Harvard Creates Science and Religion Chair

Theologian Harvey Cox, who chronicled the rising popularity of religion studies in his 2004 book When Jesus Came to Harvard, may need to write a sequel: When Jesus Came to Harvard and Taught Science.

That’s because Harvard Divinity School, where Cox teaches, has accepted an endowment from alumnus Richard T. Watson to create a Professorship of Science and Religion. The school is now searching for a visiting professor in science-and-religion for the 2006-2007 academic year.

The appointment, so far, has caused few ripples — a noticeable change from 2002, when the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics drew protests after inviting physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne to speak on intelligent design.

This time around, theologians were predictably encouraged, Harvard scientists were standoffish but pleasant, and secularists warily expressed a glimmer of hope that such a professorship might lend support to their causes.

The Watson professorship is the latest in a series of similarly prestigious posts that began with Princeton Theological Seminary’s 1992 appointment of J. Wentzel van Huyssteen as the first James I. McCord Professor of Theology and Science. Oxford University followed suit in 2000 with the appointment of John Hedley Brooke as its first Andreas Idreos Professors of Science and Religion. Others include Marquette University’s 2001 naming of Jame Schaefer to a newly created science and religion professorship and the 2005 appointment of Andrew Lustig to become Davidson College’s first Holmes Rolston III Professor of Religion and Science.

“The research grant and endowment for a religion-science professorship affirm the ongoing interest in relating the disciplines as a bona fide field of academic inquiry,” said Schaefer. “Harvard joins Princeton and other major universities in the world in exploring the religion-science relationship in a prestigious way.”

The news comes on the heels of a $1.5 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to a University of Missouri religion research center to study the relationship between religion and health care, and other topics. (See “Other schools encourage dialogue.”) It also comes as the John Templeton Foundation, which funds Science & Theology News, makes a grant to Harvard Divinity School and the university’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences to study the origins of altruistic behavior and their relationship to biology, theology and ethics. The John Templeton Foundation has been making such grants to Harvard since the 1990s.

“I’m a big believer in the proposition that science and religion are complementary and not contradictory, and I am much concerned about the fact that the world looks at each differently,” said Watson, a managing partner of Spieth, Bell, McCurdy & Newell Co., a Cleveland law firm, and a chancellor of the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio. “This gift is designed to attack that conflict.”

Greg M. Epstein, who as Humanist chaplain at Harvard has found himself at the center of such conflict, reacted to the news with caution. “I think the idea of studying science and religion is one that can lead to useful academic scholarship and the enrichment of an entire scholarly community but may very well not — depending on how the project is framed,” said Epstein.

Some wondered about how much latitude the professorship should be allowed. “If [Harvard Divinity School] gives the scholar free rein, then the possibilities of religious naturalism might get explored at a prestigious university, which will show HDS as being on the progressive cutting edge of religious studies,” said Thomas W. Clark, director of the Center for Naturalism in Somerville, Mass. “Of course, saying that the mandate is to study science and religion as complementary suggests that the conflict between science and faith-based religions might be papered over or finessed, which would be too bad,” he said. “But pseudoscience isn’t about to gain traction at Harvard, which is why the new chair won’t reflect badly on any of its science or medical departments.”

For many Harvard scientists, there is, in fact, a role for science-and-religion studies at the university — as long as it remains at the Divinity School and does not seep into the research labs and lecture halls.

Daniel Hartl, a Harvard biology professor who specializes in evolution and population genetics, said he does “not perceive any particular conflict between science and religion, at Harvard or anywhere else, as one is a matter of evidence and the other is a matter of faith.”

But although there seems to be little grounds for believing in a higher being, there is room for such a program at the university, said James Hanken, also a Harvard evolutionary biologist. “Your day-to-day activities of your average Harvard scientist won’t be affected,” he said.

Watson hopes to change that. “Those are the people into whose minds I would like to creep,” he said.