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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

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.

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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.''

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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.''

David Ford, head of Cambridge's department of theology and religious studies, is a key figure in the fracas, having helped to spearhead the creation of the lectureship. ``Religion is one of the subjects on which a great many people have very strong views,'' he says, ``without feeling that they have to back up those views by any reading in current academic literature on the subjects at all or do any further investigation of the matter. And scientists can be as ignorant as anyone else about things outside their particular narrow field. So why should they have developed a well-informed, well-argued understanding of religion without having applied themselves to it?''

As for the ferocity of the response, ``I just think it is very sad,'' Howatch says, ``that people should get so hung up and in such a lather over the whole thing. The most extraordinary behavior has been going on - very, very odd indeed.''

``Not so extraordinary, really,'' Professor Ford says, if viewed within the context of ideological trends. Western thought, he explains, has been shaped by three broad traditions: Judeo-Christian, the Enlightenment/Rationalist, and the Romantic. The more dogmatic influences of the Enlightenment are still with us, he notes; the opposition of some scientists to bracketing religion with science is a good indication of that.

``Don't get me wrong,'' Ford says. ``I am very pro-Enlightenment, with its respect for reason. I think the sciences are one of the great things that we've received from the Enlightenment at its best. But I do think that there is a disillusionment right now with the narrower versions of any of those traditions - the religious, the Romantic, the Enlightenment -

and that many people today are looking for a new sort of integration. Science has brought about immense problems, as well as immense benefits, with, for example, the ecological crisis and certain medical issues that are arising, just to mention a few. As a result, people are realizing that science is not value free.''

But it is not simply the moral dimension of science that will be scrutinized in the research, says Dr. Watts, who recently has embarked on guiding his first graduate students under the auspices of his new post. He is, in fact, particularly keen to tackle the proposition, flatly stated by one leading scientist in an interview, that ``what we know about physics rules out the notion of God existing.''

``I think all scientists who say such things,'' Watts counters, ``are going way beyond the evidence that is established. It is very important, once and for all, to make a distinction between scientific research itself and what really can be concluded from that research, and the things that scientists say off the top of their heads, which often have far more to do with their philosophical or gut assumptions than with what the research has actually established.''

``We have been through quite a protracted period,'' he continues, ``in which science has been narrow-minded and supremely confident in what is, in reality, a very simplistic kind of science. But I think that attitude is evaporating, as many scientists are beginning to acknowledge that such a science cannot understand everything or answer all of our problems.

``In that sense, when it comes to a significant reappraisal of the relationship between religion and science,'' he says, ``I think the climate is riper than it has been for a very long time.''