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Making connections between science and spirituality

A workshop followed by a public conversation helped scientists find new ways to talk about their scientific research to audiences they do not often communicate with. Religion and spirituality can be agents for scientific learning.

Panelists and audience at public lecture.
Students, staff, faculty and community members participated in the public conversation about science and spirituality. Photo credit Elenita Nicholas

How do you communicate science to people who hold different worldviews? While there is no single answer, one crucial element can make the difference between hearing and listening: connection.

Most Americans are supportive of science and also identify as religious or spiritual, but scientists can be uncertain about how to foster dialogue with people who hold worldviews different than their own. At two events hosted by Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth) and the Office of Science Outreach on Jan. 25, participants gained insight into how to make scientific connections in new ways.

The events – a workshop for Stanford researchers followed by a public discussion – were sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world's largest multidisciplinary scientific society with a mission of advancing science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people.

“We want to encourage more scientists to reach beyond their normal audiences,” said Stanford Earth’s Director of Outreach Education Jennifer Saltzman, who helped bring the AAAS events to Stanford. “Whatever your belief systems, I want everyone to have the opportunity to learn – I don’t want it to be a border.”

The two events were part of the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER), which facilitates communication between scientific and religious communities. The morning workshop, which was open to students, faculty and postdoctoral researchers at Stanford, included discussions and tools for having inclusive dialogues. About 30 participants heard lectures from DoSER facilitators, workshopped their science talks with their peers, and discussed how to approach challenging questions, such as “What if climate change is part of God’s plan?”

“It just hit me what a rarified atmosphere we live in as scientists,” shared one workshop participant. “It’s just not the world around us.”

Alexandra Bausch, a postdoctoral researcher in Earth system science with professor Anne Dekas, echoed the importance of stepping outside academia. As her next step following the workshop, she committed to updating her blog about finding beauty in everyday science.

We scientists feel so sure of ourselves because we have data to back it up…it’s very hard for us to listen.

Workshop facilitator Rob O’Malley, a DoSER senior program associate and primate behavioral ecologist, noted the importance of speaking with empathy, respect, cultural awareness and humility. He encouraged participants to find common ground and reminded them that debates don’t often change minds.

Attendees at the evening public lecture in Encina Hall heard ideas about how religion and spirituality can be agents for scientific learning. Nalini Nadkarni, a professor of biology at the University of Utah, and Willis Jenkins, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, discussed their outreach in a conversation moderated by Stephan Graham, the Chester Naramore Dean of Stanford Earth and a professor of geological sciences.

Willis Jenkins
Willis Jenkins. (Photo credit: Elenita Nicholas)

“Place science within the context of what might be considered holy or important to religious communities,” advised Nadkarni, referencing how different religions celebrate trees and other aspects of the natural world through rituals.

Jenkins discussed how creative experiences with science – such as meditating on nature sounds and creating music based on natural phenomena – can foster connection on a deep level.

“Integrating this spiritual openness is not rivalrous to scientific endeavor – in fact, it might even add to it,” he said.

Nadlini Nadkarni
Nalini Nadkarni. (Photo credit: Elenita Nicholas)

Through illustrative stories about their work in academia and with local communities, they opened an honest exchange of ideas.

“We scientists feel so sure of ourselves because we have data to back it up…it’s very hard for us to listen,” Nadkarni said.

She emphasized the importance of engaging in conversations whenever possible, such as asking if the person next to you on a flight wants to hear about your research. It’s important to approach the topics with which people are already engaged, she said. For example, what kind of wood is used in baseball bats – and are those species endangered?

“The critical issues that we’re facing today require every tool,” Nadkarni said. “I’m willing to keep my palms open.”

Media Contacts

Danielle T. Tucker

Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability

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