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College of Arts and Science

UN554 Certainty and Uncertainty in Science and Religion

capstone program

Alan L. Kafka

Associate Professor of Geophysics
Research Seismologist at Weston Observatory

Life is uncertain. There will always be uncertainty and risks that we have to accept as part of our lives. In this course we will explore how each of us relates in our own ways to science and/or religion as paths towards dealing with the uncertainties of life, and how our perspectives on these two world views have affected our life choices. The current "creationism-versus-evolution" controversy provides a rich and thought-provoking example of the different ways that people turn to science and/or religion to understand their place in the world. We will delve into this controversy over teaching biblical creation in public school science classes as an alternative to the theory of evolution and geological theories of the Earth's origin. Exploring this controversy will provide us with a springboard for exploring the relationship between science and religion in general and how each might contribute to the development of one's personal world view.

The issues that inevitably arise in grappling with the creation/evolution controversy open up much broader questions about science, religion, belief, and knowledge because understanding this controversy requires grappling with such questions as: What is science? What is religion? How does scientific knowledge differ from religious beliefs and experiences? This course will provide you with an opportunity to reflect on how your views on these types of questions affect who you are, how you act in the world, what your life choices have been so far, and what you expect your life choices to be after graduation from BC.

Anticipated Readings

Many books have been written on a wide variety of aspects of scientific and religious perspectives on certainty and uncertainty. Primary texts for this course will be chosen from among the following (or similar) books:

  • Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, Stephen J. Gould
  • Finding Darwin's God: A Scientists Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, Kenneth R. Miller
  • The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins
  • The End of Faith, Sam Harris
  • The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath

For the scientific background on the age of the earth, geological theories of the Earth's origin, and the theory of evolution, we will use my own lecture notes, as well as various other readings and on-line resources on these concepts, such as "The Age-of-the-Earth Debate" by Lawrence Badash (Scientific American, August, 1989).

We will also watch video material relevant to this topic, such as excerpts from the movies Inherit the Wind and Contact, as well as educational videos and videos of lectures and debates. There will also be a variety of shorter readings such as:

  • In the Beginning and The Garden of Eden, Genesis, Chapters 1 and 2
  • "'Intelligent Design' Poses Continued Threat to Science," EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, January 2006
  • "The Challenge of Our Times: Integrating Science and Religion" by Ken Wilber
  • "The Evolution Wars" and "Can You Believe in God and Evolution?", Time Magazine, August 2005
  • "Shaking the Foundation of Faith," New York Times, November 2005

Anticipated Writing Assignments

  • On the first day of class, students will describe to the class their current understanding of the role of science and religion in their lives. For the second week of class, students will spend time during the week reflecting on the discussion during the first class, and will submit a one-page paper on their current understanding of the role of science and religion in their life. This paper will be due at the beginning of the second class.
  • A one-page reflection paper will be due each week. This paper will be about reflections on the readings assigned for the week's discussion.
  • Mid-term paper
    How have your views on science and religion affected your life choices so far, and how might your evolving views on science and religion affect your life choices after you graduate from BC? This mid-term paper would be mostly focused on "life choices so far," but will also begin to consider post-graduation life choices.
  • Final paper
    Follow-up to the mid-term paper, but now less emphasis on the "so far" part, and more looking forward to life after college. Also discuss how your thoughts on these issues have evolved over the time we have spent discussing them in this course.