on the one hand scientists are trying to put more measurable characteristics to the religious experiences that are separate from ‘self-reported’ spiritual experiences, which could be helpful. Then on the other hand, it may be that some want to explain religion away as a simple function of brain chemistry.

Either way one looks at it, the argument is a powerful that our beliefs can shape how we view ourselves and those around us. If one is a Christian, there seems to be more hopeful outlook when it comes to being part of a community and in relationships as revealed in the findings of the Chicago Social Brain Network. Proving that hypothesis is nearly impossible though as it is difficult to measure, and correlation does not necessarily equal causation. In the recent large Nurses Study conducted in relationship to suicide, for instance, the findings that those that attended church were less likely to commit suicide is noteworthy but  don’t seem all that compelling. It doesn’t address the taboo across religions of taking one’s life, for example. Nor does it demonstrate that a church community helped in addressing individual problems more than one’s friends if a person doesn’t attend church services.

While all these bits of research seem to have lofty aims, the actual findings generally raise more questions than they answer. It may just be that some of the feelings experienced by individuals praying or worshiping are not measurable or even comparable to one another. Is a Buddhist more spiritual than a Baptist? What does the fMRI say?

Still, if one is battling problems related to brain chemistry, having a friend and one’s own faith as companions seems to be crucial in bringing hope to the hopeless. That kind of hope undoubtedly is one of the most noteworthy aims of religious life. Let’s pray that we can offer that hope to one another when and where it is needed most. While those outcomes may be unverifiable on a scientific basis, it still is a reasonable aim of congregational life.

Learning Lutheran theology through the religion and science dialogue

Learning Lutheran theology through the religion and science dialogue

The Badab-e Surt formations that has been created over thousands of years as flowing water from two mineral hot springs cooled and deposited carbonate minerals. Credit: cc by Nick Thompson via Flickr

Call me an accidental Lutheran.

It just so happened that the closest church to my first apartment in Chicago was an ELCA congregation roughly one block away. It wasn’t until a few years after joining, however, that I began to learn about Lutheranism and how it differed from the mainline Protestant church I grew up in. I also began to understand a bit about Lutheran theology and this was strictly a consequence of my interest in the religion and science dialogue.

It is very easy to sit in a pew on any given Sunday morning and learn of God’s grace and love, but then know very little of the contributions Martin Luther made to theology. Concepts such as Luther’s theology of the cross just don’t readily come up in many sermons!  Perhaps confirmands learn more about these concepts along with the history of the Lutheran church, but for me and perhaps for a few other “accidental Lutherans” it has been a struggle to pinpoint the allure of the denomination or explain the theological differences.

For me religion and science opened the doors to learning about why the ELCA church body believes as it does and how, while our ideas about God may change, God does not. God is unwavering in overflowing love for humanity with all of its flaws.

This month, as the Lutheran World Federation, of which the ELCA is a part, marked the beginning of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I decided to look back on what others have written and thought about Lutheran theology and Luther’s own interaction with science in past editions of Covalence.  The result is this month’s feature and it demonstrates a snapshot of how Lutherans and science have had a good relationship over the centuries. It is fair to say that much in that story has been a positive endeavor, unlike writing and thought in other branches of Christianity that view concepts such as evolution as a threat to the Biblical narrative of creation.

So coming back to my experience: It was many years in the making, but ultimately through various lectures, discussions and conferences I’ve been able to pick up on a few theological concepts. I’ve also come across stories that depict Lutherans as a people open to scientific discovery, new technologies and supportive of science as a vocation.

I’m thankful I’ve had an opportunity to learn more about Lutheran theology generally along the way in private discussions and through public lectures.

Perhaps where this has been the most evident is with the Zygon Center for Religion and Science housed at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. It was there at the invitation of one of our vicars that I attended the Epic of Creation lecture series and was immediately captivated by the content. Since then I have embarked on a remarkable journey over the past decade, one that has deepened my faith and fed my intellectual curiosity.

As it is with any community experience it is the people that initially draw you in and the discussion that keeps you engaged. It could not have be more the case in the religion and science arena for me. Science is awe-inspiring enough on its own, but when interwoven with one’s faith and a community of fellow learners it is a glimpse into humanity’s past, present and future that fuels a lifetime of inquiry.

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