How Has the Science-Religion Field Changed Over the Last Eight Years? An SSQ Retrospective

How Has the Science-Religion Field Changed Over the Last Eight Years? An SSQ Retrospective

by Philip Clayton

"SSQ has been an extraordinary program in its global outreach. Every conference has been simultaneously a dialogue between science and religion and a dialogue among major religious traditions. Because the participants respected each other as scientists, they were open to each other’s views without the defensiveness typically found in ecumenical conferences. Because these were such eminent and articulate scientists, they communicated effectively to a wider public through symposia, media coverage, and subsequent publication" –Ian Barbour, Carleton College

For eight years, the program "Science and the Spiritual Quest" (SSQ) assembled leading scientists from around the world in private workshops, organized public conferences and telecasts, drew media attention to questions of science and religion, and published books and articles. One of the field's largest and longest-running programs, SSQ was by most measures also one of its most successful programs. Thus it is appropriate today, as SSQ closes its doors and takes down its shingle, to step back and take stock of the science-religion field as a whole:

  • What was "science/religion" in 1995?
  • Where is it today?
  • What role did SSQ play in this change? What made it successful, and where were its weaknesses?
  • Finally—if we are to ask the really difficult question—what is it that the field most needs today if it is to continue to thrive and expand?

"Science/Religion" in 1995

Eight years ago one could count the large centers devoted to science and religion on the fingers of one hand. There were a few notable publications per year; every year or so a major conference took place; a few people occasionally taught a course on the topic; and the media had little idea what was afoot. A few brave individuals were speaking out about the importance of the dialogue. They included Ian Barbour, John Polkinghorne, Arthur Peacocke, Philip Hefner, Robert Russell, Nancey Murphy, and several dozen more of the pioneers in the field, many of whom continue to exercise leadership roles today.

Sir John Templeton encouraged Russell, founder and director of the Berkeley-based Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS), to design a "Humility Theology Research Program." Russell and Mark Richardson, Program Director at the Center, hypothesized that some scientists see their science as itself a spiritual quest, or at least integrate it closely with their religious practice. The title "Science and the Spiritual Quest" was born.

Unlike today, the slate of scientists already publicly identified with the dialogue was small. The challenge for Phase One was to locate and invite mostly Jewish, Christian and Muslim scientists; Phase Two would then expand to include all the world's religions. Yet, even given Phase One's limited goal, it took months of research to identify 60 scientists who were prestigious enough in their fields and knowledgeable enough of their religious traditions to qualify.

For these first scientists, the idea of talking openly about science and their own spiritual quest was novel, surprising, and sometimes threatening. They felt like pioneers. Each scientist gave a one-hour interview, and all the scientists read each other's interviews prior to the first meeting. The famous cosmologist, Allan Sandage, expressed surprise and exuberance at the first meeting of cosmologists, walking up to one individual after another and exclaming, "But Bill, we have been together at conferences for 20 years—I never knew you had any interest in religious questions!"

Equally surprising—and to many, shocking—was the idea that the physics department at the University of California, Berkeley, might sponsor a major conference on science and religion. Press from across America and overseas descended on the Berkeley campus for the June 1998 conference. Leading anti-religious scientists, catching wind of the media circus, requested equal time at the podium to rebut claims for the compatibility of religion and science. Over 100 million media impressions were devoted to that summer's event, including the cover story of Newsweek. The title on the cover expressed the nation's amazement at this new discovery: "Scientists Find God."

"Science/Religion" Today

Over the last eight years SSQ has held 16 private three-day workshops on two continents, involving 123 new scientists in constructive dialogue at the intersections of science and spirituality. The program organized 17 public events in nine countries on four continents. Taken together, these events reached close to 12,000 audience members firsthand and many millions more through the media—some 250 million, according to the official estimates of the PR firm Logic Media Group. Six books covering the research output of SSQ have been published on four different continents or are currently in production. The group's website lists four full-length video products and contains a massive amount of supplementary material; further excerpts from the SSQ program are available through the Counterbalance Foundation ( In all, 48 different organizations, institutions and financial supporters became allies in achieving these results.

What of the field in general? It would be redundant to inform readers of Research News that the science-religion dialogue is flourishing. This and other publications overwhelm the reader with a seemingly endless smorgasbord of events, centers, research reports, and publications in the field. Some 100 new courses a year in the field were launched through the work of the CTNS "Science and Religious Course Program," which ran for eight years. Ever more "big name" scientists are speaking about integrating their scientific and religious concerns. The John Templeton Foundation now invests some $20 million per year in science-religion research and aims if possible to double that investment in the coming years. A quick glance at the calendar of upcoming events in this issue testifies to the explosion of activity.

Clearly, the field of science/religion has come of age.

What Did SSQ Contribute, and Where did It Fail?

Perhaps it's appropriate now, at this time of transition, to step back from the facts and pause a moment to analyze and evaluate. What happens if we set the lens wider than SSQ, using this program merely as a means to evaluate the flurry of science-religion activity racing on around us? It turns out that the strengths and weaknesses of SSQ are highly instructive for recognizing broader tendencies in the field. First the strengths:

  • SSQ researched and sought out prominent scientists who were interested in connections between science and the religious or spiritual quest but who were not yet active in the dialogue. This research function remains crucial if the field is to expand and, eventually, to encompass the top echelons of science.
  • SSQ used groups of like-minded scientists, paired by discipline, to introduce new scholars to the science-religion field. Their own autobiographies, elaborated in interviews and transcribed onto paper, become the first point of contact, supplemented by reading booklets designed to introduce new scientists to the topic. This type of in-depth interaction, which depends upon respect for scientific colleagues and a high level of trust, requires a large investment of time and energy. It cannot be replaced by simply inviting new scientists to speak at conferences or participate in debates. We need moderators, mentors and mediators more than theologians who will teach the scientists the answers.
  • Through a long process of discussion, research, paper writing, and feedback from colleagues, SSQ scientists gradually became contributing members to the science-religion debate. As many as possible were then given the opportunity to address audiences, to meet other colleagues in the field, and to publish their work in refereed journals. Since most were new to the field, and many spoke with that first blush of excitement, their papers and talks were generally accessible to non-specialized audiences. Thousands of audience members were reached directly by their presentations and millions more through publications, televised broadcasts, and media reports. Clearly the program was a popular success as well as an effective means of expanding the dialogue. If the field is to continue to reach new audiences, an important place will always remain for high-visibility conferences in major cities and at major academic institutions.

But the SSQ also revealed weaknesses. Many offer instructive lessons for future projects in the field:

  • The science-religion dialogue is now past the stage where large audiences will turn out simply to hear the news that a scientist can take religion seriously. The "generic" SSQ conference needs new variants. More fruitful now, perhaps, are "research results" conferences that focus on specific topics within the debate. Cosmology and design, evolution and purpose, neuroscience and consciousness, computer science and information technology, bioethics and religion—each of these subfields now deserves separate billing. The standards are higher now because the old message is no longer new. Yet attracting media and large audiences for specific topics is proportionately harder.
  • Venues and target audiences must also be reconsidered. Can one fill an auditorium at Yale or Princeton or the University of California at Los Angeles? At Cambridge or Heidelberg or Stockholm? At São Paulo or Nairobi or Singapore? And can one fill it with research scientists and denominational executives and business leaders? These are new and difficult challenges.
  • SSQ generally employed the standard conference format: speaker after speaker occupies the podium, gives a speech, and sits down. Now, however, it's becoming increasingly urgent that we find new and innovative approaches to public presentations and conferences. Future programs need to shun the podium, arranging instead interactive panels, probing and dramatic debates, skilled event moderation, and effective audio-visual presentations.
  • Scientists are often enthusiastic when for the first time they discover significant connections between science and religion. But not all are poised, polished, effective public speakers. As groups like SSQ organize events around the world, at first all that matters is that famous scientists speak about the compatibility of science and religion. With the passage of time, however, it becomes increasingly important to locate articulate speakers who communicate clearly and can speak effectively to large public audiences.
  • Above all, will the science-religion work that we organize, support, and participate in be a phenomenon of the West alone? Or will it include non-Western speakers, ideas, and religious traditions? SSQ took a major step toward internationalizing the science-religion dialogue, drawing participants from and holding conferences in major non-Western centers. Unfortunately, though, there is a strong tendency to invest one's funds and attention in programs close to home. A conference held in one's backyard somehow feels more successful, more significant, more worth doing. Wouldn't it be tragic to develop the science-religion interrelationship in intricate detail for the religion of Christianity, while leaving most of the world's faith traditions outside the scope of our attention? Ironically, mono-cultural work casts the validity of one's own "research results" into question, since it demotes them to mere expressions of Western, and most often Christian, culture. Only cross-cultural data can provide results that are cross-culturally valid—valid in the way that results in the natural sciences are.

The Future of Science/Religion

Something unbelievable has occurred in these last years. For the first time in its history, modern science and its practitioners have begun to grapple with the fundamental questions of human existence. From the United Nations to the Catholic Church, from Castel Gondolfo to Geneva, from computer specialists in Bangalore to spiritualists in Berkeley, the barriers between science, ethics and religion have been falling. Like the students from East and West who sat on the Berlin Wall that November night in 1989, scientists and theologians are celebrating the resumption of an interrupted dialogue. Across the Academy, in the business and political arenas, and in the public at large, people are noticing. The changes are revolutionary: when worlds collide, everything is realigned.

But today's news is fodder for tomorrow's recycling basket. By the nature of the case, the more specialized research results that scholars in the United States are likely to produce in the next half-dozen years will attract far less attention. The same amounts of time and work invested in the same types of events will yield decreasing returns. Any discussion that continually reworks old ground quickly becomes uninteresting to the participants—not to mention the observers and the media. If the coming eight years are to come close to matching the phenomenal results of the last eight, we will have to become more skilled in meeting the three major challenges:

  • addressing new, more specific topics in an effective and ground-breaking way
  • finding new means of communicating the results in a way that catch the attention of academics, opinion leaders, and the general public in a far more compelling way than at present
  • moving outside the standard venues in the West to make this genuinely a worldwide dialogue involving science and all the world's major religious and spiritual traditions.

Up to now we have made a big splash in a small pond. As we turn our attention now to the sea of the world's faiths, will we achieve more than a passing ripple?

Philip Clayton

This article appeared in the October 2003 edition of Research News and Opportunities in Science and Theology.