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No. 1445:
Science, Religion, and Forgiveness

Today, the science-religion conversation takes a surprising turn. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

As we move further away from the turbulence that followed Darwin in the late nineteenth century, science and religion are finally regaining some of the common ground we once took for granted.

Throughout the twentieth century we've watched atoms and the cosmos eluding the old descriptions of particle dynamics. Quantum physics has called very mysterious forces into play. The result is that many scientists begin to act as though their domain and that of religion are the same. I suppose that's how things must be if religion is to touch the sensate world of loaves and fishes.

Of course not all scientists think science is anywhere close to trafficking in such realms, and some don't believe there is any religious realm to merge with. The science-religion conversation is by no means resolved. Still, it is headed in new directions.

Now meet someone who made a lot of money as a stockbroker and then created a foundation to fund studies of science and religion. He's Sir John Templeton, 84. At first blush, that gives us a lot to be nervous about. Is it comparable to tobacco-and-health studies funded by tobacco companies?

But Templeton doesn't seem interested in dictating outcomes. He funds some work, like a Harvard study of the efficacy of intercessory prayer, that leaves me dubious. Is it really possible to construct a plausible double-blind study to sort that one out? But I find another set of studies to be very compelling. Several scientists funded by Templeton are studying forgiveness.

Forgiveness is surely the most needed and most elusive of all human transactions. It's certainly a bedrock religious issue, but a dangerous one, since to reach it we must first pass through anger.

And, though it seems a long way from quantum mechanics, Templeton-funded work on forgiveness is legitimate as social science and as hard science as well. He's supporting studies of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His scientists are imaging the brain activity of forgiving people. They're analyzing reconciliation in the wake of Rwanda's genocide. Zoologists are recording anger and forgiveness in animals, who probably make more reproducible subjects than you and I as they deal with one another.

When Christoph Eschenbach finished the Houston Symphony season this Sunday, I was amazed to find that Gustav Mahler had been on the same track. Mahler had originally named his Third Symphony after a Nietzche tract, The Happy Science. Mahler was strongly taken with the atheist Nietzche and his writings on science. Yet Mahler was moved to insert a fifth movement based on a folk song about the forgiveness of St. Peter. His contemplation of science had likewise taken him to that central issue of forgiveness.

Maybe the puzzling logic of this is clearer than I think. For what sense can science or religion make if we don't find means for reconciling offenses? Very little, I suspect; very little indeed.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Holden, C., Subjecting Belief to the Scientific Method. Science, 21 May, 1999, Vol. 284, No. 5418, pp. 1257-1259.

Cunningham, C., Symphony No. 3: Gustav Mahler. Houston Symphony Magazine, May 1999, pp. 29-31, 42.

For another take on this matter, see Episode 704.


The Return of the Prodigal Son (from Iconum Biblicarum, 1627)