Science and Religion: An Introduction for Youth

by Holmes Rolston III

I myself have thought about how science and religion fit together since I was a teenager. Now in my mid-eighties, I realize that youth today face an unprecedented hinge point in the 45 million centuries of life on Earth. Our species, the so-called wise species, Homo sapiens, is jeopardizing the future of this wonderland home planet. Science and religion are still most important forces in decisions for the crises of the new millennium. But how so?  Isn’t there some novelty in how they relate today?

I had written an academic book, mid-career, a critical survey of issues in the field, successful enough to bring me an invitation to give the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. Could I simplify that book for youth, updating it with new issues, keeping it respectably academic, and get the oncoming generation thinking hard.

My daughter kept twisting my arm.  Daddy, you’ve published for academics all your life. Now, face the future. Get youth thinking about how science and religion work together before they go to college or get out on the job. Start early. They will be better prepared for life in this post-millennial crisis. Don’t they need to be, as never before, as you say, “good adapted fits”? My wife agreed: “She’s right.”

Writing the text was a challenge. I planned for seven chapters, covering the sciences, featuring issues in ways that would grab the teen age mind. I put in a section on bullying, asking readers if they had been bullies or bullied.  I connected with some scientific studies on bullying, which academics in the science and religion dialogue have seldom done.

My grand-daughter does math well and she was invited to go visit a local high-tech industry to learn about STEM. I wanted her, and youth today, to think about what values guide science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. That invites some serious academic analysis, demanded now and introduced since I gave those Gifford lectures.  Back at school, in a review discussion, I suggested she ask if STEM needed to be baptized Maybe you are a scholar in the field.  Did you ever ask that question?  How would you answer it, for either adults or youth?

High school youth love their computers and smart phones. How smart will computers get?  I put in a section on artificial intelligence, inviting youth to wonder about ethics and value judgments.  I called computer science a novel science, a super-science. I wanted to prompt an analysis of human thinking versus machine thinking. This again wasn’t an issue in the field when I gave the Gifford lectures, but now it needs rigorous analysis. Could I get youth thinking academically about this issue, now, like it or not, on their doorsteps.

I closed with some rocket science. Edgar Mitchell entranced with Earth as a “blue and white jewel,” “a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery.” Mitchell concluded, “My view of our planet was a glimpse of divinity.” Do science and religion together help you to glimpse divinity at this rupture point in Earth history? Previous generations of youth have not faced this question in that way. That takes some unprecedented academic analysis.

The hardest part, surprisingly, was getting the artwork right. I hoped to get one full page art piece facing the first page of each chapter that might challenge the youthful reader, a fetching drawing or suggestive photo that invited reflection on some major aspect of the chapter. I am no artist, and it was not easy to find one sympathetic with the venture. Eventually I persuaded a niece of my wife, who had recently graduated from college in art, to work with me. She and I combed the internet for art resources, and I had some bits and pieces from my decades of teaching. But these had to be reassembled into what I needed for the chapters, which is what my artist could do.  I thought of this as “analytic art,’’ art prompting academic analysis in youthful minds.

So we worked out the “thought balloons” of a boy and a girl sharing and not sharing their thoughts as an art piece facing the chapter on psychology and neuroscience, illustrating “theory of mind.” We arranged a boy facing a group and the group variously pondering what to make of the boy, facing the chapter on social science. I talked my grandson into a photo that we could set into a handshake with a robot and found a huge computer set up she could make background. This gets youth thinking about what supercomputers might and might not do.

So here’s hoping that youth will use it. Here’s hoping that even academic in the science and religion field will read it, thinking together with their children and grandchildren. Look at the cover.  If that doesn’t set you thinking, never mind opening the book.  That cover ought to jog even academics in the field to some serious analysis.

For a taster, click here