Cambridge University is the place of Newton and Darwin, Rutherford and Russell, Watson and Crick — and for two weeks in June ten journalists picked for the third annual Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship. By the end of our second day, as four of us dodged bicycles and cars on the way back to our hotel, we were already into the big question: why we were here.
“Do you think they’re trying to convert us?” asked one of the journalism fellows, an evangelical materialist reductionist. After all, three of the first four speakers were Christians, and the one who wasn’t was a Jewish atheist who nonetheless faithfully attended synagogue. We’d been through ‘Cosmology: The Science and its Implications,” and up for the next day was a discourse on ‘Science and Providence.’ The rest of us didn’t think the fellowship aimed to turn Mill Lane into the road to Damascus. Offered one: “I think they just want to present us with intelligent believers.”
“That’s an oxymoron,” snorted my new-found materialist friend.
But by the end of our two weeks in Cambridge, we had indeed seen signs of intelligent belief in the universe. Keith Ward, , an eminent British theologian, was wittily brilliant, so much so that one of the avowed atheists in our group swore up and down that he’d go to church if Ward was preaching. And when Simon Conway Morris , a paleontologist who looks like Stephen King and sounds like Douglas Adams riffing on evolutionary biology, said he was a Christian in answer to a question, there was consternation amongst a couple of the nonbelieving journalists.
Even big believing brains, however, did not much see an intersection between contemporary science and religion, with two exceptions: the social sciences (which, we were told, happen to be the most anti-religious of any scientific discipline), and Conway Morris, who is trying to build a framework that connects theology and biology (“you’ll all think I’m barking mad,” he said. Which was true, in a fascinating kind of way).
Nor did being smart and faithful gain any quarter from the ten of us, though we were split between disbelievers and believers. We routinely were rougher to our theologists than our scientists.
The sharpest questions went to Kenneth Pargament, a psychologist and practicing Jew whose peer-reviewed publications suggest that religion helps people live longer and cope with losses more effectively than those who lack religion. He got it from all corners, with challenges to everything from his statistics to his claim that it’s hard to find true atheists in Ohio to use as a control group. “I’m the only person I know who owns a Bible, and I bought it for work,” said one of the British journalists, who refused to believe there was no one like him in Ohio.
Another of the British journalists at one point challenged Pargament: “You’re telling secular people they have to believe in lies.”
“I don’t deal in lies,” Pargament said, standing his ground. “Secular assumptions are no less assumptive.”
We journalists were, in retrospect, almost not objective when science was being discussed. Our questions about religion routinely assumed there was something not quite right about belief, or were openly hostile. We treated the science with far more deference, as if there was nothing ill that could come of scientific pursuit. A stem cell debate fizzled because none of us disagreed with embryonic stem cell research, at least publicly, which meant the Catholic theologian brought in to play angel’s advocate was badly outnumbered. We poked at stem cells, but not with the kind of vigor we put in to kicking religion.
The one scientific idea that did come under some fire was reductionism, the notion that we are nothing but machines here to propagate DNA.
“I get angry with these reductionists, I really do,” said Susan Greenfield, a nonbelieving neuroscientist at Oxford. “For me, the genes are just bit players that make proteins.”
Lewis Wolpert (on right in photo) , a developmental biologist who engagingly told us that “I’m an atheist materialist reductionist – all the popular things!” eventually was forced to concede that reductionism as a hypothesis has run ahead of the science, though he had faith the science would catch up some day.
Alan Leshner, president of the AAAS, who was in town for meetings and dropped by for part of a day, pulled aside my evangelical reductionist colleague during a coffee break and said “We need to talk about reductionism – I’ve given it up.”
Eventually we adopted ‘nothing but-ery’ into our vocabulary as a pejorative.
Mostly, though, we had genial and interesting discussions about a variety of issues in religion and science. Our pleasant climate seemed incongruous in the wake of “The God Delusion”
and its successor on the bestseller lists, “God Is Not Great,” not to mention the opening of the Creation Museum, across the ocean in Kentucky. But on the River Cam it was possible to be a scientist and not hate religion or be religious and not anti-science. A couple of the journalists noted at the end that everything seemed so reasonable here, and one asked, almost wistfully, “ how do we take that with us?”
A little less schism might not be a bad thing for either science or religion.