Science and Religion Drive Divinity Professor

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Eric A. Reavis

Visiting Divinity School Professor Philip Clayton found his religious faith at 14, becoming the Presbyterian child of liberal atheist parents.

CORRECTION APPENDED

A self-proclaimed hippie with a never-settled quest for religious understanding, Philip Clayton—a visiting professor this year at the Harvard Divinity School (HDS)—has spent the past year encouraging the exploration of the delicate balance between the study of science and the study of religion, an interest motivated in part by his own uncertainties of faith.

“I’ve met religious people for whom religion is no conflict—it’s as obvious as the air you breathe, or your own name, and I was never one of those people,” Clayton says. “It was always an intellectual struggle.

“Science and religion was the field in which that struggle expressed itself,” he added.

A FORUM FOR DISCUSSION

As professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences scrapped a proposed “Reason and Faith” requirement from the recently approved College general education requirements, a broader discussion regarding the role of religion in the curriculum has risen, with many lamenting the absence of a forum to explore the interaction between religion and scholarship on campus.

This discussion of the interaction of science and religion stretches beyond academia, says Mark U. Edwards, Jr., associate dean for academic administration at HDS. It enters the public sphere through the debates about intelligent design and stem cell research as well as through bestselling books such as “The God Delusion” by secular scientist Richard Dawkins.

At HDS, the creation of a new professorship dedicated to this very subject is in the works. The Watson Chair in Science and Religion “could make Harvard the world’s center in the academic discussion of science and religion,” says Clayton, who says he is vying for the post. According to Edwards, the position will not be filled until the fall.

Even this year, through Clayton’s presence as a visiting professor, students at HDS as well as the College were able to test the waters of the field through Clayton’s two classes—“Rethinking Religion in Light of Contemporary Science” and “Scientific Perspectives on Consciousness and Religious Experience.”

“Where I came into college thinking, ‘you learn science, and that will dictate what truth is,’ what I see now is that when you do deeper and deeper research into the sciences, what you’re left with is a picture where there are a lot of places to make philosophical choices,” says David M. Silvestri ’07, who took a class from Clayton this year.

‘IN THE FLOWERS’

Clayton says his upbringing was instrumental in shaping his personal religious views and conflicts. He explains that he was raised by a father who was “as anti-religious as you can imagine” and a mother who “hated religion with a passion,” making him “the most natural atheist in the world.”

Clayton adds that his adolescent spirituality was stereotypical of the hippie culture in northern California at the time.

“I thought God was in the flowers,” he recalls. “I had the ‘God is in everything’ view, that I inherited with the California poppies growing in our garden and the pot smoke wafting up from our neighbor’s yard.”

However, at the age of 14, in what he says may have been to some extent a fit of teenage rebellion, Clayton underwent a powerful conversion—joining a Presbyterian church and participating in evangelical prayer groups.

“What do you do with liberal parents?” Clayton muses about his motivations for the conversion, proposing a series of hypotheticals. “‘Mom, Dad I’m gay.’ So? ‘I’d like to watch porn or read porn,’ So that’s fine—nothing at all could have disturbed them at all, drug use even...but to become a conservative Christian...they wept when I came home.”

A trip to the great cathedrals of Europe evoked a “longing for something that wasn’t fulfilled,” which, coupled with his rebellious streak, ushered in the start of Clayton’s “inner quest for meaning.” This “tension between the best of rationality and the richness of faith” would continue to manifest itself in Clayton’s scholarship.

Clayton maintains his stance as a scholar of theism as well as of theoretical biology and neuroscience, seeking to “explore all the areas of tension and sometimes of harmony.”

GOD IN THE GAPS?

The boundaries separating these two worlds and the roles each should play according to societal mandate are somewhat difficult to understand, according to Clayton.

He says people have a tendency to place the idea of God into gaps in scientific knowledge—proclaiming that phenomena that cannot be understood for the time being are the work of God. However, he says, this is not a feasible place for religious influence to stand.

“When you put God into the gaps of scientific exploration, you guarantee that those gaps are going to get smaller and smaller, and your poor God is going to get crushed or is going to have to pop out of that hole and leap into the next available hole in science,” Clayton remarks.

He adds that religion and science do not have to be mutually exclusive, though they do serve entirely different roles.

“God is a hypothesis about the meaning of human existence as a whole,” Clayton explains. “Science doesn’t formulate answers to the meaning of human existence as a whole.”

Clayton says this unwillingness to consider the coexistence of science and religion can prove “damaging” to both fields, creating extremism on both ends and an unwillingness to find a middle ground.

“I now feel a cultural urgency of reestablishing the partnership between science and religion, where religion provides shared values and a source of wisdom, and science provides accurate facts of the world,” he says. “Together, they help humanity utilize this apple of knowledge that we now hold.”

FOSTERING DIALOGUE

Clayton’s response to the decision to scrap the Reason and Faith requirement for College students?

“Tragic. Tragic,” he says. “If Harvard’s goal is to train the men and women who will be leaders across all branches of American culture, and internationally, then these have to be people who are knowledgeable in the fundamental cultural conflicts of our day.”

Clayton says he believes that the denial of such training to students will in fact predispose students to the same fundamentalism as creationism and the intelligent design movement. He disagrees with the idea that this sort of discussion would weaken science.

“If you shove the science and religion debate under the carpet...[you] deny the partnership between the religious and scientific dimensions that we absolutely need: to make progress on the environmental crisis, religiously motivated warfare, America’s slipping place in the world’s scientific community, and so forth,” he says.

Amanda L. Shapiro ’08, president of the Harvard Secular Society, says she is disappointed that the requirement was nixed and that she hopes to see “more support for inquiry” between the two camps, though she doesn’t believe one group should cater to the other.

Jeffrey Kwong ’08, president of Harvard Right to Life and vice president of the Harvard Republican Club, also says the subject needs open discussion, as faith does have a role in society and “discussing that role is very much part of the democratic process.” [SEE CORRECTION BELOW]

Clayton says he hopes to expand his own discussion of science and religion past the Christian tradition as well—to Judaism and Buddhism and possibly to Islam.

“I would say the relationship of Islam to the world’s religions and to the West is inextricably bound with the relationship of Islam and science,” he says. “An Islam that can embrace science is not a fanatical Islam, but is the great Islamic tradition of the high middle ages—Islam, traditionally, was the religion of unification.”

—Staff writer Aditi Balakrishna can be reached at balakris@fas.harvard.edu.

CORRECTION: The May 18 news article "Science and Religion Drive Divinity Professor" listed the incorrect class year and titles for Jeffrey Kwong. He is a member of the Class of 2009, not 2008. In addition, he is the vice president of Harvard Right to Life and the president of the Harvard Republican Club—not the president of Harvard Right to Life and the vice president of the Harvard Republican Club, as the story stated.