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Exploring the Middle Ground Between Science and Religion

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Discussions about science and religion too often resemble one team lining up against the other. In this country, the science-religion interaction can be as aggressive as NFL football. Sometimes, however, a few serious players come onto the field and refuse to take a side. This disrupts the polarized conflict, and it reminds us that the scientific and religious communities are not opposing teams, and do share common interests and concerns.

Richard Cizik, the former top lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals, co-founded the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good in 2010. A main goal of his group is "to articulate a new form of engagement that doesn't demonize science or scientists."

Cizik, who helped launch the Evangelical Climate Initiative acknowledging the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change, is firm in his belief that an acceptance of scientific evidence is crucial to society as a whole -- and to the evangelical community itself.

Cizik will speak about faith and scientific understanding at the 2011 AAAS Annual Meeting in mid-February, in a symposium entitled "Evangelicals, Science, and Policy." Cizik promises to bring new perspective to the topic.

"From our vantage point as new evangelicals, we don't see a conflict between science and religion. Millions of evangelicals have reasoned that 'scientists are evolutionists, so therefore we're going to reject what they say about climate change,'" Cizik says. "That viewpoint is born, not of deep faith, but of a particular political adherence."

In other words, from one side of the playing field.

Cizik's organization encourages dialogue by framing issues such as climate change as "values-centric." He says, "An issue involving science can also be an issue involving care for the planet, public health and security," values held deeply by the religious community.

Also speaking at this month's science and religion session at the AAAS Annual Meeting is Stanford neuroscientist William Newsome, a devout Christian. From an early age, Newsome says he felt appreciation and respect for both science and religion, enhanced by hunting for fossils with his Baptist minister father.

"To me, both science and religion are important to a well-lived, fulfilled life," he says.

A lauded researcher, Newsome says he feels "it doesn't serve a religion or its adherents to deny the contributions of science." On the other hand, Newsome says his religion allows him to look at science critically and to consider aspects of life that may not lend themselves to the scientific method. For instance, intuition and commitment without proof may be more appropriate, not only in matters of faith, but also when deciding where to live, whom to marry, or how to proceed in the face of tragedy.

Anyone who thinks the views of religious groups in society are irrelevant to science should remember that those same views affect public support for science and science education. According to the Pew Research Center for People & the Press, nearly half of the American public believes that life originated as described literally in the Bible. Meanwhile, only 28 percent of high school biology teachers consistently introduce evidence of evolution and incorporate evolution as a unifying theme in the study of biology, according to research published in the journal Science, completed by Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer of Penn State.

While science and technology advances accounted for an estimated 50 percent of U.S. economic growth since World War II, such innovation has fallen off alarmingly in the last decade or longer, according to academic, government and industry sources. At a time when President Obama is heralding "our generation's Sputnik moment," our nation's science education and science literacy as well as societal support for science is threatened.

Acknowledging the diversity of views within both the scientific and religious communities and "encouraging respectful dialogue with insight into different perspectives," as recommended by the director of the American Scientific Affiliation Randy Isaac, throws off a polarized contest in which "there's so much heat that people aren't listening to each other."

That's certainly a good thing. Such conflict is likely to produce few winners. In fact, considering the serious issues facing us at this moment in history, we all stand to lose.

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