THE BLOG
06/25/2013 10:08 am ET Updated Aug 25, 2013

‪Teaching About God and Science Revisited

Dr. Hedin's course at Ball State University on the "Boundaries of Science" remains in the news, with the New Atheists, led by Jerry Coyne, waging a war of words with the senior fellows at the Discovery Institute.

I often find myself caught between the extreme views coming from these opposing armies in the science culture wars. On the one hand, I stand with Coyne and the atheists in opposing the efforts of the Discovery Institute to alter science teaching in America by introducing long-discredited ideas about supernatural explanations for natural phenomena.

However, I also reject the atheist claim that there is no room for discussion of God at the "boundaries of science," as the beleaguered Dr. Hedin is trying to do. Coyne and the atheists simply don't understand -- or at least pretend to not understand -- that such discussions are not necessarily religious. Nor do they understand the depth of the arguments thoughtful philosophers continue to make for the existence of God. The non-existence of God is far from a settled truth.

The "God" invoked at the "boundary" of science, of course, is not the God of Christianity or any religion for that matter. This "Boundary God" is the God of deism and deism is aggressively rejected by Christianity: "Deism is belief in God based on reason and nature. The differing alleged revelations of the various revealed religions are conspicuously absent from Deism."

Exploring the question of whether a transcendent intelligence of some sort might be a better explanatory foundation for the world that we encounter than a purely mindless materialism is not a religious quest in any traditional sense. No religion could possibly be built on such a foundation. It seems to me that such an exploration would be akin to asking whether humans are better understood as "minds" that work top-down or "brains" that work bottom-up. Science roots for "brains," of course, but there is certainly wiggle room in this conversation.

While Hedin and his Ball State syllabus are both far too cozy with Intelligent Design for my liking, his class exploring deism is far from an evangelistic presentation of Christianity as some are claiming.

After my last post one of Hedin's students contacted me and told me that she thought I was the only one in this conversation who seemed to understand was what really going on in Hedin's class, perhaps because I have actually been teaching this material for years.

Describing herself as one of "two agnostics" in a class dominated by evangelical Christians, Christine recalled that "Dr. Hedin never promoted Christianity." The class discussions, she wrote me in an email, focused on "the idea that science and religion can be reconciled, and though the name "God" was used by him and class members, it was always in reference to any type of higher power or creator god." Contradicting claims that Hedin was "proselytizing," Christine reports that "Jesus and other Christian figures were never mentioned in class."‬

Despite the class being almost entirely Christian, Christine says the minority atheist views were "never disparaged," by Hedin. (This not preclude students being put off by fellow students, of course, but that is common in classrooms where lively discussion takes place.) The students were even required to present the views of the side opposing their own views. This would have required the predominantly evangelical class to formulate the case for atheism.

Christine's experience was that Hedin's course was "above expectations" in terms of promoting critical thinking and ahead of typical classes at Ball State. She recalls animated discussions being launched with Hedin writing on the board a question such as "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

(I have led the same discussion in my classes at Stonehill College and had no difficulty in ensuring that the topic was treated fairly. It's a deep philosophical question about the boundaries of scientific explanation and kudos to any physicist who writes it on the black board to get students thinking. Exploring the topic opens up interesting questions about whether the claim "God is the reason there is something rather than nothing" actually explains anything, or whether such a claim represents a non-rational foundational starting point that grounds the rest of the discussion. In other words: Is belief in a "God" of some sort necessary in order that the world be rationally understood? My thoughts on this topic can be found in my book The Wonder of the Universe: Hints of God in a Fine-Tuned World. I pair this with a book by an atheist in one of my classes at Stonehill.)

Christine reports that "All the students I have met and have taken this class like Dr. Hedin." And although "some did not like the class" she writes that she has "never heard any complaints about him or his professionalism." Dr. Hedin, she recalls "never once asserted that there IS a god," although the students did.

So what is going on here? Let me speculate and reiterate why I think Hedin's critics should back down. The minority agnostics in Hedin's class are going to feel left out, just as southern evangelicals at Harvard or Brandeis might feel left out or Muslim students at almost any university. The minority agnostics will be socially disconnected from their largely Christian classmates who love having the professor on "their" side, even though Hedin is not promoting their shared religion in class. So the agnostic reaches outside the university for allies and ends up with some major culture warriors on his or her side -- people looking for occasions to assault religion -- or something close enough that they can pretend is religion.

The situation at Ball State is reminiscent of the Scopes Trial, where a tiny non-event in Dayton, Tennessee, was enlarged by early 20th century culture warriors -- Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan -- into an unhelpful national distraction that provided nothing but entertainment.

We need thicker skins. Far too much energy is expended fussing over minor occasional offenses or perceived slights, and enlarging them into major confrontations.