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Discovering truth

Can science and religion coexist?

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Michelle Budge, Deseret News

Editor’s note: The following essay is part of Deseret Magazine’s issue on the fate of the religious university, with contributions by presidents and scholars from Baylor University, BYU, Catholic University, George Fox University, Wheaton College and Yeshiva University, among others. Read all the essays here.

In his July 1945 report to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Science, the Endless Frontier,” Vannevar Bush famously observed that “science, by itself, provides no panacea for individual, social, and economic ills. It can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war.”

Bush was the primary architect of the U.S. national science system that still operates today, including the National Science Foundation. This system is premised on the idea that science alone does not guarantee progress, but rather progress necessitates collaboration across diverse institutions with unique perspectives and values.

Although the U.S. now has a large network of universities and researchers playing different roles in generating knowledge and translating it into benefits for our social and economic well-being, religious institutions are notably underrepresented in academic research and within the broader practice of science.

Greater involvement of religious universities in science could help to address a key challenge in scientific research: ensure that diverse and socially focused perspectives are included, if not centered, in the process of discovery.

Although religious institutions have not been excluded from scientific research, few have made meaningful investments in research capacity. Only four religiously affiliated universities are classified as “highly active” in scientific research. If we believe that diverse perspectives improve science, then becoming more active in research should be a key assignment for religious universities.

Religious universities have a great deal to offer the world, but respective to science, many are hiding their light. To maximize their contributions to society through science, they can engage science in unique ways that let their light shine.

A university’s religious mission and values can inform the way that it generates insights and translates them to practice. An institution’s religious identity can inform strategic emphasis on research in areas of special concern, such as humanitarian aid, poverty alleviation or family dynamics. Religious values can also support goals like creating pathways for underrepresented minorities or connecting science to charitable interests.

In connecting research to their broader values and missions, we may look forward to religious universities cultivating humble dispositions toward scientific inquiry. Such humble inquiry would be a welcome complement to curiosity and competitiveness that drives most research today.

Many religious institutions expressly integrate their values into teaching, learning and service. For example, Georgetown University cites the Jesuit principle of “people for others” as an animating principle for service projects and community-based learning. Moreover, religious institutions frequently take stances on contemporary scientific issues. For example, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in recent weeks has issued statements on topics including nuclear proliferation, ocean health, carbon emissions and human living conditions.

The long-standing notion that there is an inherent tension between science and religion need not deter religious universities from realizing their potential to carry out scientific inquiry and translate new knowledge into social benefit. Issues such as sustainability, infectious disease, poverty, renewable energy, malnutrition and artificial intelligence are all examples of issues where religious institutions and their unique perspectives can positively and uniquely influence the ability of science to advance progress.

University scientific research is particularly vital not only to our national economic competitiveness and security, but also to our democracy’s capacity to contend with so-called “wicked problems.” The strength of our distributed national innovation system is in how it facilitates collaboration guided by shared values.

In light of the major social, economic and environmental challenges facing humanity — and the unique role that ethical and normative considerations play in guiding science to address them — we can ill afford for religious universities to hide their light. By taking a greater role in advancing scientific research, religious universities can make unique contributions to a science that is not “by itself,” but rather is enriched by collaboration across a wider diversity of perspectives.

Derrick Anderson is the senior vice president of learning and engagement at the American Council on Education.

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.