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Defying Expectations

by Isaac Rowlett

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

Public Agenda is partnering with AAAS to facilitate a series of dialogues between scientists and evangelical Christian pastors throughout the summer. The purpose of the project is to improve dialogue, relationships and collaboration between these two communities, often viewed as staunchly divided. This blog is one in a series from our public engagement team, who write to reflect on their experiences moderating the dialogues. For more information about the project, email Allison Rizzolo.


Small group discussion moderated by Public Agenda.
AAAS/David Buller

When I told people that I was headed to LA to facilitate a conversation between evangelical pastors and scientists, most reactions fell somewhere between surprise and cynicism. "Why bother," asked a friend, "when they’re never going to agree on anything anyway?"

But a strange thing happens when you get a small group of people together in a room for a facilitated dialogue: they listen to one another. And instead of trying to persuade the group to support their worldviews, the pastors and scientists each respectfully introduced themselves and explained why they do what they do for a living. Similarities emerged right off the bat: curiosity, compassion and an unyielding search for truth.

It wasn’t long before the conversation took on a lighter tone. One participant, a reproductive biologist, acknowledged the tension in the room as he explained his research: "We already covered religion and politics," he said, "so I figured I’d throw sex in there too."

And there were profound moments as well, like when a scientist explained that he wasn’t 100 percent certain of anything, and that all scientific theories exist only until proven false. "What you just said makes me feel safe," a pastor replied, "because many of the scientists I know seem so definite in their beliefs, so I don’t feel comfortable expressing my faith."

Three hours later the group had hammered out areas of common ground and ideas for next steps to foster collaboration between the two communities. But more importantly, the conversations continued well past the end of the formal discussion. Most participants lingered in the room and talked, exchanging contact information and discussing how to keep the conversation going.

As a facilitator, it was humbling to witness a group of people overcome significant differences to explore how to work together to improve their community. Let’s hope that they can continue to defy expectations and set an example for the rest of us.




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