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In Caltech's Brave New World, Budding Scientists Get Religion

Education: Breaking with tradition, the institute has added offerings such as Jack Miles' New Testament class. Still, students say, science comes first.

April 29, 1998|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An undergraduate at Caltech can actually sign up for a New Testament class this semester. And at this intensive science institute in Pasadena, religion courses can have an odd appeal: "One student said he enrolled because he kept losing at 'Jeopardy!'," says Jack Miles, a visiting professor teaching courses in the Bible and world religions.

Miles' bestselling book "God: A Biography" (Alfred Knopf, 1995) won a Pulitzer Prize, and his career has spanned book publishing, newspaper editing and editorial writing (at the Los Angeles Times), college administrating and teaching--he is currently on leave from the Claremont Graduate University to write a book about Jesus as a literary character, the protagonist in the New Testament. Still, at Caltech, the catalog is dense with cosmo-chemistry, geobiology and radio astronomy courses, and a book about God is not the most likely credential.

"Science tends to be patronizing toward religion," observes Miles, whose rapid speech never fails to access the precise word. "When dialogue occurs, it seems to come from the religious side."

Miles spent a number of years as a Jesuit and studied Near Eastern languages at Harvard University. Still, belief in God or adherence to religion is not a prerequisite for his Caltech courses. His world-survey class looks at religion as culture, and the syllabus includes a textbook by religion historian Huston Smith.

The first lecture in Miles' New Testament class concentrated on the geography and social history of the area around Jerusalem, where Jesus was born. Miles described his own take on the material in a handout to the class.

"The course will be neither an historical nor a theological introduction to the New Testament," he explained, "but a literary appreciation of it."

Miles' students admit to feeling the usual frustrations that scientists equate with religion.

"The language of the Bible is very vague," says Shane Ross, a 22-year-old physics major in Miles' New Testament class. "What do they mean by miracle?"

Yet, Ross has enrolled in two of Miles' classes this year and attends a Bible study group led by students as well as Sunday services at two churches near campus.

"Toward the end of high school, I was craving meaning," he says. "I started shopping around, wondering, 'Where is the truth?' That is the scientific question."

Even so, it is a rare event for God to have any official business at Caltech.

"Religion has hardly ever been taught here," says Daniel Kevles, a history professor who recommended Miles for the one-year fellowship. "Some of us have been talking about offering comparative religions or a world religions course as an important part of world history. We're not offering an indoctrination in religion."

Five students enrolled in Miles' New Testament class, but 40 signed up for the world religions survey--four times more than he expected. Several other science schools have noticed a similar interest by students and are finding ways to fill gaps.

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Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has offered Bible study courses for more than 40 years, recently grew bolder. This year, "God and Computers: Minds, Machines and Metaphysics" was offered as a course and lecture series organized by professor Anne Foerst of the school's artificial intelligence laboratory.

Two years ago, MIT made a $3-million commitment to renovating an old building on campus for use as the Religious Activities Center. Muslim students now meet five times daily in the prayer room, and Jewish students serve a kosher dinner on Fridays.

"Our graduates will be world leaders in 30 years," says Robert Randolph, dean of undergraduate education. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds two degrees from MIT, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is also a graduate. For the sake of world peace, says Randolph, "we need to teach young people how to talk to each other now, while they're at MIT."

Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, whose programs in computer science and engineering are rated among the top five in the country, offers a minor degree in religious studies that attracts a growing number of science students. For a course in early Christianity this semester, 14 of the 24 students are science majors.

UC Berkeley now includes the Center for Theology and Science as part of the Graduate Theological Union, which is under the university umbrella. The center was founded by physicist Robert Russell in 1981 to encourage interaction between the two disciplines. Many of the center's faculty and students hold degrees in the sciences.

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Caltech maintains a more traditional, tenuous relationship between science and religion. Since 1991, the Skeptics Society, dedicated to testing religious assumptions against scientific proof, has held monthly meetings on campus.

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