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A Flare for Science and Faith

Convivium’s Peter Stockland dropped by the Canadian Science and Policy Conference in Ottawa today where Cardus’ Program Director Milton Friesen diplomatically called on scientists and faith leaders to work together for the public common good.

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A Flare for Science and Faith November 9, 2018  |  By Peter Stockland
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Cardus program director Milton Friesen brought quiet diplomacy today to the divide between science and religion in the very forum where the Governor General of Canada set off a firestorm of controversy last year.

At the 2017 Canadian Science and Policy Conference, Governor General Julie Payette drew stinging criticism from people of faith and secularists alike for her remarks that many considered scornful of religious belief and practice.

By contrast, Friesen appealed to the better angels of scientific nature by pointing out that it is ultimately self-defeating for scientists or those who craft science policy to mock faith traditions.

“Deriding religious belief is neither necessary for the work of science nor prudent from a public relations standpoint. It is not effective to mock the beliefs of millions of people, and then turn around and ask them to support you,” he told a morning session at the three-day CSPC Conference in Ottawa.

The annual conference is hosted by the Canadian Science Policy Centre, which bills itself as “Canada’s most comprehensive, multisectoral, and interdisciplinary forum for addressing emerging and urgent issue of science and innovation policy.”  

Friesen said the focus of those engaged in science and those who espouse religious belief should be bridging the “diversity gaps” between the respective institutions. He noted the CSPC strategic plan is committed to meeting the challenge of “embracing and synthesizing diverse perspectives and collaborating across diverse silos” to develop effective public policy. 

Religious believers should be a key constituency in that effort, not least because “among the most elite and awarded scientists (are) women and men who have been both at the forefront of their respective research and deeply committed people of faith,” Friesen, the Director of Cardus’ Social Cities Program, said.

At the same time, public policy requires public support – acceptance as well as dollars – in order to put the best efforts of scientific institutions to work the common good. 

“Enlarging science policy support through collaboration rather than antagonism could advance scientific work and link that work to the challenges we face in common,” Friesen said, “A long history of debate over ultimate beliefs, knowledge content and sources of authority has characterized the exchange between religion and science. What we need today is an innovative stance that reconsiders how the public or common good (that) overlaps between institutional science and institutional religion might be enhanced to improve Canadian society."

He cited Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si as an example of institutional religious teaching that takes science at full value, but also challenges the scientific world conduct itself in a way that demonstrates acceptance of the world as the “common home” of believers and non-believers alike.

“Can there be institutional forms of this ‘holding together’ – a sign of institutional intelligence and capability?” he asked. “Developing (it) would represent a significant move in science diplomacy.”

Following his presentation, Friesen stressed that the necessary diplomatic bridge-building must come from both institutional sides. While his address to an audience of scientists and science policy experts necessarily emphasized their area of interest, its message is equally applicable to people of faith. Believers no more benefit creation by denying science than scientists – or governors general – do by denigrating religious belief. 

As well, he underscored that his intention is encouraging interested participants to engage in the discussion, not trying to set out how it should take place.

“I’m just here sending up a flare,” he said.

Which is probably why he left with a feeling of warm welcome rather than Governor General Payette’s legacy of scorched earth. 


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