Some conservative Christians refuse vaccination against COVID-19 on religious grounds. Some Bible Belt pastors, on the contrary, express such objections to religious ignoring and advise their followers to get vaccinated. This clash is nothing new. Religion and science surrounding each other with suspicion dates back at least to Copernicus, whose replacement of the Earth by the sun as the center of the solar system was considered heresy by many religious leaders.
The way religion bends science is enduring and significant enough that the Department of Religion in the College of Arts and Sciences has a new minor, aptly titled Religion in Science and Medicine. A course revisits the controversial morality debate surrounding the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s.
During a recent session in Anthony Petro’s class on HIV/AIDS, Art, and Religion in America, the CAS associate professor of religion led students through a discussion of his 2015 book. After the wrath of God, its opening quoting prominent evangelical minister Billy Graham in 1993: “Is AIDS a judgment from God?… I couldn’t say for sure, but I think so.
Talking about health effects can “smuggle in all sorts of moral or even theological reasons” for opposing something, Petro tells his students. It traces the history of the word “sodomy”, stemming from the sins that led God to destroy the biblical city of Sodom, and how it applied to gay sex. What if the Almighty could annihilate the innocents of Sodom along with his sinners, wonders one student, couldn’t he smite straight Americans, who have also contracted AIDS, for condoning the putative sin of homosexuality?
“Obviously, AIDS is the punishment” in conservative Christian thought, agrees Rachel Markenson (CAS’22). A major in psychology with a minor in religion, she took Petro’s course, she said in an interview, because of a long-standing interest in the medicine-religion nexus.
“Honestly, if the Minor in Religion, Science and Medicine had been available earlier — like when I was in first or second year — I would have done it,” she says. “The application of religion to scientific spaces, I think, is something we tend to ignore. I’m a psy major, aren’t I? so the fact that we ignore religion is really evident in this area. [Yet] it has so much impact on how we think and what we do. Psychologists focus on behavioral influences such as culture, she says: “I feel like religion is an aspect of culture that is seriously underestimated.”
Petro believes the University is at the forefront of schools offering such a minor: the University of Arizona has sought BU’s advice to develop its own similar program. He designed the minor with April Hughes, an assistant professor of religion at CAS and the department’s director of undergraduate studies, who says it’s specifically for undergraduate health science students.
Undergraduates love behavior and health, Susan Cook (Sargent’23), who takes Petro’s course. She is minoring in the new offer for her postgraduate projects: “I think I would potentially like to work in clinical psychology, maybe even be part of a palliative care team, where I work a lot around this idea of death and how to approach death. And I think the minor in religion in science and medicine will help to better address conversations around death and dying.
“This course was super interesting to me because it combined the ideas of religion and health, which are really locked into this idea of approaching the end of life.”
Older courses touching on faith and science have been popular, Petro says, including the one he’s been teaching since 2013, whose name and subject – religion, health and medicine – presaged the new minor. It’s popular enough that “I usually have to cap it well below the number of people who would take it, and it attracts a lot of students who are in pre-health fields,” he says. “Most of the time they’re just curious, and [religion in medicine] hadn’t occurred to them.… They’re so focused on doing organic chemistry and all their very important scientific requirements.
Humanities classes like his “remind them that these are also human practices,” Petro says. “I don’t think they get a lot of that in their organic chemistry class.” He and Hughes designed the minor to increase this awareness, as well as the number of students studying religion.
While some students taking religion classes are personally religious, adds Hughes, “that’s not really our main constituency.”
Other courses in the minor explore topics such as Islamic and Buddhist body ethics (contraception, assisted childbirth, suicide, and euthanasia) to accommodate pre-med students who must take a situational ethics exam. “When you look at how another culture understands something,” says Hughes, “I think it gives [students] a different point of view.
Among the other classes of the minor: Death and Immortality; religion in the digital age; magic, science and religion; and Jewish bioethics and Holocaust studies.
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