How Has the Science-Religion Field Changed
Over the Last Eight Years?
An SSQ Retrospective
By Philip Clayton
"SSQ has been an extraordinary program in its global
outreach. Every conference has been simultaneously a dialogue
between science and religion and a dialogue among major religious
traditions. Because the participants respected each other
as scientists, they were open to each others' views without
the defensiveness typically found in ecumenical conferences.
Because these were such eminent and articulate scientists,
they communicated effectively to a wider public through symposia,
media coverage, and subsequent publication" (Ian Barbour,
For eight years, the program "Science and the Spiritual
Quest" (SSQ) assembled leading scientists from around
the world in private workshops, organized public conferences
and telecasts, drew media attention to questions of science
and religion, and published books and articles. One of the
field's largest and longest-running programs, SSQ was by most
measures also one of its most successful programs. Thus it
is appropriate today, as SSQ closes its doors and takes down
its shingle, to step back and take stock of the science-religion
field as a whole:
o What was "science/religion" in 1995?
o Where is it today?
o What role did SSQ play in this change? What made it successful,
and where were its weaknesses?
o Finally - if we are to ask the really difficult question
- what is it that the field most needs today if it is to continue
to thrive and expand?
"Science/Religion" in 1995
Eight years ago one could count the large centers devoted
to science and religion on the fingers of one hand. There
were a few notable publications per year; every year or so
a major conference took place; a few people occasionally taught
a course on the topic; and the media had little idea what
was afoot. A few brave individuals were speaking out about
the importance of the dialogue. They included Ian Barbour,
John Polkinghorne, Arthur Peacocke, Philip Hefner, Robert
Russell, Nancey Murphy, and several dozen more of the pioneers
in the field, many of whom continue to exercise leadership
Sir John Templeton encouraged Russell, founder and director
of the Berkeley-based Center for Theology and the Natural
Sciences (CTNS), to design a "Humility Theology Research
Program." Russell and Mark Richardson, Program Director
at the Center, hypothesized that some scientists see their
science as itself a spiritual quest, or at least integrate
it closely with their religious practice. The title "Science
and the Spiritual Quest" was born.
Unlike today, the slate of scientists already publicly identified
with the dialogue was small. The challenge for Phase One was
to locate and invite mostly Jewish, Christian and Muslim scientists;
Phase Two would then expand to include all the world's religions.
Yet, even given Phase One's limited goal, it took months of
research to identify 60 scientists who were prestigious enough
in their fields and knowledgeable enough of their religious
traditions to qualify.
For these first scientists, the idea of talking openly about
science and their own spiritual quest was novel, surprising,
and sometimes threatening. They felt like pioneers. Each scientist
gave a one-hour interview, and all the scientists read each
other's interviews prior to the first meeting. The famous
cosmologist, Allan Sandage, expressed surprise and exuberance
at the first meeting of cosmologists, walking up to one individual
after another and exclaming, "But Bill, we have been
together at conferences for 20 years - I never knew you had
any interest in religious questions!"
Equally surprising - and to many, shocking - was the idea
that the physics department at the University of California,
Berkeley, might sponsor a major conference on science and
religion. Press from across America and overseas descended
on the Berkeley campus for the June 1998 conference. Leading
anti-religious scientists, catching wind of the media circus,
requested equal time at the podium to rebut claims for the
compatibility of religion and science. Over 100 million media
impressions were devoted to that summer's event, including
the cover story of Newsweek. The title on the cover expressed
the nation's amazement at this new discovery: "Scientists
Over the last eight years SSQ has held 16 private three-day
workshops on two continents, involving 123 new scientists
in constructive dialogue at the intersections of science and
spirituality. The program organized 17 public events in nine
countries on four continents. Taken together, these events
reached close to 12,000 audience members firsthand and many
millions more through the media - some 250 million, according
to the official estimates of the PR firm Logic Media Group.
Six books covering the research output of SSQ have been published
on four different continents or are currently in production.
The group's website, www.ctns.org/ssq/, lists four full-length video
products and contains a massive amount of supplementary material;
further excerpts from the SSQ program are available through
the Counterbalance Foundation (www.counterbalance.org). In
all, 48 different organizations, institutions and financial
supporters became allies in achieving these results.
What of the field in general? It would be redundant to inform
readers of Research News that the science-religion dialogue
is flourishing. This and other publications overwhelm the
reader with a seemingly endless smorgasbord of events, centers,
research reports, and publications in the field. Some 100
new courses a year in the field were launched through the
work of the CTNS "Science and Religious Course Program,"
which ran for eight years. Ever more "big name"
scientists are speaking aboug integrating their scientific
and religious concerns. The John Templeton Foundation now
invests some $20 million per year in science-religion research
and aims if possible to double that investment in the coming
years. A quick glance at the calendar of upcoming events in
this issue testifies to the explosion of activity.
Clearly, the field of science/religion has come of age.
What Did SSQ Contribute, and Where did It Fail?
Perhaps it's appropriate now, at this time of transition,
to step back from the facts and pause a moment to analyze
and evaluate. What happens if we set the lens wider than SSQ,
using this program merely as a means to evaluate the flurry
of science-religion activity racing on around us? It turns
out that the strengths and weaknesses of SSQ are highly instructive
for recognizing broader tendencies in the field. First the
o SSQ researched and sought out prominent scientists who
were interested in connections between science and the religious
or spiritual quest but who were not yet active in the dialogue.
This research function remains crucial if the field is to
expand and, eventually, to encompass the top echelons of science.
o SSQ used groups of like-minded scientists, paired by discipline,
to introduce new scholars to the science-religion field. Their
own autobiographies, elaborated in interviews and transcribed
onto paper, become the first point of contact, supplemented
by reading booklets designed to introduce new scientists to
the topic. This type of in-depth interaction, which depends
upon respect for scientific colleagues and a high level of
trust, requires a large investment of time and energy. It
cannot be replaced by simply inviting new scientists to speak
at conferences or participate in debates. We need moderators,
mentors and mediators more than theologians who will teach
the scientists the answers.
o Through a long process of discussion, research, paper
writing, and feedback from colleagues, SSQ scientists gradually
became contributing members to the science-religion debate.
As many as possible were then given the opportunity to address
audiences, to meet other colleagues in the field, and to publish
their work in refereed journals. Since most were new to the
field, and many spoke with that first blush of excitement,
their papers and talks were generally accessible to non-specialized
audiences. Thousands of audience members were reached directly
by their presentations and millions more through publications,
televised broadcasts, and media reports. Clearly the program
was a popular success as well as an effective means of expanding
the dialogue. If the field is to continue to reach new audiences,
an important place will always remain for high-visibility
conferences in major cities and at major academic institutions.
But the SSQ also revealed weaknesses. Many offer instructive
lessons for future projects in the field:
o The science-religion dialogue is now past the stage where
large audiences will turn out simply to hear the news that
a scientist can take religion seriously. The "generic"
SSQ conference needs new variants. More fruitful now, perhaps,
are "research results" conferences that focus on
specific topics within the debate. Cosmology and design, evolution
and purpose, neuroscience and consciousness, computer science
and information technology, bioethics and religion - each
of these subfields now deserves separate billing. The standards
are higher now because the old message is no longer new. Yet
attracting media and large audiences for specific topics is
o Venues and target audiences must also be reconsidered.
Can one fill an auditorium at Yale or Princeton or the University
of California at Los Angeles? At Cambridge or Heidelberg or
Stockholm? At São Paulo or Nairobi or Singapore? And
can one fill it with research scientists and denominational
executives and business leaders? These are new and difficult
o SSQ generally employed the standard conference format:
speaker after speaker occupies the podium, gives a speech,
and sits down. Now, however, it's becoming increasingly urgent
that we find new and innovative approaches to public presentations
and conferences. Future programs need to shun the podium,
arranging instead interactive panels, probing and dramatic
debates, skilled event moderation, and effective audio-visual
o Scientists are often enthusiastic when for the first time
they discover significant connections between science and
religion. But not all are poised, polished, effective public
speakers. As groups like SSQ organize events around the world,
at first all that matters is that famous scientists speak
about the compatibility of science and religion. With the
passage of time, however, it becomes increasingly important
to locate articulate speakers who communicate clearly and
can speak effectively to large public audiences.
o Above all, will the science-religion work that we organize,
support, and participate in be a phenomenon of the West alone?
Or will it include non-Western speakers, ideas, and religious
traditions? SSQ took a major step toward internationalizing
the science-religion dialogue, drawing participants from and
holding conferences in major non-Western centers. Unfortunately,
though, there is a strong tendency to invest one's funds and
attention in programs close to home. A conference held in
one's backyard somehow feels more successful, more significant,
more worth doing. Wouldn't it be tragic to develop the science-religion
interrelationship in intricate detail for the religion of
Christianity, while leaving most of the world's faith traditions
outside the scope of our attention? Ironically, mono-cultural
work casts the validity of one's own "research results"
into question, since it demotes them to mere expressions of
Western, and most often Christian, culture. Only cross-cultural
data can provide results that are cross-culturally valid -
valid in the way that results in the natural sciences are.
The Future of Science/Religion
Something unbelievable has occurred in these last years.
For the first time in its history, modern science and its
practitioners have begun to grapple with the fundamental questions
of human existence. From the United Nations to the Catholic
Church, from Castel Gondolfo to Geneva, from computer specialists
in Bangalore to spiritualists in Berkeley, the barriers between
science, ethics and religion have been falling. Like the students
from East and West who sat on the Berlin Wall that November
night in 1989, scientists and theologians are celebrating
the resumption of an interrupted dialogue. Across the Academy,
in the business and political arenas, and in the public at
large, people are noticing. The changes are revolutionary:
when worlds collide, everything is realigned.
But today's news is fodder for tomorrow's recycling basket.
By the nature of the case, the more specialized research results
that scholars in the United States are likely to produce in
the next half-dozen years will attract far less attention.
The same amounts of time and work invested in the same types
of events will yield decreasing returns. Any discussion that
continually reworks old ground quickly becomes uninteresting
to the participants - not to mention the observers and the
media. If the coming eight years are to come close to matching
the phenomenal results of the last eight, we will have to
become more skilled in meeting the three major challenges:
o addressing new, more specific topics in an effective and
o finding new means of communicating the results in a way
that catch the attention of academics, opinion leaders, and
the general public in a far more compelling way than at present
o moving outside the standard venues in the West to make
this genuinely a worldwide dialogue involving science and
all the world's major religious and spiritual traditions.
Up to now we have made a big splash in a small pond. As we
turn our attention now to the sea of the world's faiths, will
we achieve more than a passing ripple?
SSQ resources are available at www.ctns.org/ssq/
This article appeared in the October 2003 edition of Research
News and Opportunities in Science and Theology.
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