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Center for the Study of Science and Religion


The Center for the Study of Science and Religion is an interdisciplinary, inter-school, collaborative forum for the examination of issues at the boundary of the scientific and religious ways of comprehending the world and our place in it.

Sciences respond to a felt need to understand the world, and religions respond to a felt need for the world to have meaning. From these different starting points, one issue emerges at the junction of any science and any religion: are these felt needs commensurate? That is, is the universe a moral place, so that the natural order is relevant to human lives and human values; do faith and family, love and charity mirror any larger meaning than the meanings we give to them? Today, to a first approximation, the answer to these questions from any religion is Yes, and the answer from any science is No.

The Center for the Study of Science and Religion (CSSR) was founded in the summer of 1999 as a forum for the examination of issues that lie at the boundary of these two complementary ways of comprehending the world and our place in it. By examining the intersections that cross over the boundaries between one or another science and one or another religion, the CSSR hopes to stimulate dialogue and encourage understanding. The CSSR is not interested in promoting one or another science or religion, and we hope that the service we provide will be of benefit and offer understanding into all sciences and religions.

The Center for the Study of Science and Religion is currently proposing to undertake a variety of educational and research projects as well. It is sponsoring lectures and seminars on the Columbia campus, designing courses for undergraduates, developing training programs for graduate students – including professional students – and fostering research projects that will bring together scholars from a variety of disciplines. Some of these are listed below. Please let us know by email if you are interested in joining in any of these discussions.

As an institution, science has always embraced several implicit social goals, including widespread human prosperity, disease eradication, and, more recently, environmental integrity. Social consensus exists as to the importance of these goals, but differences constantly arise in how to pursue them. From the time of the Renaissance and Reformation, science has supplied not only explanations of natural phenomenon and their underlying mechanisms, but also the ‘scientific method’ for skeptical, non-dogmatic analysis of society and its values. Cosmopolitan Europeans embraced ‘science’ without touching a test tube or solving an integral but with the certainty that rational, materialistic analysis would yield optimal solutions to social as well as technical problems.

At the same time, the results of science have always presented a natural world that is filled with order, but have not vested it with meaning. Alone, the data of science lead to the conclusion that the sole meaning of the natural world lies in its orderliness. Restricting the meaning of the natural world to its orderliness leaves us with a vision of the planet that is devoid of many valuable aspects of our own lives. This suggests that the vision may be incomplete, even inside the boundaries of its own experimental fields.

The experience of transcendence, whether personal or communal, is universal, suggesting that at a very minimum, ubiquitous religious expectations–altruism, ethical norms, spirit, and the hope of immortality–are data of sort, if only as peculiarly recurrent events in human brains. They must be taken into account in any comprehensive attempt at modeling or predicting human behavior. Yet, while every branch of science has an obligation to look at all the data derived from its observations, all sciences have by-and-large avoided examining the origin, content, utility or meaning of religious experiences and texts which emerge from within all cultures and all languages of our species.

With its methodology of disinterested hypothesis-testing through experimentation, science has contributed functional models for understanding the world. As the business of prediction in science moves from atoms, organisms and devices to social dynamics, ‘scientific’ models of social and human behavior have been used to plan for implementation. In invoking the science in the development of models, science has developed a dogma of its own that informs areas well beyond the scope of empirical observation. In this extrapolation of its limited core, science finds itself on equal footing with religion in offering social and behavioral models that are not or can not be tested.

Science has also created theoretical solutions to certain social as well as technical problems which have not always proven to be workable. The CSSR will help social scientists to take into account religious experiences and rituals in their attempts at the comprehensive modeling or predicting of human behavior. CSSR will therefore have a particular reason to focus on the science and scientists involved in social planning, scientific research policy, and strategies for the protecting the future of the planet.

The CSSR will address the possible vocational aspects of those men and women who work as scientists but are also called upon to render judgment on social or policy issues, and on the place of religion in the models of human and social behavior used to formulate and vindicate such judgments.

The medical sciences have given us remarkable gifts, not least of which is an average life expectancy that is twice as long as it was only a century ago. But even these most humane of the applied sciences have not vested the natural world with meaning, nor have they done well with issues of illness and healing that do not lend themselves to controlled experimentation. Current medical practice proceeds by internally-set rules, largely uninformed by any religious tradition.

The universal absence of religious sensibility–in the examining room, the operating room and the consulting room alike–has been the cause of considerable unnecessary distress and confusion for patients and doctors alike. Most religious patients–no matter their level of observance–do not know how to use their religious tradition for emotional support and intellectual insight into their medical situation. At the same time doctors and scientists are largely ignorant of their religious traditions, and the minority of patients and doctors who are openly religious cannot easily open a discussion with each other unless it is clear that the both want such a discussion and both know how to conduct it. The CSSR will attempt to assist centers of religious learning in incorporating the most recent discoveries of medical science–especially genetic science–into their studies, their texts and their interpretations.