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Vol.26, No. 06 Oct. 16, 2000

Center for Study of Science and Religion Receives $100,000 Templeton Grant

By Suzanne Trimel

Columbia’s year-old Center for the Study of Science and Religion is one of two academic centers worldwide to be awarded the first $100,000 Templeton Research Lecture Series prize to promote inter-religious dialogue and research.

The grant will support lectures and programs over the next three years, including lectures on science and self in the spring of 2001, a lecture series to mark the centennial of the publication of William James’ enduring The Varieties of Religious Experience in the spring of 2002, and lectures in the spring of 2003 on the role of narrative in developing trust and forgiveness, using the practice of medicine as an example. The Center also has been awarded $25,000 by the Nathan Cummings Foundation and $10,000 by the John E. Fetzer Institute for its lecture series.

The Templeton proposal was submitted by Professor Robert Pollack, a biologist and founding director of the Center. Pollack is joined on the Center’s board of directors by Rita Charon, associate professor of clinical medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons; Wayne Proudfoot and Robert Thurman, professors of religion; and Philip Kitcher, philosophy professor.

“Through its support, the John Templeton Foundation will enable the Center to bring our vision of collaborative, open-minded discussion of topics in science and religion to a wider audience,” said Pollack, whose book, The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith, is due out next month from Columbia University Press as part of the Columbia Series in Science and Religion, developed by the Center. Pollack argues in the book that an alliance between religious faith and science is not necessarily an argument in favor of irrationality. “The two can inform each other’s visions of the world,” he said.

The Templeton grant will help to support the medical center’s writer-in-residence program, which this semester through Charon’s initiative, has brought novelist Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient and The Skin of the Lion, to the health sciences campus for the department of medicine’s program in narrative medicine. The seminar, in which students and faculty study literary texts, attempts to strengthen physician’s competence in grasping the meaning and significance of stories, said Charon, who holds a Ph.D. in English, in addition to the M.D. “Everything we do relies on our ability to extract meaning and significance from the stories our patients tell us,” said Charon.

The grant also will support the Center’s monthly interdisciplinary discussion forum on topics in science and religion. The lunchtime forum, held monthly on Fridays on the Morningside campus and open to students and faculty, is led by Professor Joan Konner, former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism.

More than 100 leading universities worldwide were invited to apply for the inaugural Templeton lecture. Pollack and the center were chosen along with Willem B. Dress, a theoretical physicist at Vrije University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, who proposed a lecture series based on the theme of “Integrity and Integration: Standards in Science and the Human Quest for Meaning.”

Since it was established in July, 1999, the center, located in Low Library, has developed formal affiliations with the religion department, the Mailman School of Public Health, the Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research and the program in narrative medicine. The Center has moved on several fronts to develop curriculum, both on the Morningside and health sciences campuses.

“We found many undergraduate students interested in creating majors and concentrations in science and religion, as well as in more established subjects, such as bioethics,” said Pollack. He said these majors currently are approved ad hoc by the undergraduate schools and the Center was working to have science and religion recognized as an undergraduate field of study.

The center has also co-sponsored a seminar on Judaism and medical practice at the Health Sciences campus, and developed an advanced biology course that touches upon ethical and religious issues and has been taught at the Solomon Schechter High School on the Upper West Side.

The Center’s “Conceptions of Science and Self” lecture series continues on Nov. 1 when Bruce Jennings of the Hastings Center will discuss end-of-life medical care. Allan Rosenfield, dean of public Health, will speak on Nov. 8 on obstetrics and public health. The lectures take place on Wednesday evenings at 7 p.m. in Davis Auditorium at the Schapiro Engineering Center.