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Studying science at seminary: How learning about new research helps pastors preach
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Casey Cole wants to be a priest. That means attending five years of seminary classes, where he studies theology, philosophy and evolution.

"I was not expecting to take a course in which I had to read from NASA's website or from Darwin," he said of his Old Testament class this semester that includes the story of creation. "But when you know more about Catholic tradition, it fits."

Cole attends the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University of America, one of 10 seminaries integrating scientific research into its curriculum with the help of the "Science for Seminaries" pilot project, sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion. Students at participating schools study scientific disciplines like neuroscience, biology and astronomy alongside the Bible.

The project combats a popular perception among Americans that pits science against religion. Nearly 6-in-10 (59 percent) U.S. adults say the two ways of viewing the world are in conflict, according to a new Pew Research Center study.

In addition to bridging that divide among many congregants, Science for Seminaries advocates said reflecting on the relationship between religion and science can also aid faith leaders both intellectually and professionally.

"The great theologians of the past spent a lot of time focused on creation and did what they could with the insights of their day. They were intrigued by medicine and the human body," said Ronald Cole-Turner, a Pittsburgh Theological Seminary professor and ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. "I take their curiosity as an opening to fuel and nourish the curiosity of today's students."

Science and faith

Preachers may rarely highlight the value of science from their pulpits, but that doesn't mean science and religion are opposed, according to Cole-Turner and others who work at the intersection of the two subjects.

"Scientists help advance human understanding of God's mysterious creation," he said. "What's more elegant than that?"

Historically, many religious leaders have famously viewed science with contempt, such as when Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church for positing that the Earth revolves around the sun.

Even today, some faith leaders confront science with fear and dismissal, such as when Ken Ham, a prominent Christian speaker and leader of Kentucky's Creation Museum, publicly shames Christians who believe in evolution, said Cole-Turner, who serves as an adviser for the Science for Seminaries project.

However, scientists have also had a role in fueling tension between the two worldviews, said Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University, in an email. She cited 19th century books by Andrew Dickson White and John Draper, who wrote about past conflicts between religion and science in order to raise the status of scientific education.

"Both (authors) had good arguments for why people should learn science, but they embedded them in a larger, and faulty" argument against the value of religious education, she said.

The conflict resurfaces regularly, as when Neil deGrasse Tyson, a popular science communicator and host of the "Cosmos" reboot, said in 2014 that nothing fruitful can emerge from efforts to reconcile faith and reason.

These memorable confrontations between faith leaders and scientists have become the prominent, popular narrative depicting a centuries-old conflict. But even if many Americans perceive a tension between science and religion in general, most see no conflict between scientific findings and their personal faith.

"Less than one-third of Americans polled in the new survey say their personal religious beliefs conflict with science, while fully two-thirds (68 percent) say there is no conflict between their own beliefs and science," Pew reported.

People who are most active in faith communities are actually less likely than other believers to cite conflict, with 50 percent of adults who attend religious services at least weekly seeing religion and science as opposed, compared to 73 percent of those who attend religious services "seldom or never," the survey found.

Although Cole-Turner said these figures are surprising, he noted that people who are serious about their faith are often more comfortable working through potential conflicts.

"Those who are deeply in tune with the practice of the Christian life" can engage with science without feeling threatened, he said.

Enriching engagement

With the Science for Seminaries project, professors and scientists hope to enable faith leaders to engage with science throughout their ministries.

"We wanted to make sure that future pastors and clergy members have some interface with science in their educational programs that would help them understand that science is relevant to just about everything in modern life," said Jennifer Wiseman, director of the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion.

Many seminary students are already clamoring for this kind of information, because they predict future church members coming to them for help understanding scientific discoveries, said David Bosworth, an associate professor of the Old Testament at Catholic University of America and the teacher responsible for making Cole read Darwin excerpts.

"Many of my students choose to do class projects on the theme of science and religion," he said. "They're thinking about the audience of people in their future parishes who will need help integrating science with Catholicism. Or considering evangelizing to secular people and atheists who might feel like it's impossible to" reconcile science with faith.

For his final project in Bosworth's class this semester, Cole plans to discuss bringing the Bible into conversation with scientific research on his blog and YouTube channel.

"The Catholic tradition has room for reason, philosophy and science," he said.

Seminary science lessons

The 10 schools participating in the science for seminaries project fall into three religious groups: Catholics, evangelical/conservative Protestants and mainline Protestants. Each faith community has its own needs to consider when engaging with science, and AAAS advisers are charged with meeting professors and students where they're at, Wiseman said.

"We're leaving it up to the seminaries to figure out how best to incorporate scientific information into their courses and educational goals," she noted.

AAAS provides financial support and advice, but seminaries take the lead in adjusting syllabi, inviting scientists to campus to present lectures and planning conferences.

The goal is for schools to present science fairly and accurately, not to ensure that future pastors side with science when research conflicts with their beliefs, said Joel Okamoto, an associate professor of systematic theology at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.

"(Project leaders) want pastors to be more fair and careful in representing scientific findings. They don't have to agree," he said.

At Concordia, which is affiliated with the conservative Missouri Synod branch of the Lutheran Church, Okamoto helped design a curriculum change that deepens students' scientific engagement without creating too much controversy. Professors are drawing on neuroscience to explore what it means to be human, considering, for example, how brain research can inform people's study of the Psalms.

Similarly, Bosworth uses psychological research to reflect on the act of prayer in his Psalms class. He also oversees efforts to include scientific research on the origins of human life in his school's Old Testament class, which, Bosworth admits, has raised some eyebrows.

"There's pushback when people think you're stepping outside of the boundaries of the church," he said.

Bosworth addresses these concerns by opening his science-enriched courses with a discussion of how the Catholic Church teaches its members to engage with scripture. He said church leaders have highlighted the need to focus on God's message of salvation, rather than try to take every line of the Bible literally.

Okamoto said members of his faith are less comfortable adjusting the creation story to scientific findings, but noted there is still value in engaging with science on its own terms.

In faith groups, "there is sometimes a tendency toward being fearful or not being fair" to science, he said. "In the long run, that doesn't serve anyone's purposes."

Curiosity replacing conflict

Being intentional about including science in Catholic University of America's seminary curriculum has already made a difference for his students, Bosworth said.

"In a recent class, we had a conversation about clothing and status. School uniforms came up and students asked" if there was research to show their psychological impacts, he said. "I love that students are now interested in empirical evidence."

Bosworth hopes that the Science for Seminaries project will inspire participants to continue to approach science with curiosity throughout their ministries.

"Ten years from now, I want these students to have a sense of wonder that facilitates their ability to learn," he said.

At the very least, the AAAS initiative should help faith leaders feel more comfortable reading articles about scientific research or addressing new technologies from the pulpit, said Cassidy Stinson, who, like Cole, is a seminarian in Bosworth's class.

"Just being able to talk intelligently about these things is important," he said. "When we don't understand something, it's easier to pretend it doesn't exist or dismiss it out of hand."

Cole said he recently drew on his new knowledge of evolutionary biology while meeting with a hospital patient who rejected science because of his personal beliefs.

"I wasn't trying to change his mind or tell him he was wrong. I wanted to give him a broader view of what the world could be," he said.

With science and religion, people shouldn't have to decide where their allegiances lie and then reject the other side, Cole said.

"Why can't there be truth in both?," he asked. "If God created everything, everything created can teach us about God."
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