Stem cell research divides Christians in United States

There is little agreement in churches when it comes to stem cell research and U.S. scientists now say they are uneasy about moving forward as new laws on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research are challenged.

On Capitol Hill, Mississippi Republican Senator Roger Wicker told fellow senators that the issue of stem cell research was a matter of conscience for him as “millions of Americans” are deeply troubled by the idea that their taxpayer dollars may be used to destroy another human life when there are other proven techniques that are available.

A federal judge in August ordered the U.S. government to temporarily stop paying for research while a lawsuit moved forward. Filed by two researchers who opposed embryonic stem cell research on religious and ethical grounds, the lawsuit alleges that it is against the law for the U.S. National Institutes of Health to fund the research. The legal action and confusion follow President Obama’s lifting of the ban on embryonic stem cell research more than a year ago.

Dr. Francis Collins, National Institutes of Health director, told Congress that as a person of faith he believed that the use of human embryos destined to be thrown away by fertility clinics was an ethical choice. Dr. Collins has a longstanding interest in the interface between science and faith, and has written about this in The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006), which spent many weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. He is the author of a new book on personalized medicine, The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine (HarperCollins, 2010).

As some scientists are cautiously stopping research until all the legal issues are settled, the Catholic Church maintains its position that because such research involves the destruction of human embryos it is related to abortion, euthanasia and other attacks on innocent life.

Meanwhile in a new book by scholars affiliated with the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, Christians have plenty of reasons to support stem cell research. Sacred Cells?: Why Christians Should Support Stem Cell Research was released in paperback last month and is a collaborative effort of Ted Peters of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary; Gaymon Bennett of Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and Karen Lebacqz of the Pacific School of Religion.

The book documents the ethical frameworks used in approaching the stem cell debate in addition to providing a brief overview of the science behind it. It also outlines the possibilities that embryonic stem cell experimentation offers. As the stem cell research debate begins anew after its beginnings more than 10 years ago, a fresh look at this issue from both the ethical and the scientific perspective is not a bad idea.

Another public discussion of the issue will be taking place at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, on October 28 as part of a series of public talks on biomedical ethics sponsored by the Albertus Magnus Society. Irina Calin-Jageman, assistant professor of biology at Dominican, will focus on questions regarding the origin of stem cells, the applications for stem cell therapy and the ethical implications of stem cell harvesting.

Wiseman to lead AAAS dialogue

Jennifer Wiseman is the new director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion.

The program was set up in 1995 to foster communication between scientific and religious communities. The post builds on the AAAS’ long standing commitment to relate scientific knowledge and technological development to the purposes and concerns of society at large. In June, Wiseman moderated a panel discussion at the AAAS Auditorium in Washington, DC, on “Re-Envisioning the Science and Religion Dialogue”.

Wiseman currently also heads the Laboratory for Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. She is also the incoming senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope.

In her scientific work, Wiseman studies the formation of stars and planetary systems using radio, optical and infared telescopes. As an undergraduate research assistant, she discovered comet Wiseman-Skiff in 1987. She earned her doctorate in astronomy from Harvard University and continued her research as a Jansky Fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and a Hubble Fellow at the John Hopkins University.

Wiseman says she has had leaders of seminaries ask for help in incorporating more science courses and information into their curricula for clergy in training.

“With continuing battles over the teaching of evolutions in the schools and new fundamentalist attacks on the reliability of climate science, there is a need more than ever for a constructive conversation between scientists and religious groups,” said Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of Science.

Stephen Hawking promotes science/religion conflict

In a recent interview with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer, legendary physicist Stephen Hawking concluded that science will win out against religion because “it works.”

Hawking told Sawyer, “What could define God [is thinking of God] as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of that God…. When you look at the vast size of the universe and how insignificant an accidental human life is in it, that seems most impossible.”

According to ABC News, when asked if there was a way to reconcile religion and science, Hawking said, “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”

In response, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights said that Hawking posits a false conflict and that nothing is gained by alleging a “victory” of science over religion. The group pointed out that any rational person belittling the pivotal role that human life plays in the universe is a wonder, but it is just as silly to say that all religions are marked by the absence of reason.

Biology professor wins Templeton Prize

Francisco Ayala, UC Irvine professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who has vigorously opposed the entanglement of science and religion while also calling for mutual respect between the two, one the 2010 Templeton Prize.

Valued at more than $1 million, the prize honors a living person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension. HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, awarded the prize in a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace on May 5.

Ayala’s groundbreaking research into parasitic protozoa may lead to cures for malaria and other diseases, and he has devoted more than 30 years to asserting that both science and faith are damaged when either invades the proper domain of the other.

In 1981, he served as an expert witness in a pivotal U.S. Federal Court challenge that led to the overturning of an Arkansas law that mandated the teaching of creationism alongside evolution. In 2001, George W. Bush awarded Ayala, a former Dominican priest, the National Medal of Science.

In a statement, following the presentation of the Templeton Prize, Ayala forcefully denied that science contradicts religion. “If they are properly understood, they cannot be in contradiction because science and religion concern different matters, and each is essential to human understanding,” he said.

Emergence addresses spiritual experience, according to noted philosopher/theologian

Philip Clayton has been educating audiences nationally about the concept of emergence and how it plays a role in religion and more specifically addressing the issues surrounding religion and science.

The Ingraham Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology and philosopher and theologian participated in a series of lectures this spring including at the two-day Goshen Religion and Science Conference at Goshen College in Indiana and as part of a series of lectures in Chicago on “What Makes Us Human?” this spring.

In a series of lectures, Clayton discussed the scientific idea of emergence and what it says about humanity, ethical dilemmas and spirituality. Emergence can be defined as the idea that the natural world is more complex than the sum of its parts. Meaning the the whole is the more than just the sum of its parts. It is the creation of complex phenomena out of simple building blocks.

Beyond a scientific theory relating to the biological or physical sciences, emergence can also offer a way to view spirituality, which is a fascinating emergent quality of humanity, according to Clayton. Religious traditions can help highlight what is unique about the human species. Religious traditions can also come up with the core capacities of humanity.

He says: “It is part of being human is to ask questions of ultimacy. Even if we don’t get answers to these questions, it makes us better humans. So for [Richard] Dawkins to ask questions only science can answer is futile.” In Goshen, he ended his series of talks challenging the audience to think how religion and science can approach ethical dilemmas that our biology never prepared us for — bioengineering and prosthetics, merging of neurons and computers, technology and warfare, and robotics and transhumanism.

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