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Science and Religion - 150 Years after Darwin

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150 years after ‘Origin of the Species’, science and religion remain as conflicted as ever

When Charles Darwin published his landmark book On the Origin of Species in 1859, his theories on evolution were quickly accepted by the vast majority of scientists. The general public, however, was not as eager to accept Darwin’s ideas, due largely to the fact that they challenged established religious beliefs. Today, 150 years after the publication of Darwin’s book, science and religion remain in as much conflict as ever when it comes to the subject of evolution.

“There is a real disconnect between what science says and what the public believes, at least in the United States,” says Ben Pierce, holder of the Lillian Nelson Pratt Chair in Biology at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.

Pierce points to Gallop Polls conducted between 1982-2004, which consistently found that 44 to 47 percent of Americans do not believe in evolution. Instead, they believe that humans were “created by God pretty much in their present form less than 10,000 years ago.”  Meanwhile, a recent survey of more than 400 university professors in Texas, a generally conservative state, found that nearly 90 percent believe modern evolutionary biology is largely correct.

Pierce is organizing one of the first events in 2009 that will mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Darwin book. The symposium, titled “Science and Religion: Conflict or Convergence,” will be held at Southwestern University Feb. 5-6 as part of the university’s annual Brown Symposium series.

Pierce says there are four approaches to the conflict between science and religion. The “Warfare Model” presumes that one side is right, the other side is wrong, and the two are permanently conflicted. The “Separate Realms” approach - which is taken by many scientists - says there is no conflict between the two because they address very different questions. In the “Accommodation Model,” science and religion each adjust their world views to accommodate findings from the other field. For example, some Biblical scholars reinterpreted the Genesis account of creation when science showed that the world is much older than previously thought.

“The problem with this model is that most accommodation has been one way - science has done very little accommodation,” Pierce says.

The model Pierce plans to focus on at the February symposium is the “Engagement Model,” which says that both fields can profit by understanding what is happening in the other fields.   For example, one of the conference speakers will be Dr. Andrew Newberg, director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania. Newburg has developed brain imaging techniques to determine what happens when people have a religious experience, and is co-author of the best-selling 2001 book Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief

Pierce says students today are very interested in the subject of science vs. religion and are seeking ways find a middle ground between the two fields. In his evolution course at Southwestern University last fall, four students wrote papers for their Biology Capstone project on ways science could be used to better understand religion. For example, one student wrote a paper on the health effects of prayer and meditation and another student wrote a paper on the genetics of spirituality.

“By taking what they learned in science classes and applying it to religion, these students put into practice the notion that science and religion can indeed have something useful to say to each other,” Pierce says. 

For more information on the symposium, visit    http://www.southwestern.edu/academics/brownsymposium/