The Grand Rapids Press

April 7, 2001

Some wonder whether blending religion and science in college classrooms crosses the line

Rick Wilson and Charles Honey


Professor Doug Kindschi has no problem mixing religion and science. In fact, he has built a class around the topic at Grand Valley State University.

As a Christian and dean of GVSU's science and mathematics department, Kindschi likes to explore the questions, contradictions and connections between the science he teaches and the faith he holds dear.

Likewise, the class allows students to examine the lofty questions that often put religion and science at odds.

"If Charles Darwin was right, where does the basic human tendency toward altruism come from?" Kindschi asked a recent class.

Kindschi developed the class with Professor Theresa Castelao- Lawless, and they are offering it for the first time this semester. Designated as Science 321: Science, Mathematics and Religion: Different Ways of Knowing, the class is among a group of broad-themed courses that upper-level students must take.

"We have evidence of evolution," Kindschi said. "And yet, we know historically that long before theology and long before some of our most basic scientific theories were developed, there was this sense among ancient human beings of something else out there -- a sense of connection to some greater being and each other."

"We're trying to get people to look at a topic from different perspectives. A lot of our students come to us from very conservative backgrounds, and what we would like them to see is how various scientists put together their own religious beliefs.

"We want them to see that just because we may disagree, we don't have to just butt heads and call each other names."

The class is an example of how educators try to bring religious perspectives to bear on science without crossing the constitutional line separating church from state.

Legislature enters the debate

Where that line should be drawn is under the microscope of public opinion. A bill pending in the Michigan Legislature would allow public middle- and high-school teachers to offer "purposeful, intelligent design" as a theory of how life was formed. The same bill characterizes evolution as an "unproven theory."

Several West Michigan Republicans are co-sponsors of the bill -- Wayne Kuipers of Holland, Barb VanderVeen of Allendale, Jerry Kooiman of Grand Rapids and Joanne Voorhees of Wyoming.

The issue is not as hot in higher education. But some observers see academia as often hostile to bringing religious ideas into nonreligion classes -- especially science classes.

Faculty at other area colleges say religion and science generally are and should be kept separate. But they credit GVSU for a creative attempt to examine the inter-relationships of the two. They also say questions from religious students should not be barred from science classes.

"Make the most fertile environment you can for them to ask those questions," said Gregory Forbes, a biology professor at Grand Rapids Community College. "If you don't, we've failed as educators."

Forbes is education director of the Michigan Scientific Evolution Education Initiative, which trains K-12 teachers on how to teach evolution. Many college students have not learned scientific evolution because their high school teachers did not teach it properly, Forbes said.

Science teachers should not teach religion any more than trigonometry teachers should teach about the Holocaust, Forbes said. It is not only unconstitutional but an inappropriate mixing of disciplines, he added. When students raise religious issues in science classes, Forbes said, professors should not squelch them but explain the difference between science and religious belief systems.

"Many teachers don't feel comfortable in mediating such a discussion," said Forbes, director of the Science Education Center at GRCC.

He praised GVSU for designing a course that addresses the apparent conflicts between science and religion. But he worries some professors could use such a course to advance their religious agendas.

"If these are done well, the student is armed with more information with which to make their own decision. If the power of the podium is abused, we have a very serious problem."

Another area scholar sees many scientists and educators warming to the idea that religion deserves serious discussion in college classrooms.

'It was systematically ignored'

"For a long time, religion was something thought to be so unworthy of thinking about seriously. It was systematically ignored," said E. Thomas Lawson, chairman of the comparative religion department at Western Michigan University. "I don't think that's any longer the case."

At WMU, between 800 and 1,000 students a semester take courses in religion, said Lawson, who has taught there for 40 years. Although none of the school's courses compare religion and science, Lawson said he and other religion faculty study religion from scientific perspectives.

"We put a scientific focus on religious ideas and practices, but we don't try to argue religious concepts or scientific concepts are equivalent." Lawson has students explore how the mind produces religious ideas and how they influence behavior. But WMU's religion courses do not presume to offer religious explanations for scientific phenomena, he said, adding religious explanations for creation almost always come from a Judeo-Christian perspective.

"If you realize there are thousands of religions in the world, there's no way in a public university you can privilege one religion. What about all the other stories of creation? Are they compatible with science or not?" Too often, faculty at public colleges and universities shut out serious discussion of religious ideas from their classrooms, a local Christian academic says.

"There are faculty who simply are hostile to religion, and there are faculty who are personally very respectful but believe it's very important to separate religion from intellectual life," said David Hoekema, a philosophy professor and former academic dean at Calvin College.

The gap has been particularly tough to close in religion and the sciences, Hoekema says. But he sees the GVSU course as a example of a growing openness about the link between religion and other areas of learning.

"There's a renewed recognition that science is a human activity, and it takes place in communities shaped by social and cultural and religious attitudes."

The GVSU class covers elements of physics, chemistry, biology and math, all taught within the context of the prevailing religious beliefs when important scientific theories emerged. Kindschi and Castelao-Lawless bring in other faculty each week to lecture on specific topics.

In regard to evolution vs. creation, Kindschi teaches that people ask a faulty question when they presume it must be one or the other. The point of the class, after all, he says, is to look for elements of science and religion that confirm each other.

"It's a false question when you're dealing with something that has a very different context," Kindschi said of biblical accounts of creation. He notes that the Bible was written at a time when Babylonian theology was popular, which suggests the Earth is evil, humans are a slave to the gods and creation comes about through some cataclysmic upheaval.

"We wouldn't expect the Bible to give us reasons for the second World War," he said. "It may give us some of the reasons why men go to war, but we can't expect it to deal with the current details of science or history." "The theory of evolution is so strong in biology because it has this tremendous explanatory power," Castelao-Lawless said. "But so often, science and religion are thought of as mutually exclusive. We wanted to show students the connections."

Students weigh in on class

Students say the class offers a broad perspective they do not often get in classes that exclusively teach science or religious philosophies. Jamie Grefe, a 21-year-old sophomore from Alpena and a liberal arts major, said it offers him some tangible solutions to questions he had growing up in a private Christian school.

"Religion has always been an important part of my upbringing, so I guess it was the religious aspects of the class that drew me to it," Grefe said. "It covers the complete density and the history of science and religion. So it lets you ... see all the different kinds of thought that have gone on throughout the years."

Grefe is one of only eight students in the class, which did not get listed in the university course catalog this school year.

The small group makes for intimate discussions with faculty from various university departments. But Kindschi and Castelao-Lawless hope attendance will increase next year when word of the class spreads.

"Certainly in this community, people take religion seriously -- as they should," Kindschi said. "The question becomes how do they incorporate into their world view both religion and the discoveries of modern science." Kindschi and Castelao-Lawless expect GVSU will fund the class next year. This year, it is being paid for by a $10,000 competitive grant from the Templeton Foundation's Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences.

Copyright 2001 Grand Rapids Press. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
Filel Date: 4.12.01