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A steeple cross at sunset.

(© Kenneth Keifer/Fotolia)

[Editor's Note: This essay is in response to our current Big Question series: "How can the religious and scientific communities work together to foster a culture that is equipped to face humanity's biggest challenges?"]

As a Jesuit Catholic priest, and a molecular geneticist, this question has been a fundamental part of my adult life. But first, let me address an issue that our American culture continues to struggle with: how do science and religion actually relate to each other? Is science about the "real" world, and religion just about individual or group beliefs about how the world should be?

Or are science and religion in direct competition with both trying to construct explanations of reality that are "better" or more real than the other's approach? These questions have generated much discussion among scientists, philosophers, and theologians.

The recent advances in our understanding of genetics show how combining the insights of science and religion can be beneficial.

First, we need to be clear that science and religion are two different ways human beings use to understand reality. Science focuses on observable, quantifiable, physical aspects of our universe, whereas, religion, while taking physical reality into consideration, also includes the immaterial, non-quantifiable, human experiences and concepts which relate to the meaning and purpose of existence. While scientific discoveries also often stimulate such profound reflections, these reflections are not technically a part of scientific methodology.

Second, though different in both method and focus, neither way of understanding reality produces a more "real" or accurate comprehension of our human existence. In fact, most often both science and religion add valuable insights into any particular situation, providing a more complete understanding of it as well as how it might be improved.

The recent advances in our understanding of genetics show how combining the insights of science and religion can be beneficial. For instance, the study of genetic differences among people around the world has shown us that the idea that we could accurately classify people as belonging to different races—e.g. African, Caucasian, Asian, etc.—is actually quite incorrect on a biological level. In fact, in many ways two people who appear to be of different races, perhaps African and Caucasian, could be more similar genetically than two people who appear to be of the same African race.

This scientific finding, then, challenges us to critically review the social categories some use to classify people as different from us, and, therefore, somehow of less worth to society. From this perspective, one could argue that this scientific insight synergizes well with some common fundamental religious beliefs regarding the fundamental equality all people have in their relationship to the Divine.

However, this synergy between science and religion is not what we encounter most often in the mass media or public policy debates. In part, this is due to the fact that science and religion working well together is not normally considered newsworthy. What does get attention is when science appears to conflict with religion, or, perhaps more accurately, when the scientific community conflicts with religious communities regarding how a particular scientific advance should be applied. These disagreements usually are not due to a conflict between scientific findings and religious beliefs, but rather between differing moral, social or political agendas.

One way that the two sides can work together is to prioritize honesty and accuracy in public debates instead of crafting informational campaigns to promote political advantage.

For example, genetically modified foods have been a source of controversy for the past several decades. While the various techniques used to create targeted genetic changes in plants—e.g. drought or pest resistance—are scientifically intricate and complex, explaining these techniques to the public is similar to explaining complex medical treatments to patients. Hence, the science alone is not the issue.

The controversy arises from the differing goals various stakeholders have for this technology. Obviously, companies employing this technology want it to be used around the world both for its significantly improved food production, and for improved revenue. Opponents, which have included religious communities, focus more on the social and cultural disruption this technology can create. Since a public debate between a complex technology on one side, and a complex social situation on the other side, is difficult to undertake well, the controversy has too often been reduced to sound bites such as "Frankenfoods." While such phrases may be an effective way to influence public opinion, ultimately, they work against sensible decision-making.

One way that the two sides can work together is to prioritize honesty and accuracy in public debates instead of crafting informational campaigns to promote political advantage. I recognize that presenting a thorough and honest explanation of an organization's position does not fit easily into our 24-hour-a-day-sound-bite system, but this is necessary to make the best decisions we can if we want to foster a healthier and happier world.

Climate change and human genome editing are good examples of this problem. These are both complex issues with impacts that extend well beyond just science and religious beliefs—including economics, societal disruption, and an exacerbation of social inequalities. To achieve solutions that result in significant benefits for the vast majority of people, we must work to create a knowledgeable public that is encouraged to consider the good of both one's own community as well as that of all others. This goal is actually one that both scientific and religious organizations claim to value and pursue.

The experts often fail to understand sufficiently what the public hopes, wants, and fears.

Unfortunately, both types of organizations often fall short because they focus only on informing and instructing instead of truly engaging the public in deliberation. Often both scientists and religious leaders believe that the public is not capable of sufficiently understanding the complexities of the issues, so they resort to assuming that the public should just do what the experts tell them.

However, there is significant research that demonstrates the ability of the general public to grasp complex issues in order to make sound decisions. Hence, it is the experts who often fail to understand how their messages are being received and what the public hopes, wants, and fears.

Overall, I remain sanguine about the likelihood of both religious and scientific organizations learning how to work better with each other, and together with the public. Working together for the good of all, we can integrate the insights and the desires of all stakeholders in order to face our challenges with well-informed reason and compassion for all, particularly those most in need.

[Ed. Note: Don't miss the other perspectives in this Big Question series, from a science scholar and a Rabbi/M.D.]

Reverend Kevin Fitzgerald
Kevin T. FitzGerald, S.J., Ph.D., Ph.D., is the John A. Creighton University Professor, and an associate professor in the School of Medicine, Department of Medical Education, at Creighton University. He received a Ph.D. in molecular genetics, and a Ph.D. in bioethics, from Georgetown University. His research efforts focus on the utilization of reflection in medical education, the investigation of abnormal gene expression in cancer, and on ethical issues in biomedical research and medical genomics. He has published educational, scientific, and ethical articles in peer-reviewed journals, books, and in the popular press. In addition, Fr. FitzGerald has been a Corresponding Member of the Pontifical Academy for Life since 2005, and a Consultor to the Pontifical Council for Culture since 2014.