This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
I just took part in the latest summer course offered by the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion (FISR) in Cambridge, UK. FISR, which has existed for a number of years now, aims at addressing various issues of intellectual and cultural engagement (or contention) between Science and Religion, by ways of courses, conferences, lectures, seminars and media. In addition to quasi-weekly seminars, its most notable offering is the yearly summer course.
The course gathers about 40 participants for 5 (very full) days of lectures and discussions. Each day, 4 lectures are given; each lasts an hour plus thirty minutes of Q & A. And in the evening, the lecturers of the day (usually grouped by theme) are gathered for an evening’s general panel discussion.
The list of lecturers and the topics addressed this year can be found on this webpage. I must say that I was fascinated by several lectures as well as by the quality of the participants. It is unfair to other speakers for me to highlight a few and not others, but I cannot resist mentioning the fascinating stuff that Dr. David Lahti presented in his two lectures on: a) Is Human Behaviour in the Genes?; b) Has Religion Evolved (going back 100,000 years)… Do check out his website and the various issues he and his students are working on. One other special mention goes to the joint presentation made by Drs. Jeff Schloss and Michael Murray on ‘Evil in Nature: scientific, philosophical, and theological perspectives’. As you can see from just these examples (and more from the full list), it is a great opportunity for anyone, including those of us who have been dealing with Science and Religion issues for a while, to listen to, question, and interact with experts who have very thoughtful things (and sometimes data) to bring.
Now, the participants came from a good dozen countries, including a few from as far back as Brazil, Lithuania, Egypt, and Indonesia, though most came from the UK and Europe. A significant number of them were doctorate holders, but the spectrum of background was very broad, with at least one TV producer, one retired lady who is an avid reader and a life-long learner, and one or two clergymen. The most interesting part was that not everyone was religious, by any measure; in fact, one person stated openly that he is an atheist, though he enjoys such gatherings and has attended FISR courses several times. Moreover, during the discussion session, it became clear that not everyone was a believer and not everyone was convinced by the ideas that were being presented, although very often no conclusions were drawn, and it was left up to the listener to try to integrate that additional knowledge into his/her own worldview.
Indeed, the format of the discussions was quite interesting. First, the course makes sure that topics are addressed and explored in enough time: lectures are all one-hour long, followed by 30 minutes of Q &A; most importantly, and in order to make sure that people’s inner thoughts are expressed without reticence, a box is made available where people put in their (often pointed) questions, which are then addressed in an anonymous way in the evening. Also, the speakers themselves are encouraged to attend as much of the course as they can (I only missed one afternoon in the whole week) and participate in all the discussions by asking questions, making comments, and helping answer any questions that may fall in their province of expertise. Finally, lunches and dinners are taken together in a very down-to-earth atmosphere amongst all, during which time more discussions take place. I must also say that I was quite impressed by the fact that few of the participants ever disappeared (for touristic or other reasons), even though many had come from far away; this certainly says something about both the intentions of the participants in coming to such a course and the quality of the content they found.
Please note that FISR video-records the lectures given there and posts them on its multimedia page, which right now has 360 entries. This year’s lectures won’t be there until later, but in the meantime, if you can find the time, do check out a number of great lectures and topics there.
I thus would like to recommend this course to anyone interested in the whole Science & Religion field. The courses are not free, but the fees are more than reasonable, especially for students, considering that one gets to spend a whole week in Cambridge. For people who live in Europe, the trip may not be too expensive (especially by train), but for people from far away, they can either apply for FISR course bursaries or get their institutions to support them.
Last but not least, I would like to highlight the fact that FISR has started giving short versions of its courses in various corners of the world: in Ireland last month; in Australia later this summer; in New Zealand in September; other courses will also be conducted in India and elsewhere. So perhaps you can catch one near you in the future.