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Templeton Science - Religion Course Award



In 1991, I developed and formally introduced a new course into the curriculum for philosophy and religious studies, Religion and Modern Science 203. Although I tried a number of different approaches to this three hour course, despite the fact that it fulfilled elective requirements for both philosophy and religious studies majors and minors, it was never particularly successful. In fact, the recent attitude of the Department Head, with whom I concur, has been that this course should be eliminated from our program. Unfortunately, since the relation between the sciences and religious life has been an area of research interest for me for quite some time, the prospect of the immanent demise of Religion and Modern Science 203 was a distinctively disappointing one for me.

In the hope of somehow resuscitating my ailing Religion and Modern Science 203, I attended the Templeton Workshop on the Design of Academic Courses in Science and Religion, held in Tallahassee during early January, 1995. Reflecting back upon my participation in that workshop, I have decided that Religion and Modern Science 203 was so fundamentally flawed in design that it should be replaced with an entirely redesigned course, Religion, Science and Contemporary Life 310, a course that I believe will prove far more effective in meeting the academic needs of our students at Western Kentucky University.

By contrast with the older course, Religion, Science and Contemporary Life 310 will be offered for upper division credit. The older course was conceived as a specialized introductory course in philosophy, with particular emphasis upon epistemological issues. In retrospect, I believe this to have been an important mistake. Generally speaking, the readings for the class were too advanced for beginning students. Furthermore, the specifically epistemological problems addressed in that course were not the most germane to the natural range of student interests. Finally, most of the students enrolled in that lower division course were not sufficiently advanced in their own intellectual lives to feel the full importance of the issues treated.

By offering the redesigned course at a more advanced level, each of these problems can be addressed. First, it will be possible to treat a broader range of materials and issues at a more appropriately technical level. Second, upper division students who take this new course will be further along in their own intellectual development. Armed with at least some formal background in the sciences, philosophy or religious studies, such students should possess a sufficiently rich background to appreciate more fully and personally the genuine significance and force of the issues addressed in this new course. Finally, unlike Religion and Modern Science 203, the new Religion, Science and Contemporary Life 310 is designed not only to be academically sound, but to be of direct relevance to the personal concerns that originally motivate most students to take such a course as an elective.

As was emphasized at the Workshop, the uniquely personal side of the issues considered in this course must be recognized both in the selection of materials treated and in the pedagogical style employed in teaching the course. In order to encourage class participation, both Bertrand Russell's Science and Religion and Sigmund Freud's The Future of an Illusion will be used. Russell concentrates most of his attention upon the fundamental challenge to religious belief that stems from modern developments in the natural sciences, while Freud provides an example of the general kind of critique that has developed out of the social sciences. Since both of these books are written in a clear, engaging style and the lines of argument, though powerful, are easily grasped, minimal instructional attention will be required to help students understand the material. Instead, more classroom time can be devoted to interacting with and responding to the critical thought of these two influential thinkers. To ensure that students address and master the academic material relevant to the course, three essay exams will be given. To engage the issues and materials covered in the course in a way that is of personal value to the intellectual struggles of individual students, a writing project will be required to complete the course. In order to help free students to think their own thoughts, this writing project, though required, will not be graded. Of course, class discussion will be directed toward enhancing both the academic understanding and personal impact of the course materials.

So far as the overall progression of the course is concerned, the first few sessions will be devoted to outlining the tenets of Logical Positivism, the basic framework that provides the backdrop of presuppositions undergirding Russell's line of argument. After working through Russell's Science and Religion, a basis for critiquing his position will be established by introducing students to the newer, contrasting view of science proposed by Thomas Kuhn in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Next, attention will be turned away from the relatively abstract level of theoretical speculation to the concrete details of a genuine historical case. A variety of selections from Charles Darwin and his critics will be explored to see how recent scientists, theologians and others have actually engaged in the detailed struggle to relate developments in the natural sciences to religious ideas. Finally, Freud's psychological critique of religious belief will be examined, followed by a consideration of how one contemporary writer, Ian Barbour, has sought to find ways of relating both natural and social scientific views to religious understanding in an intellectually respectable manner.


Because my personal classroom style is relatively dynamic, I generally attempt to be sufficiently familiar with the course material, relevant debates and current literature so that I can lecture with a minimum of prepared notes. This extensive background preparation allows class discussion and student response to guide the specific flow of my oral presentation. To avoid the obvious danger of aimless wandering as well as to ensure an orderly development of thought over the course of the semester, the parameters of my individual lectures are governed by the line of argument presented in the daily reading assignments.

In the two following samples, lecture notes for two sessions on Bertrand Russell's Religion and Science are provided. These notes consist of brief phrases, organized in outline format, accompanied by page numbers in parentheses. The page numbers refer to specific, brief passages in the text that will be read aloud in class as a basis for my own explanations and remarks. In order to provide some indication of the form my remarks would take in an actual class session, I have added square bracketed comments. These comments refer to some of the issues I would expect to discuss or touch upon at each stage in the lecture outline.

Science against Religion - Russell
     A. The Conflict
          1. The Nature of Science
               a. Observation and Reason (8a)
[For Russell, science is objective, rigorously grounded in observation. Basically a Positivist vision of science.]
               b. Testable Generalizations (13a)
[Covering Law view of explanation. Experimental Method. Goal of science is to explain by means of laws. Value of prediction.]
               c. Probable Knowledge (14a)
[Hypotheses may be confirmed, sometimes with high probability.]
          2. The Nature of Religion
               a. Three elements (8b)
[Church=Social Institution, Creed=Truth Claims, Code=Moral Rules.]
               b. Based on Authority (16a)
[For Russell, the Creeds, being Truth Claims, must be dropped. Since Creeds are based upon Authority, while science is grounded in observation, scientific knowledge is invariably superior.]
               c. Certainty (14b)
[Science is tentative. Religion claims certainty.]
          3. The Conflict
               a. Two kinds (9c, 10a)
[Conflicting matter of factual claims, conflicting theoretical claims.]
               b. Source of conflict (9a)
[Science conflicts with religion at the cognitive, not affective level.]
               c. The Result of conflict (7a)
[According to Russell, science always wins cognitively.]
               d. Avoiding Conflict (9b, 17a)
[Religion should abandon truth claims, stick to values.]
          4. Scientific truth (15a)
[Scientific theories are pragmatically valuable.]


     B. Early Modern Conflict
          1. Astronomy (19a)
[Location of the earth in solar system.]
               a. Early modern Science
                    i. Copernican theory (21a)
[Copernican circular orbits.]
                   ii. Kepler's contribution (29a, 27a,b)
[Mathematical analysis. Elliptical orbits.]
                 iii. Galileo's contribution (35a)
[Telescope revealed change in the heavens. Significance of sunspots for Aristotelians and Thomists.]
          b. Religious response
               i. Possible response (24a)
[Devaluing of human beings.]
              ii. Actual response (23a, 35b, 36a)
[Science threatens faith, challenges authority of Scripture. Repudiation of telescopic evidence.]
            iii. Retreat of religion (43a)
[Russell's Moral: Religious thought is humiliated by scientific advance.]

OVERALL GOALS: In the course of my lectures on Russell, beyond tracing the general lines of his argument, I wish to reveal his underlying vision of the nature of science, which contrasts sharply with his vision of the place of religion in human life. Critical emphasis will be placed upon Russell's tendencies to oversimplify, caricature and misread the historical facts. In terms of the development of the course, Russell will be treated as a paradigmatic example of one dominant, highly influential way of conceiving the relation of religion to contemporary science. This exploration of his views should set the stage for evolving a more sensitive, historically accurate and subtle understanding of the interplay between scientific and religious understanding.

COURSE INFORMATION (As offered - Spring 1996):

Religion, Science and Contemporary Life 310
MWF 11:45 Spring 1996
Texts: Bertrand Russell, Science and Religion
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Appleman, Darwin: A Norton Critical Edition, 2nd Edition
Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion
Ian Barbour, Religion and Modern Science
Course Objectives: To explore basic problems associated with attempts to integrate religious understanding into a cultural environment shaped by recent developments in both natural and social scientific knowledge.
Evaluation of Student Performance: There will be two class exams, each worth 100 points. A final exam will be worth 200 points. Students are required to take each on the scheduled day. The grading scales for these exams are as follows:
                    Class Exams                     Final Exam
                     90-100 = A                    180-200 = A
                      80-89 =  B                    160-179 = B
                      70-79 =  C                    140-159 = C
                      60-69 =  D                    120-139 = D
                          -59 =  F                          -119 = F
Writing Project: To complete the course, each student will be required to submit a personal reaction paper, at least 8 double spaced, typed pages in length. To written comments by the Instructor, students will be required to submit a response of an additional two double spaced, typed pages. Upon satisfactory completion of the Writing Project, each student's final grade will be determined by a grading scale based upon these scales for the individual exams. Students are encouraged to discuss their progress at any time with the Instructor.
Attendance and Grading: Since much that is gained in the classroom cannot be assessed by performance on periodic examinations, each student's final grade will reflect regular attendance in the following way. From any individual student's total score, 10 points will be deducted for each absence above a total of five. The initial five absences are provided to account for necessary, excused absences. Students should keep the instructor informed regarding excused absences.

COURSE SCHEDULE (As offered - Spring 1996):

Religion, Science and Contemporary Life 310
Spring 1996
MWF 11:45
Date                                                        Topic
1/8                       Introduction

The Classical View of Science

1/10                     Empirical Foundations (Schlick and Ayer Handouts)
1/12                     The Scope of Scientific Explanation (Hempel Handout)
1/17                     Logical Positivism

The Challenge from Natural Science

1/22                     The Conflict (Russell, Chap. I)
1/24                     Copernicus (Russell, Chap. II)
1/26                     Life Sciences (Russell, Chap. III)
1/29                     Scientific Technology (Russell, Chap. IV)
1/31                     The Human Sciences (Russell, Chap. V)
2/5                       Personal Responsibility (Russell, Chap. VI)
2/7                       The Place of Religion (Russell, Chaps. VII-VIII)
2/9                       Science and Human Values (Russell, Chaps. IX-X)
2/12                     Review
2/14                     Exam #1

A New Conception of Science

2/19                     Scientific Discovery (Kuhn, pp. v-34)
2/21                     Crises (Kuhn, pp. 35-76)
2/23                     Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn, pp. 77-91)
2/26                     Scientific Change (Kuhn, pp. 92-135)
2/28                     Scientific Progress (Kuhn, pp. 136-210)

Historical Case Study - Darwin and Darwinism

3/4                       Biology Before Darwin (Appleman, pp. 3-31)
3/6                      Classical Evolutionary Theory (Appleman, pp. 35-66)
3/8                      Darwin and Human Evolution (Appleman, pp. 132-143, 176-191)
3/11                    Darwin and Science (Appleman, pp. 220-243)
3/13                    Darwin and Religion (Appleman, pp. 325-342, 362-367)
3/25                    Review
3/27                    Exam #2

The Challenge from Social Science

3/29                    The Origins of Religious Belief (Freud, pp. 1-25)
4/1                      Religion as Illusion (Freud, pp. 26-42)
4/3                      God as Primal Father (Freud, pp. 43-71)

Integrating Science and Religion

4/8                      Science and Religion (Barbour, Chap. 1) [Initial Paper Due]
4/10                    Models and Paradigms (Barbour, Chap. 2)
4/12                    Comparing Science and Religion (Barbour, Chap. 3)
4/15                    Physics and Freedom (Barbour, Chap. 4)
4/17                   Origins and God (Barbour, Chap. 5)
4/22                   Human Nature (Barbour, Chap. 7) [Final Paper Due]
4/24                   God and Nature (Barbour, Chap. 9)
4/26                   Review
                          Final Exam (Finals Week)

COURSE EVALUATION (Submitted to Templeton Foundation 5/2/96):

My Templeton Science-Religion course, Religion, Science and Contemporary Life 310, offered during the Spring 1996 semester, has just been completed. The following include my reflections and assessment of this class.

Originally, 18 people registered for the course. In the end, 10 people took it for credit and one person audited the class. Of those that dropped, one person left after a few class sessions, while the remaining students never appeared at all.

As you may recall, my original course proposal was a redesign of an existing course, Religion and Modern Science 203. I believe that switching to the upper division level was a strength. As anticipated, upper division students seemed to have much less trouble working with the readings, following the lectures and analyzing the materials studied.

Much to my surprise, I found my experiment with an ungraded reaction paper to be quite successful. With only one exception, all of the students turned the paper in on time. Furthermore, the overall quality of both the thinking and the writing style surpassed anything I would have expected. While each student submitted something quite different, every paper provided a very personal analysis and application of the course materials. In several cases, I found myself uncommonly moved, in one instance to the point of tears. In my twenty years of teaching, I cannot remember any collection of student writings that ever displayed such a mix of personal involvement and depth of thinking.

In their second, much briefer reaction paper, I asked the students to report their own views regarding the relatively extensive, but ungraded paper. Uniformly, they found the project to be one of the most important elements of the course, giving them the opportunity to begin integrating class materials into their own thinking. Furthermore, they all felt the paper should remain ungraded, yet a course requirement. They indicated that leaving the paper ungraded liberated them to think their own thoughts and allowed them the courage to experiment with new ideas.

From my own perspective, I would add that this particular exercise seemed to contribute significantly toward meeting one of your Templeton goals, that of providing materials with student impact and personal relevance beyond the merely academic level. Perhaps I also should mention that one student, though adamantly opposed to grading the paper, did suggest that extra credit might be offered for turning it in on time. Contrary to what seems to be an increasingly popular opinion, however, I personally remain strongly opposed to the practice of giving extra credit for anything. I believe that extra credit policies further cheapen the current academic environment, one already thoroughly saturated with the pragmatic attitude that educational activities must be crassly profitable to be worthwhile. Particularly in the case of this kind of reaction paper, I am convinced that the lure of extra credit would tend to pollute the startling purity of spirit with which these students wrote their papers.

Attachment A includes copies of the Course Information and Course Schedule sheets as well as copies of the class examination questions. Attachment B is a complete set of copies of the student evaluations for this course.  [NOTE: The Course Inofrmation and Course Schedule are reproduced above.To ensure proper confidentiality, the student evaluations have not been provided on this website.]  In light of these materials as well as my overall experiences throughout the semester, were I to offer this course again, I believe that I probably would make several changes. Some of these could be considered rather substantial. Since the positivist readings were too specialized and advanced for the purposes of this course, I probably would substitute something more elementary, perhaps an extract from the early pages of A.J. Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic. Also, I would abbreviate the treatment of Kuhn to about three lectures, with appropriately shortened readings. This would permit the introduction of at least some Eastern religious material. It also would permit an introductory treatment of one or two general theories of religion, theories that would provide for the religion side of the course what the positivist and Kuhnian theories provided for the scientific side. Although I would be tempted to substitute Barbour's more accessible Myths, Models and Paradigms, I probably would keep the current readings from Barbour, since the students seemed particularly interested in his detailed treatment of contemporary scientific topics, something that is lacking in his earlier book. Finally, it would be useful to include a feminist perspective at some point, one critiquing religion, science or both.

I certainly wish to thank you and the Templeton Foundation for your support of this project. I believe that my time at the preliminary Tallahassee meetings and the later Berkeley seminar provided me with the kind of help I needed to make my previously faltering course into a strongly effective and academically rigorous presentation. For me personally, this experience was one of professional growth mixed with the satisfying reward of teaching a select group of deeply motivated and seriously committed students.

Thank you once again for your guidance and encouragement in this project.

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