Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Science and Religion Discussion at an AAAS Divisional Meeting

The 2012 meeting of the Southwest and Rocky Mountain Section (SWARM) of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the University of Tulsa has just finished. There were altogether about 500 registrants, although each session had few attendees. I was happy to participate in many aspects of this meeting, as symposium organizer (Endangered Species of Oklahoma), symposium participant (Science and Religion), and judge. The meeting was a success due to the tremendous amount of effort shown by the SWARM Executive Director David Nash, University of Tulsa Graduate Dean Janet Haggerty, Graduate School Coordinator Hope Geiger, and David’s sister Heidi who helps every year with registration. Their dedication was outstanding.

A summary of the Science and Religion session has been posted on the AAAS website by AAAS staff writer Ed Lempinen. (In the photos, you can see that I dressed as Charles Darwin, something I have done many times before). Ed’s lengthy and fair summary is very good and I will not repeat any of it. It accurately reflected the intention of the organizer, biologist Aaron Place of Northwestern Oklahoma State University, to find common ground of dialogue between science and religion. The general consensus that seemed to be reached by the end of the symposium, as I see it, is that both science and religion are about asking questions and seeking answers. Neither science nor religion should accept fiat statements of authority as final or even as evidence. For example, it would be unscientific for me to say, “Evolution occurs because Darwin said so,” or “God told Darwin that everyone needs to believe in evolution.”

This was not the case, however, with Dominic Halsmer, the Dean of Science and Engineering at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa. Whenever a science-religion session is organized, one expects a diversity of viewpoints. Nobody should have been surprised that Halsmer presented an Intelligent Design viewpoint. This would have been inappropriate for a scientific session, but was only to be expected for this one. However, I believe that Halsmer went far, far beyond the scope of the symposium when he spent considerable time declaring to us, as incontrovertible fact, that God told Oral Roberts to build a university. This is a cult viewpoint and should not have been a part of any science-related symposium. This is as inappropriate as a Mormon scientist (there are many good ones) proclaiming at a scientific meeting that Joseph Smith saw God or a Heaven’s Gate proponent claiming at a scientific meeting that the Hale-Bopp comet had come to take them to heaven. It is Halsmer’s cult preaching, rather than his intelligent design, to which I object.

In all fairness, neither the organizer Aaron Place nor the SWARM Executive Director David Nash, with whom Place consulted before accepting Halsmer’s participation, had any idea that Halsmer would inject this cult teaching into his presentation. Halsmer made no such statement in his abstract. It is for this reason that I am going to make the following proposal to scientific organizations with which I am involved (AAAS-SWARM, Oklahoma Academy of Sciences, etc.).

Guidelines for presenters: All participants, including those from religious institutions, should understand that (1) their scientific papers should not include religious assertions, and that (2) any papers submitted for religion-science sessions should not include any cult assertions, that is, assertions not generally shared among religious believers. The meeting organizers shall be empowered to decide whether this guideline has been infringed.

I believe this is both fair and necessary for presenters at scientific meetings to be apprised of this guideline in advance. Many meetings of the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences include papers presented by students from Oral Roberts University, and they stick to the science. We do not want to discourage this sort of participation from students or faculty of Oral Roberts. But we cannot extend the recognition of the scientific community to cult preaching by allowing it to occur at meetings sponsored by scientific societies. Such a guideline would have made it clear in advance that Halsmer should have made no such statement, and would have been the basis of a formal complaint to his sponsoring institution.

A couple of days after the symposium, a bill promoting the teaching of alternatives to evolution and global warming failed to emerge from the Education Committee of the Oklahoma State Senate. This bill clearly had the objective of injecting fundamentalist doctrine into science classrooms. The next day, however, the wording of the bill came back to life as an amendment stuck to an unrelated bill. It is clear that state lawmakers are on a crusade to claim scientific validity for any and all of their religious and political viewpoints. You can read all about the ongoing events at the website for Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education. This is the background against which the SWARM meetings were occurring this week.

Please feel free to post comments. I am sorry that my browser will not allow me to read your comments (it redirects me into empty space if I click on "comments") but you may post comments to one another.


  1. Come on Abe, you've driven by O. Roberts Univ. campus. Who could doubt it was God that ordered those big praying hands.

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