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World: The Line Between Science And Religion (Part I)

The late Pope John Paul's life and death has attracted renewed interest in the Roman Catholic Church -- and tensions between the church and the modern world. In a three-part series, we take a closer look at the church's relationship to three modern issues -- science, birth control, and social justice. Catholicism is not the only church that must confront the tension between belief and science. Did God create the world as described in the Christian, Islamic and Jewish scriptures? Did humans evolve from lower orders of animals? Should experimentation in human cloning be forbidden or regulated? Can abortion, contraception, capital punishment or euthanasia ever be justified? In this report, we look at what happens when religious faith and scientific observation confront each other. [See also The Roman Catholic Church And Birth Control (Part II) --> and The Roman Catholic Church And Social Welfare (Part III) --> .]

Prague, 18 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Religion and science have much in common. Both seek to learn the truth. Only the approaches are different. Science seeks the truth through human observation and reasoning. Religion seeks it through divine revelation.

The 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard held that, by itself, reason can carry a person seeking truth only so far. If the seeker continues to pursue knowledge through reason alone, he or she comes to the brink of despair. And the only way forward is a leap of faith.

Dr. Willem B. Drees is a leading member of the community of scholars who ponder god and science. Drees holds the chair of philosophy of religion and ethics in the theology department of the Netherlands' Leiden University. He also is president of ESSSAT -- the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology.
When faith insists that the truth comprises only what always has been known, a quarrel with the new discoveries of science may be inevitable.

Drees contends that there is not necessarily any quarrel between reason and faith.

"If faith is understood as the basic trust and faith in God as creator, then whatever we learn about creation is supposed to be learning about God's word," says Drees.

But, he says, the universe and scientists' understanding of it are dynamic. When faith insists that the truth comprises only what always has been known, a quarrel with the new discoveries of science may be inevitable.

"If faith is defined in a very static way as the belief people held a thousand or 2,000 years ago, then there necessarily is a quarrel because we discover new things and we have to integrate them. But I think that has been happening in the past as well," says Drees.

Drees says that another source of tension between theology and religion is not so much factual as ethical. It is the question of what human beings should do with the new powers and abilities that science keeps discovering.

"On the intellectual side, I think, the issues are very diverse. It's thinking about the classical issues about evolution and cosmology (origins of the universe) and the understanding of reality. But it's also thinking about our technology and our powers, what all we are able to do, due to modern knowledge," says Drees.

Soon after John Paul's death, an authoritative Catholic newspaper in the United States, "National Catholic Reporter," surveyed some Catholic scholars. They praised the late pope for reaching out to Muslims and Jews, and for other initiatives. But they faulted him for suppressing theological discussion and academic freedom and for his stubborn immobility on topics such as the use of condoms to fight AIDS.

Drees says he believes that John Paul -- no fundamentalist, himself -- was open to technology and new information. He was an acknowledged master of employing the technology of communication. This, too, was the pope who rehabilitated the scientist-philosopher Galileo, vilified by the 17th century church for supporting a radical theory at the time that the earth circles the sun.

"The late pope, I think, was very open to science. But also emphasized that a synthesis is in the end what we aim for. We may have conflicts but then we should acknowledge that we humans don't have yet a full understanding of either the meaning of scriptural text or of the world," says Drees.

Dr. Emira K. Bennison is a Cambridge University faculty member and director of the Center of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. She says that advances in science and technology don't present the problems for most Muslims that they do for many Christians. There are many within Islam who feel, she says, that scientific discoveries can be seen as predicted within the sacred text of the Quran.

"From the 19th century onward, there's been a standard in Islam which has accepted scientific development and seen it as very much acceptable within Islam. So science and technology are not really major issues from the [mainstream] Muslim point of view," says Bennison.

Bennison says she thinks that a majority of Muslims feel that the crucial challenge of the time is not so much theological as it is one of perception. Often Muslims are astonished when they learn that Christianity is not one body of opinion but a quilt of many hues. Similarly, Bennison says, Muslims want non-Muslims to recognize that Islam is not a monolith, and that the activities of a violent minority do not represent the whole of Islam.

Lieve Troch, professor at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands, says narrow issues of science and technology versus religion fade in importance when compared to related ethical and moral questions.

"Communication between religions, communication between cultures and reflection on ethical issues related to survival of our planet -- I think those are the three main issues that the scientists and religious should give attention to. Culture, religions and ethical issues," says Troch.

As an example, Troch notes that wars and other destroyers of people condemn many more lives than do abortion, euthanasia and the like.

"And if we're talking about abortion, euthanasia and those things, then we are forgetting about what is happening day to day in wars and in destruction of people. Then I think we are being very hypocritical," says Troch.

From her perspective, Troch says that another transcendent issue is the subordination of woman not only in the Catholic Church but also in other denominations. Women have much to say in matters of theological reflection, Troch says, but still face problems in making their contributions heard.

Visit RFE/RL's Religion And Tolerance webpage for stories of religious tolerance in our broadcast region, biographies of leading religious figures, and profiles of religious minorities.