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Science, Religion and Civil Dialogue

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I was not surprised by the findings of a recent Rice University survey that half of the top 1,700 U.S. scientists described themselves as religious. The scientific community, like any other group, includes people with many world views, from evangelicals to atheists.

Of course, some people in sociologist and survey director Elaine Ecklund's study group, as with the general population, described themselves as atheists. Yet even within that category, many also identified themselves as "spiritual." This may explain why, in 275 lengthy follow-up interviews Ecklund found only five scientists who said they actively oppose religion.

Let's hope that Ecklund's unusually comprehensive assessment will help overturn the myth that scientists reject spirituality, or that science and religion are inherently incompatible.

That myth persists among scientists and religious believers alike. In 2009 study by the Pew Research Center, 61% of Americans said that science poses no conflict with their own faith. Nonetheless, 55% of those same respondents said they view religion and science generally as "often in conflict." Evolution, for instance, has divided Americans since 1859, when Charles Darwin published "On the Origin of Species."

There is a better way, which will be demonstrated June 16 when leading scientists and a respected Christian minister engage in a free, public dialogue at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

A successful engagement effort does not require a specific outcome. So, civil discourse will be the only objective for the upcoming event, convened by the association's Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion program. The association also takes no position on whether religion is good or bad.

Americans have long recognized the power of scientific engagement as a neutral tool for improving foreign relations. Science diplomacy in the 1970s resulted in new cooperation with China and the Soviet Union. Similarly, the current administration launched a major science diplomacy effort, naming science envoys to predominantly Muslim countries in North Africa and Southeast Asia.

But within our own borders, we have tended to overlook another important form of diplomacy that could promote civility by easing political and religious polarization. Increased civil dialogue between scientists and religious leaders suggests a path toward common ground, whether the topic is human origins or climate change.

The need for such diplomacy is clear as U.S. science educators and some in the religious community increasingly find themselves at loggerheads over issues where science can appear to conflict with long-held beliefs. In state after state, those who oppose evolution are introducing legislation to undermine science education. Revised Texas science standards, for example, fail to mention common descent or the age of the universe. These omissions are unfortunate. Understanding evolution is central to science literacy, which in turn affects students' job prospects and American competitiveness.

Climate change skeptics also are challenging science curricula. The Texas standards, similar to a new Louisiana bill and proposals elsewhere, now require students to learn "different views on the existence of global warming." Such attempts to weaken K-12 science education are troubling and perplexing. The science of climate change is clear, and a basic tenet of many religions is the call to be good stewards of the planet.

Various groups are working to mend this rift. For example, the Scientists and Evangelicals Initiative in 2007 sent religious leaders and scientists to Alaska to see receding glaciers and talk with people affected by climate change. Last year, the group also spoke with U.S. policy-makers about options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The June 16 event at AAAS will bring David Anderson, founder and lead pastor of Bridgeway Community Church, together with scientists such as William Phillips, a 1997 Nobel Laureate in Physics, astrophysicist Howard Smith of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and paleontologist Rick Potts of the Smithsonian Human Origins Program.

Tensions at the intersection of science and society can promote a pervasive atmosphere of disrespect that damages the fabric of our culture: A recent Zogby International survey revealed that Americans overwhelmingly feel "fed up with incivility." In response, Mark DeMoss, a Republican and evangelical Christian, teamed up last year with Lanny Davis, a liberal Jewish Democrat, to launch the Civility Project, which calls on us to be respectful despite our differences.

We should all follow their example. Both medical and technological advances and high-quality science education improve human welfare and drive economic progress, creating jobs and better lives for our children. Civil dialogue offers a way for the American public and the scientific community to collaborate more productively on behalf of our communities and our nation.