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New Initiative Aimed at Stimulating Discussion About Issues Relating to the Intersection of Science and Religion

RELEASED: March 28, 2006

Dr. Charlene Burns
Dr. Charlene Burns

EAU CLAIRE — Recent and anticipated advances in the sciences have put traditional religious issues in a new light, leaving many students and community members struggling to make sense of how science fits with their faith-based beliefs, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire science and religion faculty say.

To help people better understand issues that relate to science and religion, several faculty and community members have established the "Chippewa Valley Dialogue on Science and Religion," said Dr. Charlene Burns, associate professor of philosophy and religious studies. The initiative will encourage organized discussions, bring science and religion experts to campus, and help high school science teachers better address questions that touch on religion, she said.

"The worlds of science and religion are intersecting in new and dramatic ways," Burns said, citing examples like cloning, the notion of intelligent design, genetic engineering and modern neurophysiology. "Many of the discoveries and theories in the sciences challenge long-held religious beliefs. And scientists are now capable of things that run directly up against the moral values that are central to many religions.

"Religious people are trying to make sense of it all. What do discoveries about the human body and mind have to do with religious claims? What challenges do discoveries in neuroscience bring to religions that say humans have a soul? Religious people are trying to determine if these things challenge their beliefs."

These science and religion-based issues are being discussed on campus, in the community and in the media, said Burns, director of the CVDSR initiative. But much of the discussion is based on emotion instead of fact, which limits meaningful dialogue and the ability to develop well-thought-out opinions, she said.

Many people have strong opinions on issues like evolution vs. intelligent design, but often those opinions are based on information that is inaccurate or incomplete, said Dr. David Lonzarich, an associate professor of biology and a core member of CVDSR.

Lonzarich, who teaches a course on ecology and evolution, said students frequently ask questions about issues that relate to science and religion. It's unsettling for many students to find that science can challenge or question their religious beliefs, he said.

"We spend time discussing subjects like evolution vs. intelligent design," Lonzarich said of his classes. "These are not issues that we should ignore. I try to be balanced and to be respectful of students' viewpoints. And I use the classroom discussions to model how to have a respectful debate."

CVDSR will try to stimulate discussions among students, community members and experts in the areas of science and religion, Burns said. It's important to create an environment in which people can focus on real issues, without letting emotion control the conversation, she said.

"Our agenda is not to present one side and say it's the right side," Burns said. "We want to help people get good information about all sides of an issue, filter it and make sense of it in the context of their own belief system."

The core members of CVDSR — which includes science and religion faculty, clergy and a local physician — have been meeting since fall 2005 to study and discuss some issues they believe have social and religious significance, Burns said. Examples include spirituality and modern medicine, biology and the soul, and the meaning of nature.

This spring, the group will broaden the conversation by creating numerous study groups so people on or off campus can join the discussion, Burns said. Each core member will lead a group, she said, noting that members have spent several months studying issues and texts to help them facilitate meaningful discussions.

CVDSR members also plan to bring nationally known experts in science and religion to campus to lead public forums and lectures about issues relating to the intersection of science and religion, Burns said, noting that care will be taken when selecting experts to ensure that all sides of issues are represented. Local experts also will make public presentations, she said.

"We want the experts to help us engage each other without letting emotion get in the way," Burns said. "Science and religion are crucial to our society and are a part of our national and international news events. We hope to encourage informed conversation so people can make sense of the modern world. And we need to do it in a way that avoids the polarizing debates we often see when these issues are discussed in the media. We need to get people to a place where they can talk to each other about issues without the name calling."

One of the goals of the group is to help high school science teachers address questions that touch on religious beliefs as they come up in their classrooms, Burns said. Roundtable discussions for high school science teachers will be organized to help them address the concerns of students for whom religious convictions are challenged by scientific discoveries or theories, she said.

"One of our primary goals is to make a real difference for these teachers," Burns said, noting that several high school teachers will soon join the CVDSR core member group.

CVDSR received a three-year $30,000 grant from the Local Societies Initiative, which is administered by the Metanexus Institute (metanexus.net) through funding from the John Templeton Foundation. The UW-Eau Claire Foundation and the College of Arts and Sciences also provided funds.

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JB

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