Summer Institute on Science and Religion at the Jefferson Center

This is a report on the summer institute, “Exploring the Borderlands: Science and Religion in the 21st Century,” held by the Jefferson Center for Science and Religion. In the words of the Center, the conference featured workshops on “such ‘hot’ issues as the stem cell controversy, the evolution vs. Intelligent Design squabble, whether homosexuality is a ‘chosen lifestyle,’ … whether Buddhism speaks to neuroscience, how does a Muslim scientist look at religion and freedom, [and] is our universe simply ‘accidental’ ….”

The Jefferson Center,, was founded a few years ago in Ashland, Oregon, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. According to its Website, the Center is concerned with, among other things, “dogmatic and tyrannical religious groups opposed to change, freedom, and human rights.” Thus, they “seek a humanistic and naturalistic alternative to dogmatic, supernatural, and fundamentalist religious thought and the values that come with them” and promote “progressive, rational, and critical thinking, … caring for our planet and all humanity, … [and] working to end all forms of oppression and discrimination in both society and especially in religion.”

To further some or all of these ends, the Center organized its second summer institute, a 2.5-day affair held over the weekend of August 4-6 at the Unitarian Center in Ashland. For a summary by Nigel Leaves, go to their Website and click on “Current Newsletter,” or “Newsletter Archive,” as appropriate.

The conference opened Friday evening with one of three keynote lectures, “Can Science and Religion Live Together without Driving Us Crazy?” by the journalist Margaret Wertheim. Ms. Wertheim argued that science and religion are indeed driving us crazy but for deeper reasons than meet the eye. Specifically, she was concerned with the manner in which science has expanded to include psychology and human behavior, and even religion itself. She decried the “physicalizing” of psychology; it seemed almost as if she was censuring psychologists for applying quantitative tools to their discipline.

Ms. Wertheim blamed materialism for alienating religious believers who argue that we are not reducible to wholly material entities and claimed (I suspect correctly) that materialism is more important to literalist religious believers than “Darwinism.” I thought she went a bit overboard in describing scientists as “intellectual fascists” who claim that there is only one way of knowing. I would argue that there are many ways of thinking, but there is only one way of knowing for certain: by empirical observation. Instead of defending science against those who believe whatever they think, Ms. Wertheim blames science for revealing what I would say are unpleasant truths. Though surely not a postmodernist who thinks that you may believe anything you want to believe as long as it is congenial to you, Ms. Wertheim came across as a fellow traveler.

The following morning, Munawar Anees presented an interesting talk on “Science and Religion: The Muslim Context.” He argued that the debate over science and religion is nonexistent in Islam. Seeking knowledge is an obligation, a gateway to the divine. Knowledge changes, whereas the Koran is constant, so the correlation between the Koran and science is always changing. I know little about Islam, but I had the impression that Mr. Anees was describing a liberal view of Islam and conflating it with Islam as a whole. My suspicion was confirmed when he brushed off a question about the Muslim creationist Harun Yahya, who has great influence in Turkey, if nowhere else. Nevertheless, the talk was a fascinating overview of Islamic thought and the history of Islam from the Golden Age through the colonial period to the present. Mercifully, Mr. Anees did not wholly blame colonialism for the intellectual condition of much of the Muslim world today.

Following a break, Alan Sanders and Tim Murphy discussed “Genes vs. Choices: The Example of Sexual Orientation.” Mr. Sanders explained clearly if perhaps in too much detail how traits such as homosexuality have complex contributions: genetic, psychosocial, and biological. To those who claim that homosexuality is a choice, he asks, “Precisely when did you decide to be heterosexual?” What I found most interesting about the talk, however, was the older-brother effect. Specifically, the more older brothers a man has, the more likely he is to become homosexual. Sisters do not matter, stepbrothers do not matter, half-brothers by the same father do not matter, growing up in the same household does not matter. What matters is having the same biological mother. The older-brother effect makes crystal clear that male homosexuality has, at the very least, a strong biological component.

The point is important, because, in his portion of the talk, Mr. Murphy noted that people are more inclined to accept homosexuality when they think it is a biological trait, inasmuch as a biological explanation undercuts claims of moral or religious transgression. Still, Mr. Murphy was at pains to point out that biology is not the same as moral defensibility and noted that things get sticky when we ask whether science can “cure” homosexuality or predict it.

After lunch, Taner Edis discussed “The Accidental Universe.” Defending naturalism, Mr. Edis argued that all we discover can be explained without recourse to “spiritual realities over and above what is realized in the physical world.” He is impressed, however, by liberal religion and deemed it good for science, even though it depends on transcendent entities and is maddeningly evasive about the relation between science and religious belief. He showed how naturalism explains what we observe from the bottom up, for example, by self-organization, and that life and mind are assembled from the “lifeless substrate” of inanimate objects. He is not impressed by the liberal theistic view that evolution is God’s way of creating, a view that he calls ID (intelligent design) Lite. Novelty, he argued, can be injected by chance events operating within a framework of physical law.

If there was a low point to this otherwise splendid conference, it was the keynote address, “Buddhism and Science Today,” by Alan Wallace. After an interesting start concerning the history of science, Mr. Wallace burdened us with an overlong (well over his allotted 1.5 hours), rambling plea for a new science of consciousness based on introspection. He argued that William James had pioneered such a program but claimed it was scuttled by the behaviorists. He castigated present neuroscientists for assuming without evidence that the mind is nothing but the functioning of the brain, yet provided no evidence whatsoever that introspection can lead to anything as scientifically useful as, say, functional magnetic resonance imaging. Like an intelligent-design creationist, Mr. Wallace seemed to think that he supported his own position by poking holes in someone else’s. I thought he was searching in vain for a sort of “consciousness of the gaps.” Indeed, perhaps the very lowest point of the conference came when Mr. Wallace discussed seriously the question, “Do electrons have consciousness?” though to be fair he admitted that panpsychism was not very likely. Near the end of his talk, Mr. Wallace gave some quotations by the Buddha, but it was a considerable exaggeration to claim that his presentation was in any way about Buddhism and science.

Sunday morning began with a short interfaith service, which I could have happily survived without. But, then, we were in a Unitarian Church, and there was nothing offensive in it. Following the service, the ethicist and theologian Ted Peters presented the third keynote lecture, “The Stem Cell Controversy: Science, Theology, Ethics.” I thought it was a splendid talk, in some ways the high point of the conference, and a welcome relief from the previous evening’s affair (even counting the poor contrast of his visual aids; why, oh why do some speakers use blue letters on a violet background?). Mr. Peters began by outlining the possible benefits of stem cell research to fight nasty afflictions such as spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. His comprehensive talk was too wide-ranging to be summarized neatly here. Regarding therapeutic cloning, however, he noted religious claims that God endows a person with a soul at the moment of conception; because a human being is an end, not a means, the Roman Catholic Church and others oppose any therapeutic cloning whatsoever. Mr. Peters has a more nuanced position and argued that beneficence is not morally neutral. He further noted that a cell fertilized in vitro and not implanted into a uterus has absolutely no chance of ever becoming a person. He argued that the embryo stops being a mass of cells and individuates at approximately 14 days after conception, so he favors allowing research on cells derived from younger embryos.

My own talk, “Why (and How) Intelligent Design Fails,” followed lunch. You may see most of my slides here: I blush to tell you that Mr. Leaves thought that I had “decimated in spectacular fashion the recent argument from Intelligent Design. He [I] argued that it was a sophisticated attempt to restore creationism. However, it lacked credibility and misrepresented both science and religion.”

In his summation, Mr. Leaves noted that the conference “revealed the tensions between the worlds of science and religion.” Yes and no. Several of the speakers referred to a conflict between science and religion, but that does not mean that they necessarily must conflict. We can tolerate ID Lite, as long as it holds views that are consistent with known scientific fact. The conflict is not between science and religion as such but between science and certain dogmatic religions that think they know better than to accept empirical facts they do not like. All rational people, whether religious or not, must oppose such views. As Mr. Edis pointed out, liberal religion is good for science. I will add only that we need liberal religion to help fight off the barbarians at the gates of science. Organizations like the Jefferson Center are crucial, and I was privileged to be a part of their second summer institute.