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Rustum Roy

Rustum Roy is a leading materials scientist, at Pennsylvannia State University. He was raised a Christian in his native India and is extremely active in a number of religious forums in the USA. He also writes about US science policy.

Can Theology Play a Role in Policy Making?
The 'God' of Stephen Hawking

QUESTION: What is your area of scientific research?

DR. ROY: I deal with real things, material science. We make everything from cement to diamonds. We are the biggest diamond synthesis lab in the world. And a lot of technologies which will get into the real world of manufacturing all the time. So from cement to diamonds, we go from giga scale to nano scale.

QUESTION: What is your religious faith and background?

DR. ROY: I was brought up as an Anglican in India. And coming to this country I got involved with the activist part of the churches, including this one where we are sitting [the Church of the Savior in Washington, DC], which was really concerned with acting out the Christian faith. And recently I've been getting more and more ecumenical in involving cross-religious dialogue, with Jews, and Muslims, and Hindus and so on.

QUESTION: What do you see as the reason for having a dialogue between science and religion?

DR. ROY: I've been in the science and religion, or technology and religion, dialogue for 35 years. I was the first chairman of the national counsel of churches committee on this. The importance, I think, is because I now see an impending clash between all the world's religious traditions, and technology - which itself is becoming a religion, with all the trappings of religion, telling you what to do, when to do it. And so in a sense I see the impending clash of the titans with all the religions being overtaken by the forces of international technology.

QUESTION: What do you hope a dialogue between the religions and science can achieve then?

DR. ROY: By far the most important agenda item - as we're seeing it all over the world - is technology. Today an autonomous force called technology, run by the marketplace, run by international collaboration and competition, is trampling on the traditions of all of humankind. And what can be accomplished is to bring the right relationship between technology and the world's traditions, which embody human wisdom, gathered over the millennia. And we would throw away that wisdom if we didn't learn to bring technology into the right relationship with the world's traditions.

QUESTION: So let me ask you now a two-part question. First, what have religious communities to gain from a science-religion dialogue. And secondly what would the scientific community gain?

DR. ROY: I think the religious community has to work in the real world, in which technology is ever present, and ever expanding. And if they don't understand it and how it functions, they will never be able to interface with it. So the religious community must understand the rules of the game, the laws of technology, and how technology functions. And if they don't do it, they will be overrun. If they learn how to get to the wheels of power, to the places where we can make a difference, then they will be able to shape their own future, and the future of humankind.

QUESTION: Could you give a specific example?

DR. ROY: I'll give you a very good example. Right now China is building, it is going to expand, and it is building infrastructure. It’s going to have more cement production than possibly the rest of the world combined - it's amazing how much cement. Cement throws off a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It's a greenhouse gas. In the U.S. can we can control our carbon dioxide - maybe. But, what about the rest of the world? If we could learn that this is an important general problem for humankind, then we can go about guiding that technology to maybe even avoid the production of carbon dioxide altogether.

Likewise we can look at questions of genetic engineering, and before we get there be able to say, okay, within our traditions, this is going to be alright, and this not alright. And when people say it can't be guided, I give you the example of nuclear power. We don't lack the technology of nuclear power. We don't lack the science of nuclear physics. What we lack is public acceptance, and nuclear power is being shut down in this country. I'm not a great anti-nuke. But, the fact is that commonsense, and the will of the people can be exercised. So the religious community must learn to make some judgements about today's technological choices.

QUESTION: Do you feel then that it is important for religious communities be educated about science?

DR. ROY: That is why I am so concerned that the religious community and their leaders be made aware of the issues within the technological choices facing our leaders, facing the corporations, and not to deal in a romantic world, where everything can be wished into a better state. So education of the religious population and its leadership, about science and technology, becomes very urgent. I think the first thing the religious communities should get is a balanced understanding of the whole range of science. A religious person should understand the whole spectrum of science, of how we understand our world, how we grow our food, how we make our materials, the enormous encompassment of chemistry and biology and so on, not to be overtaken, by bamboozling with words like quantum. And I think that if they get that spectrum, they will be much better positioned to understand what their world is made of.

QUESTION: Do you think that if more religious people were aware of that whole spectrum of science they would be less inclined to see it as in tension with their faith?

DR. ROY: They would see the real problems, as opposed to the artificial problems. The artificial problems is, is there a tension between creation and cosmology. Well, I can tell you that not 1 person in 1000 gets up in the morning and thinks about creation or cosmology. So that's not a concern. In fact, they would be concerned about how their breakfast is put on the table, what carcinogens are present here, or what good things are being done for them by science in making something more convenient or healthier, instead of worrying of being told that this is the contact point between science and religion is all about cosmology. No, it is all across that spectrum.

QUESTION: How do you respond to the criticism that the God of the physicists - of people like Stephen Hawking - has nothing to do with Christian faith?

DR. ROY: I've always been appalled by Stephen Hawking and his book, in which he says, if we solve this equation, we shall have known the mind of God. What a small God. And so I suppose that these abstractions, and these equations, and this TOE - this "theory of everything" - is really the theory of everything that matters to nobody. It is Einstein saying, we know more and more about less and less until we know everything about nothing. And that's precisely where they have come to. It's not real. It has nothing to do with the real human beings, which the world of theology, and the world of religion must demand.

The physicists don't ask a person of faith to do anything, there is no responsibilities placed. Religion has traditionally demanded something. And here in this setting [at the Church of the Savior] we see everybody going out to serve the poor. Well, that's not exactly what comes out of the "theory of everything". So it is very abstract, not connected to human life, and therefore doesn't deserve the title of - being juxtaposed to religion, even.

QUESTION: How do you respond to Steven Weinberg’s claim that the more we know through science about the order of nature, the more the world seems pointless.

DR. ROY: I think that nobody really cares about what that community of physics thinks about nature. They are concerned about their immediate environment. I am the center of my universe, as my feelings and understandings go. And so if I want to understand nature, I start with my environment immediately around me, my friends, my aunts, my family. And from there on, if I can make sense of that, that's what counts. And I think the beginning of the universe doesn't interest very many people.

QUESTION: But, doesn't this present some sort of tension? The beginning of the universe may not interest lots of people, but it interests some people. So is there an actual tension between science and religion there?

DR. ROY: I think the alleged tension is between a very small community of physicists searching for soul. They're looking for some understanding of their own world, and their religious beliefs. I feel this whole debate has been fueled by the religious concern of individual physicists, of the Stephen Hawkings, and Leon Ledermans, and so on. And they love to throw in the word God. They're wrestling with that question. So it is, in fact, an issue for a very tiny minority. I suggest that they do a little theology.

I mean, it bothers me that people talk about science and religion. And yet if I ask them who John the 23rd was they don’t know. They're talking about the religion in the time of Galileo. They read about the Inquisition, and they think, ah, that's religion. Well, we don't talk about the physics at the time of Galileo. And I think they should have the humility to study liberation theology, study neo-orthodoxy, to study what John the 23rd achieved by the second Vatican Counsel. Surely, people should read the literature before they get aboard.

QUESTION: Do you think there is a sense in which they themselves are using God, if you like, as a public relations mascot?

DR. ROY: I believe the use of the word God - thrown in at the time especially of the supercollider battle - was definitely about trying to get a public relations benefit from religious terminology. The secrets of the Universe and God were thrown in quite frequently together. That was just normal political posturing to get money.

QUESTION: What I think that demonstrates, however, is that there is a desire in the part of the wider community to have a rapproachment between science and spirituality. People tend to believe physicists. So if a physicist talks about God, they think we may have a synthesis. Would you like to comment on that?

DR. ROY: I think that that is true at a certain level in society. In the world of the elite, there is more attention paid to the words of these famous physicists. But even in my science community, we frankly don't know who these people are, and we don't care. They could disappear off the face of the Earth, and we know very well that nobody would miss them. Nobody would miss the entire particle physics community if it were to disappear tomorrow.

I'm talking about scientists. I don't know a scientist with whom I work who wastes his time reading the literature, listening to what they say. So they are really non-existent -- except in the world of Congress, where they've got very good public relations. They've had the media for a long time. But it's about at the end of that era. We're seeing that era closing down.

QUESTION: For you personally, has your life of faith impacted on your life as a scientist?

DR. ROY: What I do in science has not been impacted by my faith. But, how much I do of it is very much impacted, because I think we should all be balanced human beings. We should give so much time to our professional activities, and then also concern ourselves with the wider life of the community, what's happening in Congress, how science policy is being shaped, what's happening with the poor, how should we help the international situation. So as a person of faith, how much time I can afford to give only to science has been shaped by that concern.

QUESTION: Would you say that your faith has shaped the other activities that you do, like your work on science policy?

DR. ROY: I think my faith has very much impacted where I come out on many of these positions. One example is foreign aid and where that aid should be given, especially in the area of technological interactions. My activities within science are also prioritized, because of the particular faith stance I take. I'm concerned about reaching the masses, I'm concerned about the poorest of the poor, and what technologies and what science can help them. So in some way that shapes where I will put my energy, and it will shape the direction of my science on a big scale.

QUESTION: Do you think for that reason that the scientific community can benefit from having an interaction with religious people? What would that benefit be?

DR. ROY: Very important. Today I think the scientific community has lost one of its major drivers, which was the defense drive. Every country had scientists working to improve their defense. So the war drove a lot of science. And really, we've lot that raison d'etre. So what should replace that? And I've been saying human service - attending to the needs of the maximum number of people, starting with their basic needs.

So the people of science also need a hierarchical agenda of saying, what's important in science? We've been saying up to now that the smaller the particle the more important it is. Well, I think in engineering and the real science which affects human beings, that's no longer true. So we do need a kind of a theory of what's important in science. And I would think that should come from our religious traditions. And most of that should be service, and service to the largest number.

QUESTION: What do you think is going to be the future of the science and religion dialogue as we bring in more faiths. So far it's been largely Christianity. What will happen to the dialogue as Hindus, Muslims, et cetera, come in?

DR. ROY: I think what is happening, as more religions come into this dialogue, is change away from theology and abstractions and theoretical stuff, to much more practice. Ortho-practice is becoming much more important than orthodoxy. The religions find that what they want to do, what they support in action is much more common than what they believe. So the commonalities of religions are emerging in their practices, amazingly enough.

And so that's a very good way of giving an agenda to the world of science and technology, from all the religious traditions. There is quite a lot of commonality, much more than in theology, in what is desired, and what they believe is proper behavior, the common behavior of humankind. There's quite a lot of coincidence. And so it's a very nice way for the religions to get together - also, with the agenda of setting the agenda for technology.

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