Harvard Lacks Platform to Discuss Science And Religion

To the editors:

I write in response to the article “Faith and Reason” (magazine, May 2) about the relationship between science and faith at Harvard.

It comes as a surprise to me that, at an institution like Harvard, there is no academic platform for the discussion of science and religion, and that science professors continue to display a lack of interest in and even hostility towards any discussion of the interface between science and religion.

The field of cognitive science of religion has become one of the most popular interdisciplinary topics in recent years. There is now a cohort of researchers from the fields including anthropology, psychology, philosophy, natural sciences, and religion doing top-level research at institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, who engage in scientific study of the cultural, psychological, biological, and philosophical aspects of religion. There is deep engagement with both scientific method and religious traditions, and despite the fact that many of the scholars in the cognitive science of religion field differ widely in their worldviews, dialogue has been extremely fruitful. Drs. Scott Atran, Harvey Whitehouse, Justin Barrett, and Pascal Boyer are just a few notable scholars in the field whose works provide a good introduction this discipline which, on scientific grounds, takes seriously and has respect for the phenomenon of religious belief .

It seems to me that the sense of hostility reported by the students in their science classes arises from an overly simplistic view of religion on the parts of their professors. Science is a methodology, not a worldview. Scientific research should not make claims on epistemological and philosophical issues such as the existence of God or validity of belief, especially when based on an overly simplistic understanding of religion. Science can describe and make predictions, but scientists should be aware that their methodology has no a priori claim to superiority over other methods in making epistemological and metaphysical claims.

I hope that the scientific community at Harvard can begin to take note of the cognitive science of religion field which, in my view, takes seriously the worldviews held by the various disciplines it represents and provides room for intelligent dialogue between them.


Cambridge, UK

May 4, 2007

The writer is a doctoral student in psychology and religion at the University of Cambridge.