an e-newsletter for students and alumni of saint michael's biology department

Biology Mingles with Religion
By Doug Green, professor of biology

"Science 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             The 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.

Good 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
           The Science and Religion classroom          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 with your thoughts and comments.

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