I'm back to my Top Eleven List of topics in science and religion, many of which are trending in importance. They are excerpted from my just-published book (!), Negotiating Science and Religion in America: Past, Present, and Future.
Genetics, medicine, and the specter of eugenics
This is the first topic that I see trending; that is, entering into the conversation of science and religion with a new prominence. Here I will note a specific discovery in genetic editing, CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat). Francis Collins remarked in 2019 that CRISPR “came out of nowhere five years ago,” a technique that works via an “enzyme like what you have in a word processor that does search and replace,” which makes it relatively easy. And he added, “High school students can do this. And that should worry you.” CRISPR makes germline interventions, which affect future generations, unlike somatic cell interventions, which do not. This leads to the question of how to use this powerful and simple technology and whether to cure diseases or create “designer babies.” It also raises issues of what to do about undesirable traits. And who decides what or who needs to be edited out? The specter of eugenics is on the horizon. Finally, who will be given the power to decide? Will religious ideas play any part in these conversations?
Psychology, neuroscience, and the cognitive science of religion
Functional Magnetic Imaging Resonances (FMRIs) seem to show what’s happening inside our brains. Is God all in our head? And do the insights of neuroscience finally rid us of believing there’s a soul? Here Buddhist approaches to the non-self, or anatta, and some forms of cognitive science and neuroscience seem to have striking similarities. In addition there’s a growing interest in appropriating the Buddhist practice of mindfulness and its relationship to secular psychology, and especially positive psychology. Finally, the Cognitive Science of Religion, which powerfully brings together the cognitive sciences in the service of understanding religious belief and practice, has also provided fruitful insights for further discussion and research.
Cosmology and astrobiology
Key to many religious traditions is an emphasis on the nature of the world, or the universe, and our place in it. Recent astronomical discoveries have highlighted the vast number of exoplanets (planets beyond our own solar system). In the seventeenth century the scientifically and theologically minded Blaise Pascal considered his “brief span of life” and
“the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which knows nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed….” Blaise Pascal
And there are medieval hints and certainly eighteenth-century antecedents. Still, some assert that exoplanets and the possible (or probable) existence of extraterrestrial life mean the sudden death of the Christian scheme of salvation since, according to the biblical texts, Jesus came to save this world (such as in John 3:16). The biblical cosmos was vanishingly small compared to our current understanding. Where is our place in the universe? Conversely, if this seems like a loss for Christianity, could it be a gain for other religions?
Some of these topics I've addressed in this blog, and I'll certainly tackle as many as I can in 2020. As always, feel free to let me know what you think.