Can science and religion agree?

Another common misconception is that the Catholic Church is opposed to stem cell research. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that are able to transform into other cell types with specific functions. Stem cells have the potential of providing a way to replace cells that are lost due to injury, degenerative disease, or the natural aging process. These cells are present during all human developmental stages, but they are most potent, and easiest to obtain, if they are harvested from very early (one week old) embryos. This causes the destruction of the embryo and it is this procedure which the Church strongly opposes.

The Church has never objected to the use of stem cells derived from other sources, such as umbilical cords or adult tissues. The Church’s objection to embryonic stem cell research is not based upon a fear of scientific progress, but on natural law theology which views an embryo as a human life and consequently needs to be afforded the same level of human dignity as anyone else.

Those who disagree with this position argue, correctly, that stem cells derived from other sources are much less potent in their ability to be transformed into other cell types. So, while most scientists reacted negatively to a recent presidential ban on such research in the U.S., it caused some to explore alternate ways for obtaining more potent stem cells.

Very recent progress in a technique called “nuclear reprogramming” indicates that it may be possible to derive pluripotent stem cells from differentiated adult cells such as skin cells and liver cells. Whether or not reprogrammed cells are as effective as embryonic stem cells in producing other cell types remains to be seen. It will also be interesting to see the Church’s position on research in this emerging area. While Church opposition to the use of embryonic stem cells remains controversial, in my view it has led to the opening of new research directions which may ultimately prove just as promising from scientific and medical standpoints.

Fundamentalisms in Science

Many scientists see developments such as the Intelligent Design movement or the stem cell controversy as an indication that religious people or religion itself is antagonistic to science. As a result, some scientists have felt the need to “fight back” with scientifically based critiques of religion that are the central themes of many of the so-called “new atheist” writers.

These authors use their positions as scientists to denigrate or explain away religious belief and the existence of God as an artifact of human social evolution. In my view, such writers are just as misguided and counterproductive as the fundamentalist Christians they seek to oppose. Science is empirically based: its powerful investigative insights are restricted to what can be physically measured and verified. Religion calls upon insights and knowledge that extend beyond the material reality accessible to science. So, just as the Bible should not be used as scientific textbook, scientific facts should not be used in any attempt to undermine or invalidate religion.

In my opinion, the real effect of the offerings from the new atheist writers is only to stifle constructive dialogue, interfering with our ability to address important political issues such as education, climate change, and human healthcare. Both religion and science can offer solutions to these important problems that can and should be mutually supportive. For example, why can’t scientific evidence for global warming be joined with religious concepts of stewardship for the earth and each other that then compels us to take meaningful action?

In my work, I seek to find areas of consonance between science and religion rather than dissonance — areas where meaningful conversation rather than self-serving diatribes can flourish. That is why I think this work is important and I am excited about this new project.

Dr. Glenn Sauer of Fairfield’s Biology Department recently received a $117,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The purpose of the grant is to help Catholic schools and parishes of the Diocese of Bridgeport begin developing programs that directly address religious issues that are impacted by modern advances in the biological sciences. The program will be based in Fairfield’s Center for Faith and Public Life. Dr. Sauer will be assisted by the Center for Academic Excellence and faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences.

Beginning in June 2012, diocesan teachers and religious leaders will meet with Dr. Sauer and other Fairfield faculty for a series of day-long workshops designed to scientifically educate participants and illuminate points of contact between science and Catholic religious perspectives.

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