If you are over the age of 30, you may be surprised by some of the courses now offered at U.S. universities. That’s because the effort to design religion and science courses can trace its roots to the early 1990s.
Besides being primarily electronic and searchable online, catalogues no longer hold the traditional divides among departments. The lines are blurring and no place is this more evident than when it comes to religion, anthropology, psychology, history, cognitive sciences, ecology, physics and biology courses.
A quick flip through a number of college catalogues will show a merging of topics with a top-down view of how together these topics shape society. Covalence found that among 50 U.S. universities (see list below) there are a total of 98 religion and science orientated classes that are offered across a number of departments and in both public and private universities.
Some of the more intriguing course titles are: Looking for Ourselves Elsewhere: Cosmos and Conscience; Time and Eternity; and Religion Gone Wild: Spirituality and the Environment.
Many of these courses can trace their lineage to the early 1990s, when Sir John Templeton decided to begin supporting the teaching of religion and science courses at colleges, universities and seminaries globally. As part of the effort, a program was created by the John Templeton Foundation to find the best courses in the area and to award those courses that represented the best scholarship. There were nearly 800 course awards of $10,000 each from 1995 to 2002, according to the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in California.
While a number of the U.S. winners are still presenting some of the winning courses, it seems that post the intelligent design debate in the U.S. there are perhaps a greater number of broad courses of study that take up the legacy of the dialogue posed by Templeton.
Universities with broad religion and science introductory courses include: the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago; Goshen College; Barnard College; Brown University; University of Akron; Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary; Florida State University; Dartmouth College; Harvard University and Yale University. In total, 23 universities have created general courses on the intersection of faith and science.
The majority of classes are from the Christian viewpoint, although Buddhism and Islam are in the process of being introduced into classes as well.
“This course approaches this question from three different angles,” reads the course description from Harvard’s Biology and Religion course. “We examine first the crisis in religious faith precipitated by Darwinian evolution in the late nineteenth century. Second, we turn to the attempts made by scientists during the past 100 years to explain, and sometimes explain away, the phenomenon of religious belief.”
This may seem like a lot to fit into a single semester, but many of these courses are viewed as a small subset of either a religious course requirement or area of scientific or historical study.
At some schools the classes are more of public forums, such as at Yale Divinity School, where James Clement van Pelt leads an academic working group to foster a university-wide dialogue on the relationship between “scientific findings and the religious quest.” The seminar, funded by Metanexus Society’s Local Societies Initiative with matching funds from Yale, has an emphasis on the cognitive sciences, consciousness theory, ontology and these areas impact on questions of scientific world views, theology, ethics and belief. Presentations are made by scientists, theologians and ethicists from Yale and elsewhere.
A series of courses at the Dartmouth College Department of Religion also offer a brief introduction to a number of sciences. This year sophomores, juniors and seniors may choose from Magic, Science and Religion; Religion and Science; and Darwin, Dawkins and Religious Belief. These last two courses are taught by John Phillips Professor of Religion, Nancy Frankenberry, who is well known for her recent book, The Faith of Scientists: In Their Own Words (2008). She specializes in philosophy of religion, but has taken on the areas of reason and religious belief in addition to science and religion.
The general Religion and Science course looks at the emerging consonance between religion and science in contrast to the models of dissonance and conflict or independence and dialogue, which are models proposed by scientist and theologian Ian Barbour. Frankenberry’s course looks at evolutionary biology, relativity physics, cosmology and process theology and philosophy.
In most cases, science topics seem to bleed into the religion department instead of the other way around. There are however certain areas of study, where religion courses can be found. In our review of course listings departments such as Physics, Psychology, Environmental Studies, Philosophy, Cognitive Studies, Anthropology and Astronomy could have the stray emphasis on theology or religion.
Ecology is one of the areas where there tend to be a growing number of classes focused on religion and spirituality. There are at least x classes in the U.S. focused on this area. For example, The University of Richmond has a class titled “Ethics, Religion and the Enviroment,” that is housed in its religious studies program. The course description says topics in the course, may include animal rights, respect for nature, biological diversity and religious stewardship of nature.
At Williams College, one religion course is within its environmental studies program. The course, “God’s Green Earth: Religion and Environment in America,” examines the relationship between religious and environmental thought in American cultural history since the mid-nineteenth century.
Seminaries are also more focused on ecologically friendly course work. The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago has offered its “Future of Creation” course in the spring. The course was established so theology students could learn about ecological systems and environmental threats directly from scientists. Perhaps the most intriguing goal of the course though is to consider new interpretations of the ways religious traditions can guide society to respond to the environmental crisis.
The course was started during Gayle Woloschak’s tenure as the director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science, which is housed at the Lutheran School. Gayle, who continues as associate director of the Zygon Center, has since won a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to establish a North American network of interested academics and clergy with an interest in approaching science and religion from an Orthodox Christian perspective.
Going forward the long term success of the efforts of professors at seminaries and universities will be measured by the growth of such course work at both the undergraduate and graduate level in addition to how this impacts graduates future work. According the latest Covalence survey, the number of seminaries offering religion and science courses in the United States totals 12, while the number of liberal arts programs active in this area totals 38.
Full-fledged degree programs in religion and science as of now are not really being developed, although if one were to take a sampling of the almost 100 courses offered by the institutions in our survey they would be well on their way to a well rounded education.
To date much of the religion and science course work has been at theology schools, but going forward non-denominational institutions are and will continue to introduce religion and science classes within newer departments focused on science, technology and society as a whole.
|U.S. universities with religion and science courses|
|University of Akron
Andover Newton Theological School
Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary
Boston University School of Theology
California Institute of Technology
University of California at Davis
University of California at Santa Barbara
Case Western Reserve University
University of Chicago
Claremont School of Theology
Episcopal Divinity School
Florida State University
The George Washington University
Graduate Theological Union
Harvard Divinity School
|John Hopkins University
Lutheran School of Theology
University of Michigan
Notre Dame (St. Mary’s College Division)
University of Pennsylvania
Phillips Theological Seminary
University of Pittsburgh
University of Richmond
University of Rochester
University of Southern California
Utah State University
University of Virginia
Wartburg Theological Seminary
University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Yale Divinity School