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Letter from San Diego: Science for Seminaries or Materialism for the Masses?


I recently traveled to San Diego to attend the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. While there, I participated in a workshop organized by the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A current project of the DoSER program called “Science for Seminaries” aims to enhance the scientific literacy of pastors, priests, and rabbis by making cutting edge scientific resources available to seminary and rabbinical school professors. Though the DoSER program also states as one of its goals to help scientists engage with pastors, priests, and theologians, I got the feeling at this workshop that the DoSER program might better be renamed MoSER, the Monologue on Science, Ethics, and Religion. There was definitely more emphasis on getting science into the seminary classroom than there was on getting religion into the science classroom. 

The workshop was held at the impressive Scripps Institution of Oceanography and included a tour of some of its facilities along with presentations by Scripps scientists and two theologians who have engaged with the Science for Seminaries program. The scientific presentations were generally informative (though not necessarily relevant to a group of religion scholars and theologians), but as the workshop unfolded a more troubling agenda began to emerge. 

A Curious Word

The Science for Seminaries project began in 2013. During its first phase, ten theological schools participated and over 110 seminary courses were affected (the curious word “affected” appears in DoSER’s own promotional materials). By the end of the second phase, it is anticipated that 32 theological schools will have participated representing over 1,100 students. But what exactly are these students learning and how are their seminary courses “affected” by this project?

Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, offered an online course in January 2018 titled “Your Spiritual Brain,” a course that “examined how faith is shaped by neural processes underlying human thought and action.” A survey of students at four seminaries showed that the Science for Seminaries project has led students to view “science and religion as either collaborative or independent rather than in conflict.” In fact, at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, 16 percent of students viewed religion and science as being in conflict before the project, but zero percent after. The desire to downplay the perceived conflict between religion and science appears to be a driving force of the whole DoSER program. But at what cost to students?

ID in the Eyes of Its Adversaries

One of the theology professors who spoke teaches at McCormick Theological Seminary. She graciously shared with us her syllabus for a Science and Religion course that is informed by the Science for Seminaries project. The course description frames the class around questions like “How do we think about God as Creator in relation to scientific discoveries about the origin of the universe and the evolution of life on earth?” and “How can we think about God acting in the world in ways that are conversant with scientific understandings of the way the world works?” Not surprisingly, we are told that particular attention will be paid to “Creationism vs. evolutionary thinking; human freedom and genetic determinism; and controversies around intelligent design.” But what will the students learn about intelligent design given that not a single text written by an ID advocate appears on the course’s reading list? A theistic evolution book by two Calvin College science professors does appear. But there are good reasons to think that ID will be encountered in this course only through the lens of its adversaries, depriving students of a chance to truly engage the religion/science relationship. 

If seminary students are going to be encouraged to think about God acting in the world in ways that are conversant with scientific understandings of the way the world works, should they not also be encouraged to consider how certain ideas that are compatible with religion might challenge scientific orthodoxies? If the answer is no, then true dialogue has devolved into monologue. But if the answer is yes, scientists will complain that religion has overstepped its bounds. If the effect of the Science for Seminaries project has been to defuse the idea of conflict, then it is clear that true dialogue fails to exist despite the letter “D” in DoSER’s name. An approach critical of evolutionary theory like the one I take in The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms will not be welcome in this “dialogue.” And substantive engagement with ID is out of the question. This is ironic given one of the presentations given by a Scripps scientist.

Biomimicry and Ecological Problems

The topic of the talk was biomimicry as a way to address ecological problems. This scientist, a marine biologist, studies the effect of plastic microfibers on the air we breathe and the water we drink. He pointed out the irony of humans manufacturing non-biodegradable plastic bottles that we use only once and then discard. In his view, this is rather unintelligent. The solution is biomimicry — learning how to manufacture more bio-friendly materials in imitation of the way nature does it, such as manufacturing materials out of cellulose fibers for multiple uses. If, as this scientist argues, we must look to nature to find solutions to our environmental problems, then it would seem that nature possesses an intelligence that far surpasses human ingenuity. But of course, this scientist would not be caught dead uttering the dreaded I-word even though his talk was shot through with ID ideas at every turn! 

ID Derangement Syndrome

I think it may be time to coin the phrase “ID derangement syndrome” to name this irrational fear of talking in a way that might be construed as support for the ID community even when one is making design arguments. ID derangement syndrome is widespread and not confined to only scientists. 

While in San Diego, I finished reading a book by Rice University religion professor Jeffrey Kripal. In The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge, Kripal argues that we need to make a flip away from viewing consciousness as a mere side effect of brain processes to an understanding of mind as a real feature of the universe. On the book’s last page he writes:

…it is difficult to read various philosophers and scientists on panpsychism, dual-aspect monism, quantum mind, cosmopsychism, and idealism and not wonder about the limitations of neo-Darwinian materialism — that is the present assumption that the cosmic, evolutionary, and genetic processes are purely random and without agency, consciousness, or intention. If the “inside” of matter is mind, as all these new models suggest in different ways, how can neo-Darwinian materialism be the full truth of things? The answer is simple: It cannot be.

One might think Kripal has flipped over to the ID viewpoint. But alas we will be disappointed. He continues: “None of this need involve any form of intelligent design, much less any biblical literalism or creationism.” In other words, Kripal seems to be saying: “There must be intelligent design in nature, but please don’t associate me with those ID people.” ID derangement syndrome pure and simple.

It is unfortunate that the AAAS feels it necessary to “affect” seminary curricula with materialist science under the guise of promoting science/religion dialogue. Authentic dialogue is needed. But no such dialogue will be possible until scientists and religion scholars alike lose their fear of the ID bogeyman challenging their faith in materialist answers to profoundly spiritual questions.

All was not lost, however. Every participant in the DoSER workshop went home with an AAAS baseball cap! 

Photo: Scripps Institution of Oceanography, by Invertzoo [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.