What’s God got to do with it?

As religion becomes increasingly stigmatized by the academic elite, many question the place of faith at university

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Photo Illustration by Tyler Ball

On July 23, 1998, Edward J. Larson, a science historian then based out of the University of Georgia, and Larry Witham, a journalist, published the results of an oft-invoked, somewhat controversial study that came to the conclusion that “among the top natural scientists, disbelief [in God] is greater than ever—almost total.” The duo found that among the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), seven per cent expressed personal belief in a “God in intellectual and affective communication with humankind,” 20.8 claimed doubt or agnosticism and 72.2 chose personal disbelief.

Their survey addressed a pamphlet the NAS distributed throughout the education system in the United States which claimed that, “Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.” The survey results, argued Larson and Witham, suggested otherwise: the elite academic community was clearly aligned.

But to mention the NAS survey to Denis O. Lamoureux—a professor of science and religion at St. Joseph’s College at the University of Alberta and the author of the forthcoming I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution—is to muster a passionate response.

“Of course the ad homonym argument is that because you’re in the NAS you’re a hell of a lot better than any other scientists,” Lamoureux told the Journal. “If that indeed is the case, does that make them philosophically and theologically astute to pontificate in a discipline they are not trained in, even at the undergraduate level? To call them the cream of the crop with regards to things about the divine or philosophy is really a misappropriation of academic authority. ... We’re all trapped within our specialties.” Lamoureux’s professorship at St. Joseph’s College is the first tenure-track position in Canada dedicated to the relationship between scientific discovery and Christian faith. Holding three doctorate degrees in biology, dentistry and theology, he recently published Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution and, since its release, has participated in public discussions—most notably on TVO, where his arguments were addressed and debated by Richard Dawkins—about accommodation of religion in education. When asked about the NAS survey, Lamoureux pointed to another, less frequently invoked Larson and Witham study published merely a year earlier. Rather than focusing on the scientific elite, it polled the scientific community at large, asking the same questions as the 1998 survey. In contrast to the later survey, 39.3 percent of those polled reported a personal sense of belief—a slight drop from the 41.8 per cent who answered the same in an earlier, replicate survey completed in 1916.

“Is there a war between science and religion [in universities]?” he asked. “No. You have 40 per cent of people with a PhD in science who believe in a God who answers prayer. That is a wickedly, wickedly narrow definition of God.” Lamoureux sees the university’s creation of his position—now being adopted by other institutions across Canada—as one emblematic of a broader, more respectful dialogue about religion in education that goes beyond simple evolution-versus-creation dichotomies.

“The palaeontology department at this university has my science and religion course as one of their recommended courses,” he said. “These are not religious people, but they want their students be exposed to all categories. This is very healthy to have, and it’s very healthy to … let students make informed choices.”

When asked whether the academic community is largely spiritual or secular, Lamoureux acknowledged religion’s place on the periphery. But the biggest problem, Lamoureux said, is when public educators such as Richard Dawkins conflate science—their discipline—with theology or philosophy, but fail to acknowledge the wide gap between disciplines. Such an approach to the God question in universities is, to Lamoureux, a dangerous academic mentality. Although he maintains the vast majority of academics do not subscribe to the extremes of Dawkinsian rhetoric, Lamoureux said the total condemnation of religion by the few could be damaging to education and the scientific discipline in the future.

“Because of the science-religion warfare ... a lot of religious people, if they end up going to university, end up in safe sciences—dentistry, medicine, engineering—your faith doesn’t need to get touched there.

“[Dawkins and company] have done such an inordinate disservice to science by baptizing it with their atheism and alienating fine young men and women who love science but, all of a sudden, because Dawkins is saying that science is going to lead to atheism, they’re going in the other direction.”

But Lamoureux said the academic community has been supportive of his educational approach, and the approach of other prominent religious evolutionists, such as Francis Collins.

“I don’t get any flak because I do a classic separation,” he said. “That is, science is not about metaphysics. Metaphysics is metaphysics. Now, you can use your science to inform your metaphysics, that’s not a problem, but the thing is when you’re doing metaphysics you’re not doing science.

“There is no direct line or mathematic formula where you can go from physics to metaphysics, from nature to ultimate belief. We’re all devotees of some sort.” But those like Lamoureux who attempt to accommodate religion within a highly secular academic environment have their critics. Adèle Mercier, a Queen’s philosophy professor—a self-identified atheist and participant in the Does God Exist? debates previously held by Queen’s Campus for Christ—is one such critic, believing there is just cause for the stigmatization of religion within universities.

“Whether [religion] is stigmatized or not is a sociological question that I’m not competent to answer,” Mercier said. “Whether it ought to be stigmatized is a philosophical question, and I’m reasonably comfortable saying that religion ought to be stigmatized as any form of irrational thought or belief ought to be stigmatized. Every form of human irrationality we should attempt to eradicate.

“This is not to say that there should be stigmas attached to religious people. We should not discriminate against people but against certain beliefs.”

Like any community, academia is replete with bias, Mercier said, so the task of the academic community should be to guide that bias in a healthy direction.

“There are all kinds of good biases in a university,” she said. “For instance, there is a bias in universities in favour of smart people over the unintelligent. There ought to be a bias in academia in favour of critical thinking. [Religious people] do choose their religious beliefs, and I think any kind of environment that encourages critical thinking should critically examine religious belief, and if they’re irrational we should attempt to get rid of them.”

Mercier said she agrees with introducing inter-disciplinary discussions on science and religion for undergraduates to illustrate the influence religious thinking has upon science, and vice-versa.

“I think of religion as a sort of predisposition, almost like a brain state,” she said. “So I’m all in favour of discussions about the way this kind of thinking influences our scientific thought in the same way that I’m interested in studying the way that human perception affects our scientific thinking, because scientific thinking aims for the truth and sometimes our own human limitations may blind us to the truth.

“But I see no rational reason for thinking that religion has anything positive to contribute to science. I see no reason for thinking that our paradigm irrational thinking has anything to contribute to our paradigm rational thinking.”

Religion, Mercier said, is accommodated to a dangerous extreme. The bias, at least in society at large, is often situated more strongly against atheists, and such circumstances justify increased critical thinking about the role of religion in public institutions.

“Again, I believe in accommodating individuals, if that’s at all possible—everyone is allowed a certain indulgence in irrationalities of their own choosing—but having institutional respect for religious dogma is, I think, an aberration.”

Helmet Hair

Michael A. Persinger, a cognitive neuroscience researcher and professor at Laurentian University, found notoriety in the 1980s when he developed the so-called “God helmet,” an apparatus which uses a magnetic field to stimulate the parietal and temporal lobes of the brain, artificially producing the sensation of having an ethereal presence in the room. He has researched the cognitive processes behind mystical and religious experiences and their impact upon philosophical and psychological principles in society.

“Belief is an essential component of human behaviour,” he said. “If you look at exotic belief—time travel, alien landings, etc.—some people score very high on those, but they score very low on others, such as the Messiah returning to earth, but the average is the same. ...The goal of a university is to pursue the unknown and discover knowledge. In the pursuit of irrational beliefs we may understand why they occur. A university should be open to any idea, no matter how far-fetched, that’s what open-mindedness is. Once we start to disregard ideas that are considered unfeasible is when we limit the infinite possibilities that define a university.” Ultimately, Persinger said, individual belief systems should not be a problem for the academic community. The problem occurs when it’s associated with actions or consequence that affect others.

“I’ve been in all the sciences—and I would consider the humanities, such as history, a science as well—the critical thing, the biggest determiner, is always the individual,” he said. “What you will find is the degree to which a person will utilize religious belief is political astuteness in the context. It’s how they behave with each other, not what they think. It’s behavior that modifies human conduct, not thoughts.”

—Taylor Burns

Postscript short fiction contest

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