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NEXT asks: 'Can science and religion coexist?'

Wednesday, December 11, 2013, 7:00pm - 8:30pm
The Crawford Family Forum 474 South Raymond Avenue Pasadena, CA 91105 Map and directions
KPCCRadio (via YouTube)

In a nutshell, yes. That was the unanimous consensus by three guests who joined host Mat Kaplan for a discussion on the intersection of science and religion in KPCC's Crawford Family Forum on Wednesday, Dec. 11.

Kaplan spoke with Philadelphia Inquirer media editor and writer John Timpane, Skeptic magazine founding publisher Michael Shermer, and Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson, Senior Pastor of Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, Calif. (learn more about the guests

Shermer argued it is possible to accept science and believe in a God at the same time. Many people do whether or not they're philosophically compatible, he said, adding that the human brain is a complex organ with various compartments for memory and logic.

"It's entirely possible to believe in totally conflicting ideas at the same time, not just religion and science, but political beliefs and so forth," he says.

Timpane agreed, saying he doesn't feel the need to reconcile between his scientific knowledge about the world and his religious beliefs as a Catholic. If there is a God, why would that stop anyone from accepting science as a way to understand the world, he asked.

"You might as well learn as much as you can about the way the world works, so I don't see a reconciliation there," he said.

Where one succeeds, the other falls short

Christianity, for example, may often conflict with science due to the factual claims the Bible makes, said Shermer. 

"If somebody says, 'well I think the earth is 6,000 years old'—we have a problem," he said. "One of them is right; one of them is wrong; the truth is not half way between the two, 6,000 years and 4.65 billions years."

Because science is such a dominant institution, he said people are often required to have a logically coherent rationale and empirical evidence for their claims. That's why he believes creationists have taken flood geology as an area to prove claims made in the Old Testament.

And while religious groups may try to win hearts and minds using the tools of science, Nelson says religion should serve more as a moral compass to achieve a greater good. 

As leader of his church, Nelson said his goal is "try to explore ethical living and how we might live better in this world."

He said religion is not always about one belief, but rather more about the act of congregation. "One thing we know, from history and science, is that we're social creatures and we need to bond together to find meaning in life," he added.

In the business of explaining awe and wonder

Religion has been one of the many ways humans have tried to find their way in the world and feel like they belong and feel safe, said Nelson. 

"All creatures have this inherent need to understand the world they live in—for safety," he added. "We need to be able to manage the things that come to us every day."

Deeply felt emotions like love, for example, are something all of us experience but few can articulate, he said. Until science can fully understand the human brain, we have Shakespeare.

But Shermer says there's a distinction between the subjective experience of love versus our attempt to describe it. Two people may not exactly articulate why they want to get married, he said, but there are reason-based arguments for getting married, such as studies on what makes a marriage work.

Religion as a moral compass

Nelson singled out Protestant Christianity as the crusader of claims about unverifiable fact, which he calls the "low-hanging fruit," but he credits this and other religious groups for getting behind causes such as the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Shermer disputed his argument saying that religious groups only got behind the movement well after it was already underway. 

"The foundation for the Civil Rights Movement was really laid by the Enlightenment philosophers before this country was even founded," Shermer said. "That is the idea of equal treatment under the law, this is Locke; or that people are born with equal rights, this is Jefferson; or that people should never be treated as a means to an end but as an ends in themselves, this is Immanuel Kant; these are all Enlightenment ideas, they do not come from the Bible. you will not find those arguments anywhere in the Bible. I've looked."

Morality as the battleground between religion and science

Gay marriage has become the watershed moment for this generation, Shermer said. While acceptance of marriage equality is growing among small religious circles, fundamentalists in this country will likely oppose it until the very end.

"They will come around, even the Pope, they will come around in 10 years, 20 years, when all 50 states allow gay marriage and the whole thing will be like the Black and white drinking fountains how it is now," he says. "People will look back at our time and go: 'What were they thinking? Who in the right mind would be against this?'"

Everything is determined by the laws of nature, said Nelson, though he added neither science or religion know all the answers.

"I think in any kind of system, whether it's science or religion, there's good and bad stuff," Nelson said, adding that scientists were involved in Nazi concentration camps. Regardless of the ends, humans are behind the means of religion and science to do either good or bad, he said.

About the guests:

John Timpane: media editor and writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. As a member of the editorial board for the Inquirer (1997-2009), he wrote editorials on both the religion and the science beats. In 2005, he was honored to be among the “freshman class” of Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in Science and Religion. 

As a longtime freelance writer and editor in the fields of science and medicine and a publishing poet, he is among the few John Timpanes to have edited both “Biology” by Helena Curtis and to have co-authored “Poetry for Dummies.”      @jtimpane

Michael Shermer: founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, executive director of the Skeptics Society, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, host of the The Skeptics Society’s Distinguished Science Lecture Series, and adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University and Chapman University.      @michaelshermer

Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson: Senior Pastor of Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, has been a minister for over thirty years, in California and Northern Virginia. He started college intending to become a glaciologist but ended up a religion major, and earned a PhD in religion from the University of Iowa, with a thesis on Herman Melville's use of the Bible in his writings. He counts numerous JPL and Cal Tech scientists in his congregation and sees numerous connections between faith and science.      @neighborhooduu