Bridging the Science-Religion Divide When Britain's Cambridge University Instituted a Chair to Study How Science and Religion Work Hand in Hand, It Touched off a Widespread Debate about the Validity of Religious Beliefs and the Limits of Scientific Research

Article excerpt

NO one can recall, in modern times, an issue in Britain emerging from the hallowed halls of academia that has ignited such a public conflagration.

The troubles began when Susan Howatch, the multimillionaire blockbuster novelist ("Penmarric," "The Rich Are Different"), decided to donate 1 million ($1.5 million) to one of the world's most venerated universities for the specific purpose of establishing a new graduate seat of learning.

The idea was to create a place where advanced-degree students at Cambridge University can do high-level research into the complementary nature - as opposed to what many academics see as the conflicting stance - of science and religion: how the two disciplines contribute to each other and to our understanding of ourselves and the universe.

Only one other similar university post exists, located at Princeton University in New Jersey. The man filling it, Wentzel Van Huysteen, is a noted theologian and philosopher. The distinction of the Cambridge lectureship - which is already attracting international attention - is that it is conceived as being held by someone who is first and foremost a scientist.

"To give the money to help establish the lectureship seemed to me to be such an obvious thing to do," says Ms. Howatch, who has been exploring the relationship between Christian belief and the modern world in her more recent novels. "I am a lover of truth; and if you think of truth as being multifaceted and so huge that we human beings can't fully comprehend it, then obviously it makes sense to put all the facts together - to compare disciplines and try to advance the sum of knowledge by exploration and examination."

Here's where the controversy exploded. Every major newspaper in Britain has carried the story. Editorials were fired off.

Nature magazine, regarded by many as the top international science journal, penned a particularly pointed piece. It castigated Cambridge, renowned as a major world center of the natural sciences, for stooping so low as to use the money of an "airport-bookstand" novelist to create such an "empty" academic post.

Then came a spate of letters. Richard Dawkins, an eminent Oxford University zoologist and the author of two pioneering works on genetics, "The Selfish Gene" and "The Blind Watchmaker," led the critics of the new lectureship. Summing up their position in a British newspaper, the Independent, they extoled the many contributions of science and scathingly asked of religion: "What has {it} ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has {it} ever said anything that is demonstrably true?... The achievements of theologians don't even mean anything.... If all the achievements of {religion} were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference?"

"I'm not surprised, really, by all the fuss," says Fraser Watts, a cognitive psychologist and the man recently chosen to fill Cambridge's chair - the Starbridge Lectureship in Science and Theology, as it is officially known. "There are a lot of scientists who are very bigoted about religion. So, in a sense, the establishment of this post challenges their bigotry. It's not, therefore, surprising that they have become so upset about it."

Dr. Dawkins, however, dismisses the allegation of bigotry. In an interview, he argues that, like Howatch, he too is a "lover of truth." To him, therefore, combining science and theology for the purpose of academic inquiry is anathema.

"I do not think that theology is a subject at all," he says. "Indeed, as such, it is a nonsubject, which should not in any sense be treated as an equal of science. …