How Priests, Rabbis and Ministers Can Bring Science into Their Theology

How Priests, Rabbis and Ministers Can Bring Science into Their Theology

The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion is running a project entitled “Science for Seminaries.” Its goal is to bring the latest scientific findings to seminarians, so that they can be better equipped to reach their congregations. This post is based on a presentation at the AAAS-DoSER “Science for Seminaries” Catholic / Orthodox faculty enrichment retreat.

Maybe you are concerned or frustrated with the widespread claim that science and religion are in conflict. Maybe you are concerned that your students or congregants will either deride science or abandon their faith. Or maybe you don’t feel sufficiently literate in any of the sciences to adequately help others to do the work of integrating science and faith within a framework that helps make sense of “both-and” rather than an “either-or” choice.

I hope here to share some lessons learned about how to – and how not to – integrate relevant science into your theological discussions.

1. Read about the dialogue between science and religion.

You may not learn much about science from this literature, but you will learn about the major questions and frameworks that can help orient you. I learned the value of orientation when I assigned readings on the psychology of religion to the seminarians in my psalms class. The informal writing assignments I designed asked students to correlate the biblical and psychological literatures. Student evaluations expressed frustration and sense of being lost. I had not provided them with a roadmap to previous work that could have given them a framework for what they were learning. For example, I might have explained the four models for the interaction of science and religion: conflict, independence, dialogue, integration.

2. Pick an area or aspect of science that you want to learn more about.

You may already know what you want to learn about. But if not, think about the places where scientific topics already come up in your life. When I teach Genesis 1–3, the Big Bang and evolution inevitably arise. Genesis 1:14 points to the relationship between astronomy and all our meaningful units of time (except the seven-day week). The effects of music on the brain are currently a fast-developing field of neurological study with relevance to liturgy. There is also more and more research on the psychology of religion. Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudat Si’ has brought the attention of the world to Catholic teaching on the environment and connected it to social justice. The list of possibilities could be expanded, but seek to find something that draws your attention and engages your interest.

3. The book you will read is almost always better than the one you do not read.

The huge book with the fine print might have more detailed and accurate information than the smaller one for a wider audience, but if you do not read the ‘better’ book, then it does not do you any good. Select books you are likely to read even if they may not be the ‘best’ books.

If you are starting from a position of near total ignorance, look for sources that offer simple introductions. In order to locate reliable sources, look for the professional organizations of the scientists in that field. Many scientific societies seek to educate the public about their disciplines and freely offer reliable information. Many other websites from museums, universities, and other institutions provide excellent learning opportunities. See this annotated list of potentially useful links at the Catholic University of America.

When searching for sites, be sure to check their reliability so that you do not uncritically accept advocacy positions as solid science. Most sites have an “about us” link that describes who created the site and why. Be suspicious if you do not see this information made available in a transparent way. Advocacy sites may have some good information, but they are prone to exaggeration, sensationalization, and select only that information that suits their agenda.

4. Read about the history of science or the particular science you are learning about.

The history of science offers three major advantages. First, it offers a ‘humanities-friendly’ approach to science. Works in the history of science involve familiar story-telling about people and avoid using unnecessary jargon. Second, reading about how scientific discoveries were made can significantly enhance your memory for the finding. Third, seeing the process of science can dispel several misconceptions about science. You will see science as a process rather than a set of facts, and you will see how messy this process can be.

5. Do not be afraid to reach out to scientists with your questions.

Someone at a school near you teaches science and would likely be happy to help you learn. Imagine how willing you would be to help the science teacher learn more about religion. People enjoy sharing their passions. You may be able to email local scientists at a nearby college or government institute who can help you through difficulties you encounter in your learning.

6. Use social media.

Many scientists and scientific societies have Twitter accounts. Start following these Twitter accounts to access current content of interest to you. Many scientists interested in science communication seek to reach the public through Twitter (search #scicomm; see my account @DBoz14 which follows and periodically reposts form several such accounts). A further advantage of Twitter is that you can ask questions; it is not a one-way medium. Many of the scientists on Twitter also create blogs of interest. and are social media platforms for academics. If you do not have access to a good research library, but want to access scientific works, create a free account and search within these sites.

7. Keep up with current developments by following science news.

There are many science news outlets. Note that news items often sensationalize recent scientific studies beyond what the evidence supports, but your deeper reading can help you keep these in perspective. It also helps to remember that one study is just one study. Note that the websites of scientific societies also have news sections. You can get apps for your smart phone that help you stay abreast of science developments. Some are specific to science (Google “science news apps”), but many general news apps allow you to customize your newsfeed to include topics that interest you (Flipboard is a popular platform for iOS and Android). Also, Twitter can be an excellent resource. Begin by following the scientific societies and institutions that interest you. They will tweet links to their content. You can also follow scientists and others who tweet scientific content. You can search Twitter to discover content that interests you and locate who is producing it (e.g., search #scicomm).

8. Engage in citizen science.

Citizen science, also called crowd-sourced science, is science conducted by people who are not professional scientists. Many, but not all, citizen science projects are related to the work of professional scientists who enhance their work with help from the public. There are many websites listing citizen science opportunities across a range of disciplines, and you can search for the field that interests you or that is specific to your locality. You can do science in the city or country, from your home or the outdoors. Many project rely on phone apps, and you can search for these too.

By consistently striving to improve your scientific understanding, your life can become more interesting. You may be surprised at many of the things you learn, whether the implications of new research, or the illumination of well-tested theories. My own readings in psychology have shown me that my sense of myself as an autonomous person is largely illusory. Although my memories and emotions seem personal and intimate to me, they connect me to others in ways I had not previously appreciated. Indeed, modern psychology has delved deeply into the individual — and I discovered a community.


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