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Harpur professor delves into discussion of science and religion

Can a devoutly religious person believe in the theory of evolution? Can he or she person support stem cell research or the creation of genetically modified food?

Or perhaps turn the question around: must a scientist leave his or her religious convictions at the laboratory door, so to speak, when engaged in research?

Scientists’ dependence on bare facts and their insistence on basing conclusions on replicable evidence lead some people to believe scientists are atheists. Can a scientist believe in a supreme being or the power of prayer?

Sandra D. Michael, professor of biological sciences and the department’s director of graduate studies, says yes. She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and recently finished a four-year term on their Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER), a committee established in 1995 that seeks to increase the level of scientific understanding in religious communities and promote multidisciplinary study of the ethical and religious implications of developments in science and technology.

Philosophers and theologians have traditionally been the ones to discuss ethical issues. DoSER, however, provides opportunities for members of these disciplines to converse with scientists about the religious and moral implications of scientific discovery and technological advancement.

“There’s a high level of belief in a higher being among scientists,” Michael contends. “You don’t have to be a scientist or a person of faith.” DoSER facilitates collaboration between scientists, ethicists and religious scholars by organizing conferences and publishing books, videos and other informational material.

Members of DoSER discuss scientific issues with moral implications such as reproductive cloning, population control, genetic testing, space exploration, environmental policies, and robotics. They hold PhD’s in fields ranging from Judaic Studies to Physics and come from research universities such as Binghamton, theological seminaries, medical schools, and museums.

“The committee, while I was on it, had Jews, a Muslim, a Buddhist, an Atheist, and a number of people from different Christian faith traditions,” Michael said, adding that DoSER members may come from any of the 24 different scientific disciplines within the AAAS.

DoSER holds monthly public lectures throughout the country. In November 2002, Harpur College’s Professor David Sloan Wilson spoke at one about his controversial book, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society, which suggested morality and religion gave humans a survival edge because they rewarded behaviors conducive to community building.

The intersection of science and religion isn’t just a “fringe” interest. Michael says many top ranked universities have institutes dedicated to studying such matters, such as the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley.

The issues are on the minds of students as well. Michael teaches Contemporary Issues in Biological Sciences, a requirement for students in BU’s Early Assurance Program, which she coordinates and which grants acceptance into SUNY Upstate Medical School for those who meet the academic criteria.

Having the opportunity to discuss topics such as ethics, evolution, and biomedical research is especially important for future medical students because they’ll need to be able to talk about them with their patients.

Students in Michael’s Contemporary Issues seminar must give two 40-minute presentations on scientific topics that have been in the media and the nation’s collective consciousness. “The first day of class, the students make a long list of possible seminar topics. Creation and evolution are always on their list,” she said.

For some, Michael’s Contemporary Issues class is the first opportunity they’ve had to explore not only these subjects, but their own feelings as well. “Some students will come to see me to talk about it in my office.” It is often their first step into the ongoing dialogue, which may, for some, continue to grow at the pace of science.

Outside of the lab, Michael is very active in promoting the dialogue between science and religion in the Episcopal Church. At the national level, she was recently elected Convener for the Episcopal Church’s Network for Science, Technology and Faith. The Network is co-organizing an April 2005 meeting at M.I.T. with AAAS, “Our Brains and Us: Neuroethics, Responsibility and the Self.”

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