The State of the International Religion-Science Discussion Today: "Science and the Spiritual Quest": A Model for the Renewal of the Religion-Science Discourse

By Clayton, Philip | Islam & Science, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

The State of the International Religion-Science Discussion Today: "Science and the Spiritual Quest": A Model for the Renewal of the Religion-Science Discourse


Clayton, Philip, Islam & Science


The late 1980's and early 1990's saw an explosion of the global dialogue on science and religion. Both within specific religious traditions and across the traditions, scientists and religious believers engaged in a more sustained, more rigorous, and more productive dialogue than at perhaps any earlier point in history. This "internationalizing" of the science-religion dialogue opened in a mood of great optimism. Scientists and religious scholars in many of the world's religions began simultaneously to explore the intersections between modern science and their own religious traditions. In the initial meetings of Muslim, Jewish and Christian scientists one experienced a clear sense of being involved in a common project--a sense of commonality that one does not always feel when involved in inter-religious dialogues. The mutual respect with which participants viewed one another as fellow scientists certainly contributed significantly to these early successes in the international science-religion dialogue. One could tell that those who were geniuses at drawing lines of connection, such as Prof. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, were simultaneously recognized by those in other traditions as pioneers and partners in a common field.

As I pen these words, however, we face a much darker time. No man is an island; what occurs between our politicians and our nations will also affect the discussions between our scientists and our scholars of religion. 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 all 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.

It is not my place to resolve the political questions and to make ultimate assignments of blame or praise. But one does have to be realistic about how the present situation has affected the internationalization of the science-religion dialogue. Clearly, for many Muslims the recent hostilities have done great damage to the partnership in which we were engaged together until only recently. A few years ago leading Muslim scholars happily invited American scholars to international meetings that they were organizing in Pakistan, Indonesia, Morocco, and Iran. Today that is difficult, if not impossible. One needs only to imagine the American professor standing at the podium before a Muslim audience. Sadly, however much the organizers may respect the American speaker as a person and a scholar, they know that in his language and in the culture that he brings the audience will inevitably see the policies of his government. This fact means that the international science-and-religion discussion is in the greatest possible crisis that it could be in, for when we can no longer meet in each other's countries for lectures and collaborations, we are cut off from one another, and the dialogue is at an end.

I open on this dark note because it is the situation that we currently face. No one should see naive optimism in the proposal that follows. To the contrary: I fear that it will take years to undo the damage that has been done in recent years. But we must not accept defeat: the more difficult the situation in our field becomes, the harder we must work to attempt to reestablish common ground. First we seek, for the sake of science, to reestablish collaborations between our scientists. Then we seek to build upon that scientific exchange, once again involving our religious scholars in science-religion discussions. We know from the brief successes of the past how powerful these discussions can be in overcoming misunderstanding and animosity within our religious communities. …

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