Today, the science-religion conversation takes a
surprising turn. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
As we move further away from
the turbulence that followed Darwin in the late
nineteenth century, science and religion are
finally regaining some of the common ground we once
took for granted.
Throughout the twentieth century we've watched
atoms and the cosmos eluding the old descriptions
of particle dynamics. Quantum physics has called
very mysterious forces into play. The result is
that many scientists begin to act as though their
domain and that of religion are the same. I suppose
that's how things must be if religion is to touch
the sensate world of loaves and fishes.
Of course not all scientists think science is
anywhere close to trafficking in such realms, and
some don't believe there is any religious realm to
merge with. The science-religion conversation is by
no means resolved. Still, it is headed in
Now meet someone who made a lot of money as a
stockbroker and then created a foundation to fund
studies of science and religion. He's Sir John
Templeton, 84. At first blush, that gives us a lot
to be nervous about. Is it comparable to
tobacco-and-health studies funded by tobacco
But Templeton doesn't seem interested in dictating
outcomes. He funds some work, like a Harvard study
of the efficacy of intercessory prayer, that leaves
me dubious. Is it really possible to
construct a plausible double-blind study to sort
that one out? But I find another set of studies to
be very compelling. Several scientists funded by
Templeton are studying forgiveness.
Forgiveness is surely the most needed and most
elusive of all human transactions. It's certainly a
bedrock religious issue, but a dangerous one, since
to reach it we must first pass through anger.
And, though it seems a long way from quantum
mechanics, Templeton-funded work on forgiveness is
legitimate as social science and as hard science as
well. He's supporting studies of South Africa's
Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His scientists
are imaging the brain activity of forgiving people.
They're analyzing reconciliation in the wake of
Rwanda's genocide. Zoologists are recording anger
and forgiveness in animals, who probably make more
reproducible subjects than you and I as they deal
with one another.
When Christoph Eschenbach finished the Houston
Symphony season this Sunday, I was amazed to find
that Gustav Mahler had been on the same track.
Mahler had originally named his Third Symphony
after a Nietzche tract, The Happy Science.
Mahler was strongly taken with the atheist Nietzche
and his writings on science. Yet Mahler was moved
to insert a fifth movement based on a folk song
about the forgiveness of St. Peter. His
contemplation of science had likewise taken
him to that central issue of forgiveness.
Maybe the puzzling logic of this is clearer than I
think. For what sense can science or religion make
if we don't find means for reconciling offenses?
Very little, I suspect; very little indeed.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds