ON THE AGENDA | OCTOBER 16TH, 2014 | Katie Barth

Diffusing Tension Through Dialogue - and a Touch of Humor

A look at what dialogue – and laughter – can do to improve the relationship between scientists and evangelicals.

Public Agenda is partnering with AAAS to facilitate a series of dialogues between scientists and evangelical Christian pastors throughout the summer and fall. 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. Read more about this project here and here, and download the discussion guide used during these conversations here.

Katie Barth takes notes during a Perceptions Project dialogue.
AAAS/ Christine A. Scheller

A few weeks ago in Atlanta, I found myself in a room surrounded by church pastors, evolutionary biologists, theology professors, mathematicians and a former Vietnam veteran turned evangelical Christian. I was there for the third dialogue in the Perceptions Project, which brings together individuals who self-identify as belonging to the evangelical Christian community or (though in some cases “and” is more appropriate) the scientific community.

Many of the participants seemed nervous at the start of the dialogue. Though I served as a co-facilitator and was not technically a participant, I admit that I too approached the conversation with a hint of reticence. Before boarding my plane to Atlanta, a friend told me to “watch myself” since he claimed that there was “no way those two groups could manage to be civil toward one another, especially down in the Bible belt.”

What I found, however, was quite the opposite of that presupposition.

The group certainly tackled some tricky topics – evolution, stem cell research, and abortion, to name a few. Still, the group my colleague Susan and I led was filled with some of the most empathetic, curious, and kindest people I had met in quite some time.

For example, one of the scientists in the room brought up the Institutional Review Board process. Through this process, scientists present their research projects to a group of their institutional colleagues, who determine whether or not that project is ethical and can proceed. The board is responsible for deciding whether the welfare of human participants is protected, among other things.

One pastor was shocked to learn that all scientists must go through this process, saying, “I had no idea that scientists actually cared about the sanctity of life.”

A biologist quipped “We have morals too!”

Within a moment, laughter filled the room. The participants began to ease up, and suddenly the stage was set for true, honest, and constructive dialogue. Everyone in the room seemed to start abandoning their preconceived notions of the “other’s” theoretical identity and began to view one another as real people who deserved credit for having their own unique perspectives, all varying in scope and range. Not one person in that room fit the mold of a cookie-cutter stereotype. And the truth is, no one ever does.

One of the biggest takeaways of Public Agenda’s partnership with AAAS is that no barrier is ever too big to break down. Participants exchanged business cards across communities and made plans to continue the conversation after the workshop was over – a true sign of a successful event. While some participants agreed to disagree, they did accomplish one major feat, as the beloved Aretha Franklin would put it:

“R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me…”

And that, in my opinion, is exactly what happened in Atlanta.


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