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Pardee Center brings religion scholars together

Experts find God may still be dead, but religion is more alive than ever

Ray Hart, Dean of the School of Theology, says religion is alive and well.

Religious scholars from universities and institutes across the country traveled last week to Boston University to attend the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future conference The Role of Religion in the Longer-Range Future. The two-day event, cosponsored by the School of Theology and the College of Arts and Sciences department of religion, addressed such questions as “What can religion offer the modern world?” and “Where is religion going?” BU Today talked with Ray Hart, STH dean and a professor of philosophical and systematic theology. Hart led a discussion asking, “Must we choose between science and religion?”

BU Today: Must we choose between science and religion?

Hart: I would say the answer given by the panelists was generally, “No, we need not choose, and if we understand what science does and what religion does, there isn’t any need to choose between them.”

What does each of them do?

They each talk about different things. The primary matter where religion and science get confused is on causation. The creationists use the language of creation and confuse so-called creationism with science. The defenders of creationism define God as the cause of the world. The major religions do not treat God as a cause in any ordinary sense. God is not an item in the cosmic inventory, like a star or a virtue or a rock. God establishes the conditions whereby there is something rather than nothing. Under these conditions there can be a causal system.

Can society afford to teach that creationism and evolution are equally valid?

I think the general consensus is it cannot afford to teach creationism as science, and that’s why the whole question of intelligent design is brooded about. If you get into that, there is as much evidence of unintelligent design as there is of intelligent design. Nature is red in tooth and claw and notoriously inefficient. Think of how many species have been destroyed in natural processes for another to emerge, only to be destroyed itself. I think the general consensus is that creationism as it is propounded and intelligent design are probably not good science and probably should not be taught as such.

Is that a modern problem?

It has occurred since the 17th century, and there were many issues on the table long before that. What we now call science was called natural philosophy and the scientific method had not developed. But neither had history in the modern sense.

Isn’t the modern sense the crux of the debate?

The kinds of issues under debate are a function of modernity. Those religions that are resisting the sciences are also resisting modernity. There is also the thesis that modernity is itself a creation largely of Protestantism. There are really two problems here: one is those religions contending against modernity and the other is the views of science that do not know enough about the history of science or religion. There are problems on both sides, which is why people have to get together and talk these things out.

What technologies available to us now will influence the way we look at religion in the future?

The instant availability of information. When you look at what people knew in the 19th century, it’s remarkable how they got so much right. They couldn’t Google this, that, or the other thing. There is now more information available to an uneducated person than there was to the most advanced scholars years ago.

The other big influence is immigration. Islam is not just in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. You have people in your neighborhood who are Muslims, Buddhist, and no telling what. Our kids intermarry. Technology, immigration, intercultural mix, rapid transit — all of these factors are very powerful influences on the future of religion. 

Then where is Christanity growing?

It is growing everywhere but in the United States and Europe. It is growing in Africa, China, Japan, and Korea. The centers of many religions are shifting out of their major habitats. Christianity is no longer a European and American phenomenon. The same is true of Islam. It is growing proportionally faster in Europe and America because of immigration. There are more Muslims in Chicago than there are Episcopalians.

So religion, at least some religion, is going to be around for a while?

People have predicted the demise of religion for 400 years. It doesn’t go away; it seems to get stronger. God may be dead, but the religion is very much alive.

Watch the Pardee Center’s Web site for a web-cast of this conference.