Thursday, March 28, 2019

CRISPR: A Scientific Breakthrough that's No Longer "On Discovery Away"

As I type this, I'm participating in the BioLogos faith-science conference, "Beyond Conflict: Science, Faith, and the Big Questions." Around tables this morning, I had a fascinating discussion with Cornell geneticist and associate professor of Biomedical Sciences, Praveen Sethupathy. 

By the way, I always find it ironic that Cornell was founded to be the first fully secular university, by Andrew Dickson White--whom I've written about many times. And yet, some of the best Christian thinkers on science and faith--Praveen, Andy Crouch, Justin Barrett, and Elaine Howard Ecklund--all studied at Cornell.

At any rate, Praveen and I were discussing his field, genetics and it reminded me that, when I first began to write this book, a colleague offered CRISPR cas9 as “one discovery away,” and in the meantime, it has already become a topic of great interest. 
Actually, that conversation was a year before I typed these words, but maybe we were both behind the curve because now the use of CRISPR is becoming realized. 

CRISPER gene editing represents a powerful means of changing ourselves through gene therapies in ways that will affect future generations. And it leads to difficult questions: Why not use this technology for the good? Why are religious people standing in the way like they’ve always done? And in general, are we “nothing but” our genes? 
As of the writing and to answer the first question, I was at a BioLogos conference with Praveen, one of their speakers, and he reminded me that CRISPR has been employed to great effect for curing Sickle Cell Anemia as Nature reported as early as 2016. Indeed, there was the case of the Chinese scientist employing CRISPR to clone a baby—I mention that he is Chinese because United States laws have no effect. 

And this he brings to his passionate faith in Jesus. Wow! Since science can take us both ethical directions, and I'm thankful for people like Praveen that are right in the midst of how we use these technologies.

That's it for now--gotta run to the next session!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Wistful Tribute to the Late Stephen Jay Gould

My colleague at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, Richard Westenburg, told me on a few occasions that, since I studied science and religion, I might be interested to hear about his friend Stephen Jay Gould. We even offered to introduce me to Gould at some point. Apparently, Gould was hilarious. And both were diehard Yankees fans. (Gould grew up in Brooklyn, even if he taught in Red Sox territory, i.e., Harvard.) 

I never took Dick Westenburg up on the offer. I wish I had. 

As I write my book on science and religion in America, I’ve come to appreciate so much of what Gould thought. So this is my wistful tribute to the man and some of what I've learned.

The late Stephen Jay Gould (he died in 2004) was a leading paleontologist who would be worth remembering for his scientific contributions alone both to Harvard University and to New York City’s Museum of Natural History. Principal among his many scientific accomplishments is the concept he developed with Niles Eldredge in 1972, 
“The theory of punctuated equilibrium, a revision of Darwinian theory proposing that the creation of new species through evolutionary change occurs not at slow, constant rates over millions of years but rather in rapid bursts over periods as short as thousands of years, which are then followed by long periods of stability during which organisms undergo little further change.” 
Gould’s 1999 book Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life is a compelling presentation of an independence model for relating science and religion. In it Gould describes "NOMA" or "Non-Overlapping Magisterial Authority." In this view, science and religion were never at war, but nonetheless were best kept separate. I love this quotation from Gould: 
“Science and religion do not glower at each other...[but] interdigitate in patterns of complex fingering, and at every fractal scale of self-similarity.” Stephen Jay Gould
I love this citation because I’m not entirely sure what it means. 

He’s more clear when he writes that religion and science each possess a “domain of teaching authority” that does not overlap with the other. Similarly, the policy statement from the National Academy of Sciences phrases it this way: 
"Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience.” And "Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist." National Academy of Sciences
After the publication of Philip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial, which became a rallying cry for the Intelligent Design movement, Gould offered review of Darwin on Trial in Scientific American called “Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge.” I love the title because Johnson appoints himself to judge Darwin without sufficient acumen in theology, philosophy, or science. What the legal scholar Johnson did possess was a brilliant mind for argumentation. At any rate, the review includes a few gems:
“Science can work only with naturalistic explanations, it can neither affirm no deny other types of actors (like God) in other spheres.” S. J. Gould
He then notes that Darwin declared himself an agnostic, while Asa Gray, Darwin’s supporter, was a “devout Christian.” Charles D. Walcott, who discovered the Burgess Shale Fossils, was also “a convinced Darwinian and an equally firm Christian.” And then he writes
"Move on another 50 years to the two greatest evolutionists of our generation G.G. Simpson a humanistic agnostic, Theodosius Dobzhansky, a believing Russian Orthodox. Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid or else Darwinism is fully compatible with religious belief—and equally compatible with science." S. J. Gould
NOMA as a type represents the dominant view from official scientific organizations today. NOMA declares, “Hey! It’s great that science and religion get along!” Many don't listen. Way too many of us today like to read about—and foment—conflict. And so NOMA just doesn’t receive the same amount of press as Richard Dawkins. 

But Gould is still worth listening to nonetheless.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Trends: The Growing “Nones” and Decreasing Antipathy Between Science and Religion

The past few months, I've been working somewhat feverishly on a book for Routledge Press about the past, present, and future of science and religion in America. And this future part is probably the trickiest. We all know about predictions for the future that don’t seem to have played out so well. 

Think about Disney’s Tomorrowlandwhich as I understand it,  had to be rebuilt at one point because of its limited success at predicting the future. (Disney fans, help me on this...) My memory of Tomorrowland from the late 1970s was that today it wouldn't look like a warmed over version of The Jetsons, a show I loved as a kid, but is hardly matches what the world almost 50 years later. "The future," as Yogi Berra once declared, "ain't what it used to be."

This means I’ve been looking to sources for seeing the contours, but with caution. What do we make of those who reject any religious affiliation—the “nones” as in “none of the above”? (As I've noted--probably ad nauseam in this blog--they are about 35% of 18-30 year olds.) Is there a positive in their future contributions?

Theologian and philosopher Philip Clayton’s comments in Religion and Science: The Basics make particular sense: He highlights  the growth of the nones along with their theological (if I can use that term) flexibility. In other words, he like me, recognizes that only a minority of nones are actually atheistic. More characteristic is their spiritually openness. See what you think:
Interest in the spiritual approach to science has grown rapidly in recent years. It’s no coincidence that these same years have seen a rapid decrease in participation in organized religion. The no-longer-affiliated or “Nones” have described themselves as “spiritual but not religious” or “spiritual independents.” They may practice yoga or meditation without much attention to traditional Hindu or Buddhist teachings. [This sounds like the “bricolage” or the “Spotify mix I’ve written about elsewhere.] They may find spirituality in different places: in nature or music, in being with friends or making love. They may tie together bits of sacred texts and practices without feeling that they have to be at home in just one. Philip Clayton 
The nones will bring, as far as I can tell, an openness that will defuse conflict so often brought by the fundamentalisms, both religious and atheistic. 
But will this deeper connection work? In other words, will those who look find that they can connect with science (and technology) and religion? It’s important to recall, as UC San Diego sociologist John Evans has observed, that the line of hardest resistance to mainstream science is with conservative Protestants and their ilk. 

As nones remain more open to religion without the hard edges—and even the spirituality of science questing for answers that move us into new insights—is there a closer collaboration on the horizon? And how do we, who are confessional and rooted in mere Christianity, respond?

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Trends: “Nones,” Kinder, Gentler Atheism, and Openness to Something Greater

I’m speaking in two weeks at Arizona State University on the COFAS Conference on Faith and Science
One of my talks is “Future Topics and Trends in Science and Religion With an Eye to American Intellectual History," and here’s some of the material I’m working on, which doesn’t directly address science and faith, but which does address what kind of faith—or perhaps better, spirituality—that increasingly describes Americans.

It would be hard to resist the conclusion that future American religious life will become more splintered and that the Christian church will have a decreasing influence. Almost all major polls of the past five to ten years demonstrate that, as a nation, we are less Christian and affiliated to any religion. For example, the 2014 Pew Research Center report on the Religious Landscape found that 36% of Younger Millennials (1990-1996) and 34% of Older Millennials (1981-89) were unaffiliated (or "nones"), while only 11% of the Silent Generation (1928-1945) could be placed in that category. In between these two fell Generation X (1965-80) at 23% and Baby Boomers (1946-64) at 17%. 

Put simply, in just over sixty years, the percentage of “nones” had more than tripled. The report continues to note that partly this is a generational reality. 
While some Millennials are leaving their childhood religion to become unaffiliated, most Millennials who were raised without a religious affiliation are remaining religious “nones” in adulthood. Two-thirds of Millennials who were raised unaffiliated are still unaffiliated (67%), a higher retention rate than most other major religious groups – and much higher than for older generations of “nones.” (Pew Research Center) 
I have heard it presented that “Oh, they’ll come back to church when they get older, get married, and have kids,” which have been correlations for religious affiliation in the past. Pew doesn’t give religious communities much comfort for the future:
It is possible that more Millennials who were raised unaffiliated will begin to identify with a religion as they get older, get married and have children, but previous Pew Research Center studies suggest that generational cohorts typically do not become more religiously affiliated as they get older. And the new survey finds that most generational cohorts actually are becoming less religiously affiliated as they age. (Pew Research Center) 
And so the future seems largely unaffiliated. But, here I need emphasize that "unaffiliated" doesn’t mean uninterested in God, Ultimate Reality, or spirituality. 

The "nones" check “none of the above” when asked “What religion do you affiliate with?”
Too often, however, the “nones” are thrown in with the atheists and agnostics. This is a category error if we mean that they are all against belief in God or even participation in worship services. They do belong in the same category if the topic is the answer to “Do you affiliate with a particular religion?” 

And this will mean a new future with more pluralized tinkering with spirituality. As Zoe, age twenty, told me in an interview about her views on religion and science: 
“I don’t ever think of myself as a religious person, however I prefer taking pieces of some different religions.” (Zoe, age 20)
And that means some “nones” believe in God and still worship in Christian congregations. And even those who don’t believe in God, find a bigger Something at the core of existence. As Devan, one of the older persons I interviewed, put it, 
“I don’t believe in God, but there is spiritual component to life.” (Devan, age 33)
I’ll leave it observations for now, but I wonder if you have any comments on what this means for our country.