America’s clergy are teaming up with scientists


    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.

    Published in the Wall Street Journal, that essay had criticized Florida Senator Marco Rubio for claiming that the age of the Earth was “one of the great mysteries.” Identifying himself as a “Christian and career scientist,” Swamidass wrote that scientists were in agreement on the planet’s age—about 4.5 billion years old—and that accepting it didn’t violate any core Christian belief.

    The AAAS had begun to wrestle with how they could address the country’s intensifying science-religion divide. The non-profit organization had become attuned to the fact that some Christians—and especially evangelicals—often went to religious leaders, instead of scientists, for answers to scientific questions. The society saw an opportunity: Educate future religious leaders in any and all things STEM.

    Concordia Seminary, a historic Lutheran campus in Saint Louis.

    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.

    By 2018, AAAS had placed science advisors in ten schools and changed more than 116 course curricula, five times what they had hoped. Now the organization plans to expand its “Science for Seminaries” program to as many as 35 more schools over the next five years.

    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. But, she says, “suspicion of scientists as a people-group,” especially in orthodox and evangelical circles, reinforces the gap between science and religion. “Many leaders of faith communities do not have a lot of exposure to science in their training,” says Jennifer Wiseman, an astrophysicist who directs AAAS’ faith and ethics programming.

    AAAS says that seminaries are most fascinated by cosmology and neuroscience. But some schools have branched into other areas under the guidance of their science advisors. Divinity students at Wake Forest University in North Carolina dissected a sheep brain. Catholic University in America seminarians discussed what finding aliens might mean for the future of their religion, while other schools hosted screenings of Ender’s Game and The Martian. Howard’s divinity faculty threw a science-theology mixer, where scientists outnumbered the theologians.