and Religion" – there’s a course that will raise a few eyebrows!
During the Fall 2007 semester, Professor Jim Byrne of the religious
studies department and Professor Doug Green from the biology
department teamed up to teach this new course that was offered by
the religious studies department.
Interest in the
relationship between science and religion is growing rapidly, both
on and off campus. In the science
Science and Religion Seminar Class
section of any big
bookstore you’ll find
half a dozen or more books
about religion and science. Oxford
University recently announced a $4 million project to study human
belief in God from a scientific, psychological, and sociological
perspective. The timing of the course was perfect, and as a
Catholic, liberal arts (and sciences!) institution, Saint Michael’s
was the perfect place to offer it. The course filled almost
instantly with 16 students during pre-registration.
The course format was a weekly seminar that met
for two and a half hours. Each week the class addressed a
specific question and read three or four papers or chapters that
related to it. Class meetings consisted of discussions
on the particular question under study. Each student wrote
five short reflection papers and one longer research paper on topics
related to the main discussion questions, with an additional
take-home final that asked them to evaluate the value of the course.
The students seemed to enjoy the course
immensely. The discussions filled the time slot each week with
no dead space. The students were eager to share their insights
from the reading and their personal beliefs, and while discussions
sometimes were intense, they were never intimidating. A number
of faculty members expressed interest in guest lecturing, and many
students who were not in the course told the instructors that they
had heard good things about it and wanted to take it next time
around. Professors Byrne and Green plan to teach the course
again during Spring 2009.
students contributed greatly to the success of the course, but the
far-reaching questions discussed each week promoted success as
well. The class addressed questions such as whether the universe
appears to have a purpose or underlying design, and considered this
question from both a scientific perspective (with help from
Professor of Physics Alain Brizard) and a religious perspective.
The class spent several weeks learning about the
scientific method, hypothesis testing,
and scientific inference, and even performed an experiment in Cheray
315 with Petri plates, automatic pipettors, bacteria and virus.
They applied their understanding of science to evaluate the
evolution-intelligent design-creationism controversy and the issue
of who decides how to teach science in public schools. The class
gained historical perspective on religion and science by reviewing
the case of Galileo’s excommunication. They considered the
questions of whether Christians have a special responsibility to
care for the environment as part of God’s creation, or whether the
Biblical injunction of holding “dominion” over the earth may be
responsible in part for damaging environmental practices.
Throughout the course students developed an understanding of the
nature of religion and the nature of science, their limitations and
their areas of purview, and the different but sometimes overlapping
path to knowledge that each provides.
Professor Byrne’s research area is religion and
modernity, and explores the ways in which religion responds to new
ideas and discoveries that can challenge traditional beliefs.
Professor Green teaches the evolutionary biology course, so some of
the issues he teaches about are precisely the issues Professor Byrne
studies – a perfect match! Dialog between disciplines is a
long-standing tradition in the liberal arts and in Catholicism as
well. Because of its small size, Saint Michael’s makes it easier for
faculty in different departments to collaborate on courses like
this, and because of our Catholic, liberal arts tradition, such
courses fit in nicely with our educational mission. If you would
like to learn more about this course, be sure to read about it in
the latest issue of the Saint Michael’s College Magazine, or feel
free to contact Professor Green at
firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts and comments.