The Search For Universal Truth

In the search for universal truths, if a dialogue can be opened up between those who adhere to religious dogma and those who stick to scientific facts, it may begin in Arizona. As CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Rita Braver reports, one group of scientists is trying to meld the two schools of thought. Her report follows:

On the ceiling above the Sistine Chapel in Rome is Michelangelo's view of the world: God hands down life to mankind. It is an expression of religious faith.

The Hubble space telescope offers a different view. Inside columns of gas and dust deep in the universe, new stars and planets are being born. It is an image of scientific discovery.

At the very time when we are making enormous leaps in our understanding of how both the cosmos and the human body function, there is a new call to examine the relationship between science and spirituality.

The Hubble Telescope

At Kitt Peak, 7,000 feet above the Arizona desert, more than a dozen telescopes stare at the heavens. Considering the uneasy and sometimes hostile relationship between religion and science in the modern world, one might expect a person of religious faith to feel out of place here.

George Coyne feels at home on Kitt Peak. He is an astronomer doing research at the University of Arizona: "What I'm personally involved in is studying very interesting binary stars," he explains.

He is also a Jesuit priest.

Rita Braver: "In your mind do you consider yourself first and foremost a scientist or a priest?

George Coyne: "I'm trying to understand God's universe. As a man of faith, I believe it is God's universe. But that's faith. I mean, I can't prove that to anyone else that this is God's universe. That's simply my faith. But once I have that faith, then all my scientific research helps to enrich that faith...In fact, if I bring God in to try to explain what I cannot explain scientifically, I think that is one of the greatest sins ever committed against God and against myself."

Father Coyne is one of the leaders in science and religion who is trying to foster greater understanding between the two worlds. The astronomy program he runs in Arizona is a branch of the Vatican observatory.

Braver: "Why is it important for science to understand religion and for religion to understand science?"

Coyne: "Because each one of us has elements of both in us. We both want to understand and we want to be loved and to love...So if we had two big elements in our culture, religious belief and scientific understanding of the universe that never talk to one another, our cuture is going to be schizophrenic."

In fact, many scientists either do not believe in God or are indifferent to the idea. They think that the universe is run by the laws of physics and mathematics - not the law of God.

Stephen Jay Gould is a paleontologist at Harvard University and a best-selling author on diverse subjects from evolution to the millennium.

Braver: "When you study science are you not in a sense trying to figure out how God did it?"

Gould: "No, I'm trying to figure out how the universe works. I don't know who did it, or if any anthropomorphic force did it. I don't know that's false but I sure don't know it's true!"

He believes he is in the scientific mainstream when he says there's no need to discuss religion and science in context with each other.

Braver: "Why are science and religion separate subjects?"

Gould: "Because they deal with entirely different materials...The world of what is, is different from the world of how we ought to behave and what our life means. They don't inform one another. They're both eminently important. We have to pay a lot of attention to both of them. But they don't directly interpenetrate."

But others argue that there must, somehow, be a connection.

Robert Russell teaches a class in which many of the students are training to be Protestant and Catholic pastors or theologians. On the same day he received his Ph.D. in physics in 1978, he was ordained a minister in the United Church of Christ.

Russell tells his class, "Science is an ally. Science opens up vistas about human nature, about being in the universe. And they are gorgeous. And science needs to pursue those, just as religious inquiry and ethical inquiry needs to pursue its concerns that we all share about how we live our life."

Russell, along with Coyne, is a leader in the movement to open a dialogue between science and spirituality. As founder of the Center for Theology and Natural Sciences in Berkeley, he believes science has raised a number of issues that it can't answer by itself, like issues of genetic engineering.

"Here's an example of a question which is on the one hand a technical question: can you Â…do genetic engineering and alter the gene?" asks Russell, adding: "A technical question. But it's also an ethical and religious question. Should you do that?"

Russell believes that advances in physics and cosmology such as the big bang theory provide common ground for discussion between theologians and scientists. But mostly, he argues, no one benefits from a sterile turf war:

"It's very important that the conversation take place because for decades the loudest voices have been the ones who are either atheists using science to debunk religion or fundamentalists using a literal view of the scriptures to debunk science. And our view is, well, we know these arguments. We've been there, done that. Let's get a creative new movement going where here's real openness and freedom and self criticism and humility and a willingness to say 'I'm wrong' and agree, 'I need to learn something from each other.'"

Gould disputes the religious claim that man is at the center of the universe. The idea of a science-religious dialogue, he says, is sweet but unhelpful.

Braver: "Why is it sweet?"

Gould: "Because it gives comfort to many people. I think the notion that we are all a part of the bosom of Abraham, or are in God's embracing love is...Look, it's a tough life...And if you can delude yourself into thinking that there's all some warm and fuzzy meaning to it all it's enormously comforting. But I do think it's just a story we tell ourselves."

Americans seem comfortable with apparent contradictions. Our religious institutions flourish as our scientific studies advance. While religion and science may never totally reconcile, as least there may be an agreement that we're not interested only in what happened to form our universe. We're also interested in why.

By Rita Braver
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