A Church That Wants to Teach Science

By Chris Mooney | September 8, 2011 12:59 pm

This is a guest post by Tim Broderick, a Chicago resident with a keen interest in science and science education.

One of the most painful moments in the film “Jesus Camp” (and there are many) comes when a parent homeschooling her children talks about evolution. The kids are shown watching creationist videos mocking science, and are then led, in a lesson, to reject and question science for no other reason than for a religious fundamentalist view of the world.

Contrast that with the image of a church congregation whose members join together to honestly explore their faith through exploration of science.

Now, think about at least 90 congregations wanting to do that.

St. John’s Episcopal Church, located on the northwest side of Chicago, is one of those 90 congregations. It’s a church that’s diverse in its politics as well as in beliefs. Yet St. John’s also blessed same-sex unions before they became legal in Illinois, promotes environmental causes, works with a local homeless mission and hosted two Darwin Day celebrations in the past three years.

As one of the instigators of those Darwin Day events, I was approached earlier this year by Rev. Kara Wagner Sherer, the pastor of St. Johns, to help put together a grant proposal. The grant – Scientists in Congregations, sponsored by the Templeton Institute – sought to help congregations identify scientists among them interested in teaming with a religious leader to design a program to explore science and inform a dialogue about faith. The long-term aim of the the grant was to create a model program that other congregations could use as well.

We put together what we felt was a pretty interesting program – looking at the Dover evolution trial, global warming, cosmology and neuroscience.

And then an interesting thing happened last week.

We didn’t get the grant. It turns out we were one of about 90 churches interested in elevating the voices of scientists in our congregation. Looking back, I suspect we likely drew too much on the opportunities afforded us by the world-class museums located here in Chicago. It’s not something that a small church in Mississippi, for instance, could easily adopt.

But what’s interesting isn’t that we didn’t get the grant, it’s that after our proposal was turned down, the people involved in putting it together expressed an interest in going ahead with our program anyway.

The first portion – centered around a reading drawn from the exerpts of the Dover evolution trial transcripts – is planned for our 2012 Darwin Day celebration.

As we go forward, we’ll see what we can pull from the other modules. Funding will be a challenge, but there are likely other opportunities for grants that we can explore. I’m particularly interested in doing something with global warming because there has been some skepticism expressed about the science. I think it would be an interesting discussion.

In the raging debate online about science-religion compatibility – a debate I’ve participated in – these kind of efforts gets lost. It’s important to remember that for many people, the question of whether science and religion is compatible isn’t very interesting.

Exploring how they’re compatible is, even if it means challenging one’s own beliefs.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Religion

Comments (6)

  1. I knew even before I read the body of the text that it would be about an Episcopal Church. Although I’m not a believer any longer, my experience growing up Episcopal belies most of the stereotypes of Christians–real or imagined–that we hear today. I went to an Episcopal school where we were taught not only about the reality of Darwinian evolution, but also about the beauty of the other Great Religions and their contributions to our world. We were taught that all people contain the *imago Dei* the representation of God on earth and so, are to be cherished, not simply tolerated. I was confirmed in my twenties by an openly gay bishop (though his sexuality was not widely reported) and attended a church that performed same sex unions long before it was a subject of open debate even within the larger church. Although I am no longer a believing Christian, I maintain much of the Christian practice I was taught and found my upbringing to be one filled with hope, a respect for knowledge–scientific knowledge–and the notion that Faith meant faith in my fellow humans and the need to respect and serve them. It fills me with some pride that the Church, which I cannot in conscience remain an active member of, continues to use their pulpit (literal, not “bully”) to teach science properly to its members.

  2. vel

    It’s nice that some churches want to expand the knowledge of science, but at the base of it, churches and their theists, no matter what the sect, believe in something that has no evidence and that has never had any evidence from a book that contradicts and outright tells nonsense. IT is only by cherry picking, and creating god in your own images tht you can get around the pure delusion that myth and science can be compatible.

    How can science and Christianity be compatible if at some point you must say “and a magic deity became human and killed himself off for rules that the magic deity itself made. It died (accompanied by a earthquake and darkening of the sun no one observed, plus the dead walking in the streets) and then magically came back to life offering the future of a magic afterlife where everyone will see their loved ones/forget who they were and become automatons endlessly worshiping this deity.”

    It’s sounds more than a little ridiculous.

  3. Kirk

    As an atheist Episcopalian I can warn you that this will not help much. That makes like 800 surviving Episcopalians in the win category.

  4. Ian

    @2, You need to read up on your history of science to appreciate its religious roots. Science is actually a very difficult thing to do – you need the right mindset, the right beliefs and understanding of the world to have confidence in matter and the repeatability of experiments.

    Whilst I cannot speak up for Islam and Judaism, as much as they did for science, I can speak for the Catholic side of things – read almost anything by Pierre Duhem, James Hannam and Fr SL Jaki.

  5. 3in1

    To separate religion from reason/logic (i.e. science) is impossible. The notion that the only “truth” that we can ever know or accept must be from science, is known as “scientism”. This is a false notion due to circular reasoning. The claim that scientism is true is in fact, not a scientific claim and it cannot be proven using scientific methods. Another demonstration; the scientific process itself is dependent on several ASSUMPTIONS. Assumptions are an act of faith. There are three assumptions that are made in all scientific inquiry: 1. There is an objective world outside of our minds, 2. this world is governed by regularities and causes, 3. our human mind can discover and describe these regularities. Science cannot prove or justify these three assumptions without arguing in a circle. In order to try and prove any one of the three, a person must assume that they are all true! Therefore science is dependent on faith. Likewise, faith is dependent on reason. We do not have blind faith. There are very valid reasons and logic for belief in a deity; it is not superstition. These very valid reasons are rooted in several areas: philosophy and logic itself, history, and yes indeed, modern science. We don’t have space here to go into all of the details on that, but I strongly recommend reading “answering the new atheist” by Benjamin Wicker, and also some of the youtube videos by Father Robert Barron. Faith therefore, requires reason. Put quite simply, the theist requires valid reasons to believe. Lastly, I would like to encourage everyone to look at the contributions that the Catholic Church has made to science. Some of the most important discoveries in math and science. You can thank the Church for Universities, which were by the way, established to search for Truth. The big bang theory was developed by a priest, as an example.

  6. I was grateful when a friend pointed me at this article. Twenty years ago, we were both undergraduates. She went on to earn her PhD in Biology. I took the shorter path to gainful employment and have worked as a Software Engineer for nearly eighteen years. I am anticipating a career change to full-time Christian service as the Pastor of a church I am starting that is probably much like the ninety other churches mentioned in this article. My background is neither Episcopal nor Catholic, but rather Evangelical.

    The premise of the new church plant is to cultivate an atmosphere of mutual respect where people of faith and sincere skeptics are welcomed and whereby each experiences personal growth through their interactions. As a lover of the sciences, I earnestly desire that Christians as a whole will leave behind ignorance of what man can learn (and has learned) through observation, experimentation, and research. Also as a Christian, I earnestly desire that sincere skeptics will experience the hope, peace, and joy that comes from allowing oneself to believe in a God that exists outside the confines of the observable and measurable universe in which we live and yet has deep love and concern for each individual on our miniscule planet.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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