Religion, Science, and Nature

Steve Smith
Office:  Christian Center 11, 601-974-1334
– Office hours posted –
Home:  1611 Edgewood St, 601-354‑2290

Religious Studies 3150-01
Spring 2013  MWF 8:00

What are religion and science? Are they rival belief systems that dispute with each other about the truth? Are they drastically different ways of seeing the world and managing our affairs, pulling us in opposite directions? Or are they complementary? Can their benefits be compared and weighed against each other? Could either religion or science as we know them today be superseded in the future by different pursuits, different attitudes?

What is nature? Is it necessarily perceptible by our bodily senses? Must it be predictable? Must it contain every cause, every power, or are there good reasons to believe in supernatural powers (including perhaps powers of our own)? Does nature have an eternal structure? Is it good in itself? Should we seek guidance from it? Is it “home”?

These questions are difficult and many-sided. They have been shaped over a long history in diverse cultural contexts. In 21st-century America, the phrase “religion and science” first conjures up in most people’s minds a conflict between certain forms of Abrahamic faith and Darwinian evolution. But this particular controversy is only one among many expressions of long-standing underlying questions about religion, science, and nature. In this course we will explore these questions from various angles. Our challenge is to attain full awareness of the implications that religious and scientific propositions hold for each other and to discuss these implications intelligently.

Grading will be based on class participation (10%), weekly journal writing (25%), a take-home midterm exam (20%), an 8-10 pp. constructive study (25%), and a take-home final exam (20%).

Readings will be required in handouts and in these books available in the bookstore:

Ian Barbour, Religion and Science

Michael Ruse, Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?

The Dalai Lama, The Universe in an Atom

Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell

Subject to revision by announcements in class and/or by email

Jan. 9   Introduction.

Jan. 11  Definitions of religion, science, and nature.

Jan. 14  Core conceptions of Abrahamic theism.

Jan. 16  Changes in the religion-science relationship in the modern era: Barbour chap. 1, pp. 3-17

Jan. 18  Barbour chap. 1, cont. pp. 17-32


Jan. 23  Religion and science in the Enlightenment: Barbour chap. 2

Jan. 25 Kant’s resolution of the final causes debate

Jan. 28  Ruse on Darwinism, chap. 1

Jan. 30  Ruse on Christianity, chap. 2

Feb. 1  The origin of life: Ruse chap. 3

Feb. 4  Human nature and “soul”: Ruse chap. 4

Feb. 6  Naturalism debated: Ruse chap. 5

Feb. 8  Teleology (“design”) debated: Ruse chap. 6

Feb. 11  The problem of pain: Ruse chap. 7

Feb. 13  The issue of extraterrestrials: Ruse chap. 8

Feb. 15  The issue of ethics: Ruse chap. 9

Feb. 18  Parallels between scientific and religious thinking: Barbour chap. 5

Feb. 20  Barbour chap. 6

Feb. 22  Religion and contemporary scientific theories: Barbour chap. 7

Feb. 25 Barbour chap. 8

Feb. 27  Barbour chap. 9

Mar. 1  Philosophical issues in theism and the contributions of process thought: Barbour chap. 11

Mar. 4  Barbour chap. 12

Mar. 6  Contemporary views of the sacred in nature (TBA)

Mar. 8  Cont.



Mar. 18  Science and religion in a Buddhist perspective: Dalai Lama chap. 3

Mar. 20  Dalai Lama on cosmology, chap. 4

Mar. 22  Dalai Lama on evolution and karma, chap. 5

Mar. 25  Dalai Lama on consciousness, chap. 6

Mar. 27  Dalai Lama chap. 7


Apr. 1  Approaches to the science of religion:  Dennett 69-93

Apr. 3  Dennett on the evolution of religion, chap. 4

APR. 4 SUMMERS LECTURE: John Kaltner (Rhodes College)

Apr. 5  Dennett chap. 5

Apr. 8 COURSE EVALUATION. Dennett chap. 6

Apr. 10  Dennett chap. 7

Apr. 12  Evaluating the worth of religion: Dennett chap. 10


Apr. 17

Apr. 19

Apr. 22

Apr. 24

Apr. 26


DEADLINE FOR ALL WORK (late or revision) MAY 4



A 2 pp. course journal entry is due every Monday.

For your course notebook, a loose-leaf binder is strongly recommended. This will allow you to hand in just the newest pages of your journal each week, and also to incorporate the course materials that are handed out with your own writings. You have the option of submitting journal assignments by e-mail, but you still might want to keep print copies of these and of the responses you get.

Explain in 2 pages what you are concluding or suspecting about religion, science, and/or nature with particular reference to information and ideas that have come up in class readings and discussions in the preceding week. You may embrace, you may reject, you may express suspicion or indifference, but you must work out what you think about that, “that” being some part of what’s most recently transpired in our class.

Your journal entries will be graded unsatisfactory (-), satisfactory (\/), or very good (+) depending on the attentiveness and thoughtfulness they show. The Journal as a whole will get a letter grade. I’ll give you an advisory on this at midterm.



On several occasions you’ll be asked to provide the class with some discussion starters. Have at least three points to bring up relating to the reading for that day – major ideas that seem debatable, unclarities, oversights, possible applications . . .



  1. Definition of the problem. By the end of your introductory paragraph, the reader should know what issue you are addressing in your paper. It should be an issue that you care about, that is personally worth wrestling with. Here are some areas in which specific topics might be defined:

How are religious belief and practice affected by a commitment to empirical study?

How is scientific practice affected by religious belief?

What can we know scientifically about religious experience?

What is the religious role of consciousness? How is consciousness scientifically knowable?

Is there such a thing as religious “knowledge” or “truth”? Is there a valid way of distinguishing between religious and scientific knowledge?

What can a religion (or science) be trusted for? What can it not be trusted for?

What must “salvation” of human beings involve? Can it be ascertained whether “this world” is our “true home”?

What exactly is the religiously significant aspect of “human nature”? Should it be conceived as “soul”? Must it be thought of as supernatural?

Must the “sacred” or “divine” be supernatural?

Assuming the reality of God, does God act in the world? If so, how? (What does “Providence” involve?)

Is karma empirically ascertainable?

In what sense can “nature” be damaged or destroyed? What are the most important religious considerations in human dealings with “nature”?

What does “evolution” mean? (Or “emergence”; “complexity”; etc.)

  1. Explanation of the problem. Why is the question you are posing not easy to answer? What are the conflicting points of view, criteria, etc. on it? (Show as best you can the sense of views different from your own.)
  1. Solution of the problem. Now work out an acceptable way to think about the issue and some reasons that support it. Here you may or may not be helped by other thinkers, but in any case, you are taking responsibility for the solution.

Remember to be reasonable. Don’t preach. Don’t dogmatize. Don’t simply report opinions. Don’t be totally facetious. A good argumentative essay probes for convincing justifications and doesn’t try to disguise difficulties.

  1. Enjoy. What could be more rewarding than seeing your own thought take shape on a vitally important question? If you turn in your essay on time you will certainly have the opportunity to rewrite it, so don’t be too anxious to make it perfect on your first go-round. Care about it, but don’t worry about it. The best reasoning often comes out in response to questions and challenges from the reader.



  1. Class attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected. One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late. Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence—that is, your work with the class that day will be counted as only half done. One percent of the course grade will be lost for each absence from class for any reason, beginning with the fourth absence. (For example, someone who missed class 8 times would lose 5% of the course grade, or half a letter grade.) The reason for this: our in-class work is a crucial and irreplaceable part of the substance of the course.
  1. Electronic communication devices (cell phones, laptops, etc.). Electronic devices have become harmful Interrupters and Distracters in the current state of our social evolution. Their use is banned in our class—except, yes, if you whip it out to look up something that bears on class discussion. If you have special needs, discuss with me.
  1. Late papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent. Homework may not be turned in more than one week after its due date. No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations. Exceptions to this policy will only be granted to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.
  1. As a general rule, no e-mail submissions. Unless the instructor allows it under specified circumstances, e-mail submissions of assigned writing are not accepted.
  1. Plagiarism. Using the words or ideas of others without acknowledgment—that is, passing them off as your own—is a fraudulent practice called plagiarism. It also misses one of the main points of being in college, which is to develop your powers of thought and expression. Plagiarism is an offense under the Academic Honor Code.
  1. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will only be given to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end. The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.
  1. Disabilities. Students with documented disabilities should discuss their needs with the instructor at the beginning of the semester.