UPDATE: Dr. Swamidass has responded to my criticisms in a comment below (here), but my concerns are not allayed, as you can see from my response.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science is America’s most famous umbrella organization for scientists, and publishes the influential journal Science. In the past few years, though, it’s been increasingly sticking its nose into religion, with the explicit aim of convincing religious people that their faith is compatible with science. Their efforts include the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) Program, headed by an evangelical Christian astronomer, Jennifer Wiseman.
Five years ago, with the support of the Templeton Foundation (who else?), the AAAS began a “Science for Seminaries” program, using AAAS and Templeton money to send scientists (often religious ones) into seminaries to try to get students of religion to learn more science and to learn that it’s not in conflict with their faith. I wrote about this program five years ago, saying this:
Why, I ask, is Templeton and the AAAS so interested in infusing science into seminaries? Wouldn’t the money be better invested in teaching minorities or underserved communities about science? After all, at least that carries the possibility that those kids might become scientists.
The purpose of the seminary program, of course, is not really to make America more science literate, but to blur the boundaries between science and religion, which has always been Templeton’s aim. Why else would the program work not by teaching straight science to theologians, but to somehow (and how is not clear) infuse science or “the history of science” (?) into courses including “pastoral counseling or systematic theology.” Like that’s worth $3.75 million!
What’s worse is that the program’s aims are deeper than that, for they include not only putting science into theology schools, but trying to teach theology to scientists, as the paragraph below shows. Talk about a waste of money! Why on earth do scientists need to become more theologically literate? Yes, it might be salubrious for most of us to know something about the history of religion, and about the nature of religion, but somehow I don’t think that’s what Templeton had in mind.
Now, an article in Wired gives us an update on the program, and it’s clear that the AAAS is now using religious scientists to tell the faithful that they can have their God and science, too. Click on the screenshot below to read the piece:
Now I don’t really object to scientists going to seminaries to teach students science, although, as I said above, the dosh might be better spent teaching those who don’t have a religious bias against science, and have a chance of actually becoming scientists. What I really object to is the AAAS emissaries trying to tell religious people how to reconcile science with their religion—and that is theology. Here’s a description of one of their science ambassadors, who of course is religious:
IN MAY 2015, S. Joshua Swamidass, a computational biologist at Washington University in St. Louis, received a curious email: would he like to try advising a theological seminary? The note was from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a nonprofit organization that was spinning up a program to send scientists into religious institutions. The organizers had come across an essay he had written, and thought he could help.
So this is how Swamidass and the program help (my emphases):
A week after he got the email, Swamidass headed down to Concordia Seminary, a historic Lutheran campus just a few blocks away from his office in Saint Louis. He met with Joel Okamoto, a Concordia systematic theology professor, and they began searching for places to insert science into the school’s curricula. One course on the Old Testament would analyze whether Genesis could be interpreted as a form of early cosmology. Another would explore what neuroscience has to say about human identity and the soul. “That’s a central preoccupation of books like the Psalms or the Book of Job,” says Okamoto. They also drew up plans for a day-long symposium on faith and the science of memory. Soon, Swamidass was visiting Concordia as often as a few times a month.
. . . The program also made room for more difficult discussions, like evolution. For instance, Bethany Seminary, in Indiana, is planning a conference that will explore “another way of reading [the Bible], whereby they can take the Bible seriously but also accept where the science leads,” says Russell Haitch, a Bethany theology professor.
The bits in bold don’t represent science, but theology: trying to force two disparate ways of knowing together, like mismatched pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
But does it even work? Who knows? BioLogos, a similar organization started by Karl Giberson and Francis Collins, has failed miserably in its goal of getting evangelical Christians to accept evolution. Instead, that program is now deeply engaged in theological pilpul like trying to reconcile Adam and Eve with genetics; and evangelicals are still resisting Darwinism.
The Science for Seminaries program also seems to be failing, at least in some venues:
In response, Concordia reaffirmed its commitment to a Six-Day creation in a science-themed summer edition of its Lutheran Journal, which featured the Hubble Space Telescope’s image of the Westerlund 2 star cluster on the cover. “To the credit of AAAS, they never wanted us to compromise or change,” says Okamoto. “They wanted to make sure we knew that.” But, as he wrote in the journal, “Science for Seminaries” had affirmed that Richard Dawkins did not represent most scientists, “just as the Westboro Baptist Church does not represent all Christians.” Concordia has also learned to empathize with the “lonely calling” of Christian scientists and “theistic evolutionists” like Swamidass—even if the seminary wouldn’t take their position.
Yep, the AAAS is telling the faithful that Richard Dawkins doesn’t represent most scientists, for of course Dawkins is Satan to many religious people. It’s unclear, however, whether Dawkins’s views on atheism don’t represent “most scientists”, since the ubiquitous and unctuous accommodationist Elaine Ecklund says this:
Elaine Ecklund, who researches science and religion at Rice University, says that scientists often underestimate how popular their work is within religious communities, and vice versa: 39 percent of American biologists and physicists affiliate with a faith.
That’s a lot less religiosity than is seen among non-scientist Americans.
So Dawkins’s atheism may indeed characterize most scientists, and certainly characterizes scientists at elite universities (72% atheists) as well as member of the National Academy of Sciences (93% atheists). But even if it didn’t, deliberately dissing one of biology’s premier science popularizes to seminarians is at best unseemly.
And the emissary Dr. Swamidass embarrasses himself in other ways, too (my emphasis):
Meanwhile, seminarians at other schools heard about Swamidass’ work with “Science for Seminaries” and started privately reaching out, curious to understand how he simultaneously affirmed evolutionary science and his faith. Swamidass responded to the interest with a blog post on his lab page, in which he wrote: “it appears that, for some reason, God chose to create humans so that our genomes look as though we do, in fact, have a common ancestor with chimpanzees.”
For some reason? For WHAT reason? Maybe there isn’t a god, and evolution just happens to have occurred by naturalistic means. That in fact is what most scientists believe, not that God made us looking as if we had evolved. Here Swamidass comes perilously close to the old canard that God put the fossils in the rocks to test our faith. At the very least, he’s promulgating a form of theistic evolution.
If you’re a member of the AAAS, be mindful of this. I for one would never join that organization, as I don’t want my money going to theological endeavors.
h/t: Diane G.