Scientific advances and religious beliefs have clashed repeatedly in recent years over issues such as stem cell research and evolution. As nanotechnology becomes a greater part of Americans’ daily lives, researchers have asked whether it will face similar opposition. Experts say that the answer lies in finding solutions to the larger challenges of communicating between science and religion.
In 2008, University of Wisconsin researchers found a link between a higher incidence of religious belief and distrust of nanotechnology. They found greater acceptance of the science in Europe countries where religiosity ranked lower compared with a greater distrust among American citizens who reported that religion played a significant role in their lives.
Dietram Scheufele, a Wisconsin professor of life sciences communication and a lead author on the study, originally published in Nature Nanotechnology, said that this research and his continuing work in the field of society and nanotechnology revealed “perceptional filters” that shape how people use scientific information. He said religion can act as one such filter, serving as a lens that shapes how we see information.
“It didn’t necessarily mean that they don’t know about the scientific information, they just choose to interpret it differently than people who are maybe less religious,” said Scheufele.
Nanotechnology faces unique challenges when it comes to public opinion and perception since it is currently making the transition from an abstraction into realities and concrete applications. To some people, he said, nanotechnology might mean controversial areas such as synthetic biology, human enhancement, or weapons development. To others, it may simply represent better golf clubs and advanced medical equipment.
The possibilities of nanotech raise what Scheufele identified as an essential question: “Do we do everything that’s now possible, should we do everything – those conflicts between the philosophical and the scientifically possible will emerge because nano will infiltrate pretty much every area of our lives.”
Such questions are a common refrain heard by Gayle Woloschak, director of Chicago’s Zygon Center for Religion and Science, and a self-identified “believing scientist” of Eastern Orthodox faith. A professor of cell and molecular biology at Northwestern University, she said that concerns and questions over “jumping the gun” with the use of nanotech dominate the conversation when she speaks about the field with religious communities.
“They say things like cell phones come out, everybody uses them, and then after we use them we ask, ‘Are they safe?,’ and that’s sort of the fear with nanotechnology,” said Woloschak.
Philip Hefner, retired director of the Zygon Center and professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, said he has observed a “lukewarm attitude towards technology” among church leaders and theologians. He noted that while many technological advances are taken for granted, like the presence of computer technology in our lives, more cutting-edge advances such as nanotechnology are often singled out as a target of skepticism.
Hefner placed these concerns in deeply seated dualisms in Western culture and religion, which perceive a clear divide between such realms as mind-body, humans-nature or nature-technology. Though he said that such dualisms are “deeply embedded in our culture,” he added that many theologians are also working to overcome them through dialogue with science.
“For a long time we’ve thought that those dualisms don’t make sense and that we have to look at things differently. Science is a big factor in showing us that mind and body are not as distinct as we’d like to make them, and that human beings are part of nature, they’re not separate from nature,” he said.
Just as the religious community faces challenges in reorienting its perceptions, experts also suggested that scientists must to the same. Woloschak said that scientific language can be a barrier to understanding complex concepts, and that opportunities for dialogue between religious and scientific communities can help overcome this obstacle.
She also identified fundamentalist perspectives as an issue for the scientific community as well as the religious one. “I think a lot of scientists lump religious people together as a bunch of fundamentalists,” she said, “So it ends up being that there are misconceptions about each other and they do stem a lot from language issues.”
Scheufele said his research has found a high level of public trust in scientists’ ability to correctly and accurately conduct research, but less trust in their ability to navigate the moral implications of applying research. While scientists have often removed themselves from public debates for the sake of objectivity, he suggested this may do more harm than good to the public discourse.
“The key solution,” he said, “will be the willingness of all of us to have conversations that cover concerns that the public has, which might not be scientific in nature but can benefit greatly from input from scientists.”
BY ELIZABETH BAHM