New Major Presents Science and Religion As Inseparable

Published on March 5, 2012  

Samford is recruiting students for a unique new Science and Religion Major that challenges popular assumptions about the relationship between these areas of inquiry.

"All too often these days one hears people saying that science and religion are not compatible," said Mathematics and Computer Science professor Steve Donaldson, one of the founders of the program. "This major is a direct rebuttal to such claims."

Donaldson, who also directs the university's Computer Science program and helped found the Samford University Science and Religion Center, acknowledged the challenge as well as the opportunity. "The general track record of Christians has not been especially appealing with respect to productively assessing the fruits of modern scientific thought as it pertains to our theological perspectives, but the rewards of doing so are potentially great," he said.

Considering the current pace and magnitude of scientific discovery, it's not surprising that many people of faith feel both unease and urgency about engaging with science. With a "second Genesis" (artificial life) now credibly on the horizon and fundamental questions about what it means to be human already in play, anyone could feel technically and theologically under-prepared. As "a unique, interdisciplinary course of study to equip students to understand, analyze, and productively engage issues arising at the intersection of science and religion," the new major promises to eliminate some of that anxiety. "This is a significant attempt to find creative ways to make the mind a full partner with the heart, soul, and strength with respect to loving and serving God," Donaldson said.

Samford's Department of Philosophy will host the major. "The new track fits well within the general purposes of the Department of Philosophy, which tries to offer not only courses and training in the particular discipline of Philosophy but also academic opportunities for students to do interdisciplinary work which requires them to know and synthesize important cultural ideas," said department chair Dennis Sansom.

"Interdisciplinary" is barely adequate to describe the academic diversity of the Science and Religion curriculum. In addition to all of the usual requirements for a Samford undergraduate degree, it offers a mixture of specialized courses, concentrations in biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, pre-health, physics and religion, and requires a senior project. Courses range from Old Testament and psychology to biochemistry and artificial intelligence. Graduates will be prepared to pursue advanced degrees in their areas of concentration as well as in the specific discipline of Science and Religion.

An Unmet Need 

The group of faculty who created the major and the Science and Religion Center unified around the topic as members of the Science and Christianity Cadre initiated by Brock School of Business professor Tom Woolley. After completing his studies in the prestigious John Templeton Oxford Seminars on Science and Christianity at Oxford University in 2005 Woolley returned to Samford eager to connect with others who share his interest in the biggest of big questions. He soon found Samford professors Donaldson, Wilton Bunch and George Keller, who now serve as the core faculty for the new major.

The faculty themselves model the interdisciplinary nature and intellectual curiosity inherent in the major. There's Woolley, the statistics professor with a biological sciences background exploring the leading edges of both science and faith. Bunch is a physician, former Beeson School of Divinity professor and now Philosophy professor. Keller, a biologist, engages with the entire Howard College of Arts and Sciences as Assistant Dean, directs the undergraduate Arts and Sciences Program for Independent Research (ASPIRE) and specializes in areas important to the medical professions. Donaldson's specialties included human cognition, robotics and artificial intelligence and life.

The faculty continue to challenge themselves through the Science and Christianity Cadre, reading and discussing important new books and articles. They also speak to church groups, where Keller said they have found "a deep interest in the big questions of science and religion". By logical extension, Keller said, "we feel there is a critical, unmet need for students to be able to address these questions."

Truth 

Samford expects the new major to attract high-achieving students with strong records in the sciences, mathematics and humanities. Because the program is unique, the university expects those students to come from throughout the nation.

Katherine Wright of Brentwood, Tenn., a student in Donaldson's Introduction to Science and Religion course this spring, seems tailor-made for the major. Her life changed when, as a rising senior at a Christian high school, she was accepted into a summer laboratory internship program at Vanderbilt University. "Controversial issues from stem cell research to cosmology and the beginning of time were debated day in and day out," she said. "At the end of this experience I felt I needed more preparation and a better understanding of my beliefs before entering the scientific field." Wright, still following a calling to healthcare, expects to declare herself a Science and Religion major this semester.

Bunch acknowledged the inevitable "what can you do with that?" question about the major, but he emphasized that "the purpose of education should be to teach people to think". "This major meets that expectation," he said, "and learning to think in science, religion and the intersections provides a wide number of potential careers."

Wright and other Science and Religion majors will have outstanding professional preparation. The unique emphasis of their Samford education also will send them into their careers with a surprisingly simple and disarming message. "Those involved in creating this major believe that all truth is God's truth," Woolley said. "Therefore, at the most fundamental level science and religion cannot be in conflict".