Science educators monitor Americans conflicting beliefs

Americans are often said to be lacking in scientific knowledge, but if you include questions regarding God’s role in creation there are even more puzzling findings.

The National Center for Science Education in a recent survey found that nearly 40% believe that God created the universe, the earth, the sun, moon, stars, plants, animals and the first two people within the past 10,000 years. Meanwhile, 35% would include dinosaurs being created by God over the last 10,000 years, which is the same percentage of those surveyed that do not believe the theory of evolution is supported by evidence, according to the September 2010 report released by the National Center for Science Education.

“Our first analysis of these data has revealed a remarkable diversity of religiously driven and scientifically informed (and uninformed) beliefs about human evolution, much of it seemingly contradictory,” the report states. What seems to be taking hold among the American public is a series of creationist articles of faith, such as among the 65% that said archaeological findings have confirmed the authenticity of the people and incidents recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible.

The survey focused mostly on evolution. Researchers found that large percentages of Americans adopt creationist beliefs alongside evolutionary scientific facts that are at odds with their religious beliefs. For example, 78% said that layers of rock containing fossils cover the earth’s surface and date back hundreds of millions of years. Another 75% said that humans share reflexes with other primates that are not shared with other animals and another nearly 70% said dinosaurs became extinct about 65 million years ago.

The National Center for Science Education’s Executive Director Eugenie Scott is well-known for publishing articles about science education and the problems posed by creationism.

Dalai Lama accepts science textbooks for monks

In October, the Dalai Lama said that the practical outcome of a partnership program with Emory University is the creation of textbooks on science translated into Tibetan.

The three-day visit to Emory began with a press conference where the Dalai Lama accepted four new English/Tibetan science textbooks that were authored as part of the Robert A. Paul Emory-Tibet Science Initiative. This initiative brings together Western science and Tibetan Buddhist intellectual traditions to create new knowledge for the benefit of humanity, according to Emory. Emory faculty work with Tibetan Buddhist scholars in creating a science curriculum specifically for Tibetan monastics.

Monks learn Western sciences such as biology, physics and neuroscience as part of the project. The science and religion integration was the brainchild of the Dalia Lama, who wants the monks and nuns of Tibet to become modernized. The coursework with the monks and nuns began in 2008, and for those involved in Emory the openness to learning science has been refreshing in that religious faith is not seen as an obstacle to science.

The overarching themes of the program are: Cosmology, Life Sciences and Neuro/Cognitive Science.

“I have long believed in and advocated a dialogue and cross-fertilization between science and spirituality, as both are essential for enriching human life and alleviating suffering on both individual and global levels,” says the Dalai Lama.

ITEST holds webinar on science

Looking to attract college students to the religion and science dialogue in the Catholic community, the Institute for Theological Encounter with Science and Technology (ITEST) held its first webinar series on Science, Science Fiction and God.

With three conversation tracks, the webinar was set up with an initial two-week period of student theological reflections prior to an interactive discussion using WebEx to talk about nature and grace. Ending on October 14, this web-only dialogue was followed by a one-week follow-up period for reflection. The audio of the presentation was preserved on the site and students have the opportunity to continue to review the archived materials. For example, Dominican Father Brian Thomas Becket Mulladay’s text “Human Happiness” was posted in the Forum section of the Web site.

The three tracks are: On Evolution, On Relationship with God and On Human Life. Catholics traditionally have not viewed evolution as a threat to their faith. In fact, Pope John Paul II wrote in 1996 in his Message to Pontifical Academy of Sciences that: “In order to delineate the field of their own study, the exegete and the theologian must keep informed about the results achieved by the natural sciences.”

According to Sister Marianne Postiglione of ITEST, the group contacted more than 450 campus ministry sites around the country regarding the webinar. The online conference venue was the idea of Sebastian Mahfood, who is associate professor of Intercultural Studies and Coordinator of Instructional Technology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis. He also chairs the Association of Theological Schools Technology in Theological Education group and is coordinator of the Catholic Distance Learning Network.

ITEST has been targeting students and teachers at its recent events, including its annual conference. This fall there were three speakers on the topics of organically grown and biogenetically engineered food.

Complexity and awe in nature and religion

The need for recognition of humanity’s role in the complex eco-system that is our Earth is often overlooked, but those with a religious mindset are well positioned to highlight the need to respect nature in order to ensure our future on the planet, according to Paul Heltne, President Emeritus of the Chicago Academy of Science.

Heltne’s presentation was in association with The Wonder of It All series organized by the Zygon Center for Religion and Science, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and the Department for Studies and Inter-Unit Staff Team for Faith, Science and Technology at the ELCA national office. He spoke to the idea that complexity is actually a source of awe for both the scientist as well as the person of faith when looking at natural phenomenon.

Looking at a web-like diagram of a typical eco-system, first drawn up in 1923, it shows a snapshot of a number of organisms that in turn are made up of and dependent upon complex relationships. Even in looking at bacteria, biologists see complexity alongside the fact that humans live in a pool of bacteria that is even prevalent in the soil.

“The idea that we are ultimately dependent in nature is often in the literature, but what I want to point out is that we are utterly dependent on nature,” said Heltne.

Biodiversity is in decline, while clean water sources are becoming scarce along with oil and mineral reserves. With possible ocean acidification and a decrease in crop production, the need to talk about complex relationships has never been higher. Heltne believes that congregations are a perfect place for the dialogue to begin given that the future impact on humanity will be great.

There are places in hymns and liturgy to insert awe of nature, according to Heltne.

Opposites find some middle ground in new book

A new book due to be released in November promises to serve a tricky sub-section of America these days – the middle. Steve Paulson, who is executive director of Wisconsin Public Radio’s nationally syndicated program “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” has put together a book of 21 interviews of personalities ranging from the left and right of the religion and science spectrum.

Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science (Oxford University Press) includes interviews of public intellectuals that are seldom found in one book. Paulson writes about Richard Dawkins, Karen Armstrong, E.O. Wilson, Sam Harris, Elaine Pagels, Francis Collins, Daniel Dennett, Jane Goodall, Paul Davies and Steven Weinberg. The interviewees are Christian, Buddhist, Jewish and Muslim as well as agnostic and atheist groups that are represented. According to publishers, the book also reaches across a variety of scientific disciplines including evolutionary biology, quantum physics, cosmology and neuroscience.

The majority of the interviews originally appeared on Salon.com and Paulson plans to present a companion series to the book on National Public Radio this fall. The book made its public debut at the Wisconsin Book Festival in Madison in early October.

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