The International Religion-Science Discourse: Pitfalls, Obstacles, and Opportunities

Article excerpt

In his perceptive article on the state of contemporary religion and science discourse, Philip Clayton had hoped that the concrete proposals he offered in his article "will call forth responses from Islamic scholars". (1) He had suggested that "the pages of Islam & Science offer the ideal forum in which to explore what theoretical foundations there are for future science-religion programs and what types of programs would be of most interest to Muslim scientists and to scholars of Islam". (2) This "Endnote" offers a perspective of a Muslim who has been part of that international discussion for over a decade and who has closely watched, analyzed, and discussed this discourse with many Muslim, Christian, and Jewish participants. It is also an effort to bring into relief some of the pitfalls, obstacles, and opportunities which characterize this inter-faith dialogue at a time when the situation of the world--which cannot be abstracted from this discourse on the relationship between science and religion--is marked by enormous tragedies: earthquakes, hurricanes, and acts of terrorism leading to the sudden death of thousands of human beings.

Clayton had pointed out that compared to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the religion and science dialogue saw a global explosion, today "we face a much darker time ... Unnecessary and ill-conceived wars are being fought, and our hearts are wrenched daily by pictures of the deaths of innocent people ... Undoubtedly wrongs are being committed on both sides, and a balanced discussion of the political situation would have to present it in all its ambiguities. Still, among the wrongs to be acknowledged are the aggressive policies and cultural insensitivity of the current American administration. Saddest of all, one recognizes that some of the misguided policies stem, at least in part, from a wrongly politicized interpretation of Christianity in its relationship to Islamic cultures and nations." Clayton had very perceptively realized that "for many Muslims the recent hostilities have done great damage to the partnership in which we were engaged together until only recently." (3)

The current situation is, indeed, dark, and as Clayton rightly pointed out, there is little that scientists and scholars involved in the religion and science discourse can do to stem the tide of aggression and conflict, but within the parameters of discourse there are numerous things that can be done by those who are sincerely interested in a truly international discourse on the relationship of science and religion and it is toward this end that this present article is directed. Two programs have dominated the international religion-science discourse: the Science and Spiritual Quest (SSQ) (1995-2003) and the eight-year-long Science and Religion Course Program, both administered by the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS). (4) In addition to these programs, the establishment of an International Society for Science and Religion in 2002 also gained some importance, though its potential has remained untapped.

Science and the Spiritual Quest (SSQ) and the Science-Religion Course Program of CTNS (SRCP)

Being one of the two leading scholars directly responsible for the conception, organization, and execution of the "Science and Spiritual Quest" (SSQ) program between 1995 and 2003, Clayton has succinctly summarized the main features of SSQ. (5) More importantly, he has also pointed out some of the "weaknesses in the particular details of the SSQ program: The program leaders were all Christians, and the center that administered the program had a particular interest in Christian theology. Some of the selections of participating scientists were arbitrary, since the selection committee was simply unaware of scientists who would have been ideal participants. Although the public events took place around the world, the workshops themselves were all held in the West. Not enough of the participants were invited to speak at the public conferences, so that not all of the ideas were heard in public. …