A Discussion on Science and Unitarian Universalism

General Assembly 2004 Event 3103

Moderator: Dr. John B. Hooper; Panel: Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Bennett, Prof. Jim Proctor, Rev. Dr. Sarah Voss

A standing-room-only crowd of almost 300 people gathered in a difficult-to-find location to hear a panel of Unitarian Universalist (UU) scientists discuss science and religion. While the panelists generally agreed that science and religion are complementary, it was apparent that we don't fully understand the dimensions of the issues. While the Rev. Dr. Sheldon Bennett views science and religion at opposite ends of a line from matter to consciousness, Prof. Jim Proctor sees the need for a six-dimensional dodecahedron to describe the many aspects.

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon Bennett earned his Ph.D. degree in physics and has since moved on to a calling as minister of the United First Parish Church in Quincy, MA. He described the various ways of knowing, involving reason, intuition, wonder, and aesthetics, and argued that all are relevant to both science and religion. Science has a method to publicly test our knowledge, and in this respect science may be able to help religion.

Prof. Jim Proctor of the University of California at Santa Barbara has designed a website to present his New Visions. He discussed the allegory of the six blind men and the elephant, complete with a picture of the confusing elephant.

The Rev. Dr. Sarah Voss is the minister of First Unitarian Church at Sioux City, IA. She, also, has a website to present her math-based theology. She likes “mathaphors,” which are mathematical metaphors. She described how religious values have helped to shape science, and how scientific endeavors can be appreciated as a spiritual endeavor. For example, she prefers “tend and befriend” to “fight or flight.”

The moderator, Dr. John Hooper, recently retired from a career as R&D director at Eastman Kodak. He envisions an email list of UU scientists who may be called upon to bring their expertise to bear on actions of immediate witness and study-action issues. If you are interested in this project, please send an email to him (jhooper@optonline.net).

To begin the program, Dr. Hooper presented the panel with several relatively easy questions.

  • Can scientific discovery be a religious experience?
  • If the brain were simple enough for us to understand, the brain would be too simple to understand it; do you agree?

The questions from the floor were more challenging:

  • Do science and spirituality have parallel or opposing courses?
  • Science and math are seen as cold and unfeeling; do you agree?
  • Does free will exist?
  • Why do humans perceive beauty?
  • Is there a spiritual “uncertainty principle”?
  • Religion has a history of limiting scientific exploration; can you point to any area where religion has expanded scientific exploration?

As we considered these weighty questions, it was apparent the dialog has only just begun.

Reported by Mike McNaughton; edited by Joyce Holmen.