In the apparent conflict between science and religion, many are turning to the field of neuroscience to weigh in on debates like whether the Book of Revelation was based on an inspired dream, like Paul said it was, or a simple neurological process.
Or could it be both?
“The fact is that it was a nightmare,” said W.R. Klemm, a senior professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University. “It can be explained scientifically, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have religious implication.”
For the first time at Texas A&M, Klemm offered a course called “Neuroscience and Religion” this fall semester as an elective for biomedical students.
The course objective is to show that science — especially neuroscience — and religion don’t have to contradict each other.
“I admit, it’s complicated,” Klemm said. “And sometimes people don’t want to think about complicated things. It’s easier to gloss over ideas.”
With more than 50 years of research and teaching experience across the entire spectrum of neuroscience, Klemm admits that his emphasis is on neuroscience, because, as he says it, “I’m not a preacher,” but he wants the students to take their own religious beliefs and try to make the connection with what he teaches them about neuroscience. Many of the current students are enrolling in medical school or other allied health fields.
Religious and philosophical discussions follow reading assignments from Klemm’s book, Core Ideas in Neuroscience. Topics discussed include the underlying neuroscience that influences specific beliefs, such as degree of self-actualization, past experiences, emotional predilections and states, educational level and reasoning capacity.
In his early years of teaching biology, Klemm saw how science, especially evolution, was difficult for his first-year students, who came to class with a Sunday-school understanding of creation. For some, this caused them to abandon their religious beliefs. Klemm’s hope is that by studying more in-depth both science and religion, students can accommodate both.
“There’s lots of evidence that females weren’t created from Adam’s rib,” Klemm said. “And I present in class some of the evidence of the early hominids, and the fact that early hominids had some primitive religious belief. That causes people or students to think about what they’ve learned in Sunday school and science in a different way, which doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive, but very often that is how it is presented. Scientists will say the Bible is wrong, and religious people will say evolution is wrong, but a lot of people say that’s not an issue — that evolution was God’s tool, which is an infinitely intelligent way to do it.”
Free will is another debate where it seems science and religion collide. Religionists hold that humans have free will and are accountable for their beliefs and choices, while scientific experiments have led scientists to believe that free will is an illusion.
“In class, I point out what I and a few other scientists have identified as fatal flaws in those [free will] experiments,” Klemm said. “In the course, I also teach what science shows about how decisions and beliefs are formed, which is actually consistent with free will.”
Klemm’s goal is not to persuade belief in religion, but to help students become more open to spiritual perspectives and introspective about their own spirituality. He also wants them to become more aware of the diversity of religious belief systems and their apparent incompatibilities with each other and with science.
Having a strong belief system intact before entering the class was important to biomedical sciences major Vanessa Uma. She acknowledged that many science students can lose their faith when confronted with scientific explanations that conflict with religious views.
“As you push yourself to understand science, you don’t want to lose something that is important to you,” Uma said.
She said she was interested in the class because she wanted to find religious answers to scientific questions, and she often talks with her religious leaders and parents about what she is learning.
“Science and religion do not need to conflict all the time,” she said. “I don’t think you should be afraid to pursue a scientific interest because you don’t think you would agree with evidences.”
Understanding and knowing both religion and science helps create a well-rounded person, Uma said.
“There’s no reason why religion and science should not be studied together,” she said. “They complement each other. When you think about it, they are saying the same thing, but in different ways.”
Those aims that science and religion have in common, Klemm points out, are knowing and valuing the nature of creation and life, respecting the body and brain, and how to live healthy and happy lives.
But the important issue to Klemm is how the brain decides what to believe. His syllabus states that an important objective “is to explore how past experiences, secular and religious, train the brain to respond to experiences in spiritual ways and determine the neurobiology of emotional and cognitive processes by which the brain comes to believe anything it accepts as valid.”
Klemm will offer the class again next fall and hopes to turn it into a blended course with videotaped lectures, a large audience and more class discussion sessions.
• Klemm works part-time for Texas A&M, and also writes the monthly “Memory Medic” columns for The Eagle.
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