Religion and Science

(REL 530/635)

Dr. Mark Given

Click here for Course Requirements and here for Course Calendar.

Course Description

Despite a contentious history, reliance on both religion and science persists in our world.  How can we understand the complicated relationship between these two very powerful and often contentious aspects of history and culture?  In this course we will investigate the interaction of religion and science throughout history and among different cultures, as well as observe their effects on people’s worldviews, values, and behavior.

This course will be taught as a seminar.  So, first of all, what is a seminar?  The following definitions, gleaned from the web, will give you a good idea:

Most commonly offered as upper-level and graduate courses, these are small classes of approximately 15 students each, designed to facilitate intensive study of specific subject areas.

[A seminar] has the function of bringing together small groups for recurring meetings, focusing each time on some particular subject, in which everyone present is requested to actively participate.

A seminar consists of a small group of students and usually runs for 13 hours. A seminar may include a presentation by the lecturer or tutor, or by a group of students. Students are expected to prepare for and participate actively in seminars by giving a paper, answering questions [and] discussing subject matter.

Seminar is the second album by Sir Mix-a-Lot (click here).

As will be clear from these definitions, this class will be unlike most you've taken.  It is impossible to sit passively in class and depend on the professor or the other students to carry the load.  You must be diligent in doing the reading assignments and preparing to take part in the discussions.  The topic of "science and religion" or "religion and science" is one of great intellectual significance, and "science and religion" is actually a well-established "field" or "specialization" in scholarship known for being "interdisciplinary."  (This is true of the field of "religious studies" as well.)  The disciplines of history and philosophy will play a prominent role in the study of our topic in this course.  Sociology and psychology will occasionally play a role as well.  

The field of science and religion often grapples with a wide range of public issues.  Therefore, it's interesting to reflect on the subject matter of this course in relation to MSU's Public Affairs Mission.  The goal of the Ethical Leadership pillar of the Mission is that "Students will articulate their value systems, act ethically within the context of a democratic society, and demonstrate engaged and principled leadership.  Missouri State is preparing students for the future by helping them understand the ethical dimensions of leadership and take what they learn in the classrooms and use it to help solve problems and bring about change."  Note immediately that MSU intends that every student will be a leader of some sort in society.  Leadership is not limited to holding some title or office.  A historical survey of the actions and interactions of religious and scientific leaders can contribute powerfully to this goal.  The university encourages students to have values and to act on them in society.  But this can be done well or badly, and throughout the semester we will see examples we can learn from.  Whatever combination of religion and scientific values one might have, how does one lead in a way that does not violate the rights and consciences of other members of one's society?  This problem leads naturally into the second pillar of the Mission, Cultural Competence.  The goal is that "Students will recognize and respect multiple perspectives and cultures. Missouri State works to build up students’ cultural knowledge in several ways. Through study abroad programs, interaction with international students and the opportunity to study different languages, histories and religions, students broaden their horizons, help build relationships and bring about better competition for the future."  While this goal doesn't neatly solve the problem of inevitable conflicts of values among leaders, it does assume that cultural knowledge of people who are different from "us"--their languages, histories, and religions--will contribute to the effort to solve problems and bring about change for the better.  Notice that this goal forthrightly assumes that "competition" among leaders in societies is inevitable, but the nature of competition can be "better" or worse.  Having broad cultural horizons and building respectful relationships can contribute to a healthy competition among people with diverse perspectives and cultures.  Throughout the semester we will see how the quality of relationships (e.g., levels of understanding and respect) between religious and scientific leaders affected the prospects for genuine progress in societies.  That sort of progress is addressed by the third pillar, Community Engagement.  The goals here are that "Students will recognize the importance of contributing their knowledge and experiences to their own community and the broader society" and "Students will recognize the importance of scientific principles in the generation of sound public policy. Community engagement lets students branch out and see how the world is working through a different lens, giving them the opportunity to work with their communities and build up their ability to lead in their careers." Note how this goal explicitly references "the importance of scientific principles" and the previous goal includes the knowledge of "religions"!  By studying the complicated history of interactions between science and religion, we will learn a lot about what constitutes "scientific principles" and "religion/religions."  One can easily see that the interaction of science and religion is a highly appropriate subject for study at MSU. 

Finally, the purpose of this course is not to convert you to any particular confessional or non-confessional position. In a 1963 decision, the supreme court encouraged the study of religion in an academic environment. This is consistent with a goal common to most universities of studying all significant aspects of human experience in a sympathetic and responsible, yet thoughtful and critical, manner. Religion is a very significant aspect of human experience and one can easily see that the interaction of science and religion is a highly appropriate subject for study in a state university.  Indeed, a little reflection on MSU's Mission in Public Affairs strongly supports this viewpoint.