Obtaining Approval for a Seminar on Science and Christianity 
in a Secular University: A Case Study


Department of Materials Science & Engineering
Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 41 (December 1989): 206-212.

This paper presents a factual case history of what happened at a major university when a new committee became responsible for approving undergraduate seminars. For twenty years, a seminar entitled "Issues in Science and Religion" had been given with general approval and encouragement from the university office responsible. When the administrative responsibility changed, however, the seminar was refused permission in Spring 1988. This case history, presented here without editorializing, describes the events and interactions of that year. It will perhaps give some insight as to the nature of the education process at major secular universities today.


For almost 20 years starting in 1967, I had taught an Undergraduate Seminar on "Issues in Science and Religion," without remuneration, under the auspices of the Undergraduate Special Seminar office. I joined the faculty at Stanford in 1962, have been a Professor of Materials Science and Electrical Engineering since 1964, and served as Chairman of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering from 1975 to 1986.

I think it is not too self-serving to set the record straight by claiming that I had good qualifications to lead such a seminar. I am an internationally known authority in solid state electronics, particularly in photoelectronic properties of materials and devices, have written four books in this field, and have published over 200 research papers. I am also an internationally recognized authority on the interaction between science and Christianity, have written four books in this field as well, and have published over 100 papers. I have spoken at over 60 college and university campuses on science and Christianity since 1962 in this country and abroad, and in this connection have frequently been invited to serve as a Staley Distinguished Christian Scholar Lecturer.

The Undergraduate Seminar had been consistently popular through the years. Each year between 15 and 25 students, usually with some personal šinvolvement in Christianity, chose this seminar and then passed on their enthusiasm to the next generation of Stanford students. The seminar was regularly monitored by representatives of the Undergraduate Seminar Program, and uniformly received their approval. The seminar was an elective, open to students who have the freedom to choose for themselves what seminar they will take, and is not imposed upon any student as a requirement but does offer academic credit. The seminar maintained rigorous academic standards, with varied reading assignments, two written papers in which students were encouraged to carry out a personal integration of science and religion from their own perspective, and assignments for students themselves to lead class discussions.

Because of sabbatical leave and other commitments, the seminar was not taught in 1986 or 1987. By the time that Spring 1988 arrived, the administration of the seminar had passed from the hands of the former Undergraduate Special Seminar committee into the hands of a new Committee (hereafter referred to simply as "the Committee") with new individuals involved. Before Spring quarter 1988 started, the seminar had been canceled.

This paper describes the nature of the interaction from that point through the following year. I offer the facts of the matter with as little editorializing as possible, and without revealing the names of the individuals involved. My only suggestion for readers is that they keep track of the variety of different reasons offered for not permitting the seminar during the course of these negotiations. It is hoped that the story will be informative, entertaining, and possibly a little disturbing.

A Week Before February 17, 1988

The Committee meeting to consider Spring Quarter 1988 seminars was scheduled for February 17, 1988. A week before this, I spoke on the phone with the Director of the Committee (whom I will refer to hereafter simply as "the Director"). During our conversation, she requested me to consider offering the seminar as a Freshman/Sophomore Seminar, a category for which they had special needs. I indicated that I much preferred to have it open to all undergraduates, because the maturity of Juniors and Seniors was an important ingredient.

A preliminary listing of seminars for Spring 1988 included "Issues in Science and Religion," and a special flyer put out to advertise Committee-approved courses referred to this seminar specifically as an example of the breadth that was available through the program.

February 24, 1988

Not having heard anything from the Committee a week after the February 17 meeting, and being bombarded by students coming personally to my office and calling me on the phone to inquire about the seminar, I called the Director on February 24, asked about the seminar, and was put on hold. A minute or two later the Director returned to the phone and apologetically informed me that the Committee had refused to approve the seminar because of "lack of balance."

 February 25, 1988

The next afternoon I went to see the Director in her office for a discussion of the reasons for the cancellation. She indicated that she agreed with the decision of the Committee (2 faculty members, 2 students, and the Undergraduate Dean) that the seminar was unsuitable for their program because it openly set forth to discuss the relationship between only the Judeo-Christian tradition and science. She indicated that such a course would be suitable in the Religious Studies curriculum or under the auspices of Memorial Church, but not in the Committee-sponsored program for academic credit. She agreed to accept a letter of rebuttal from me, which was sent the same day.

During the course of the next 10 months, the identity of the 2 faculty members and the 2 students on the Committee was never divulged to me, until I finally did meet with one of the faculty members in December. I was never able to obtain permission to meet with the Committee to discuss the issues. I do not know the identity of the other faculty member or the two students.

In my rebuttal letter of February 25, I argued that the seminar is an attempt to suggest an integration of inputs from a wide range of topics in modern science and the ethical dilemmas posed by modern science and technology, with inputs from the Judeo-Christian tradition. I questioned the argument that religious perspectives should not be espoused or defended in an academic course, since no course at Stanford or anywhere else could really teach about ethics, values, morals, etc. without "being religious" in some fundamental sense - without some kind of set of values chosen and defended on faith, whether that set of values is derived from a formal religion or from a secular world view.

March 9, 1988

The Director replied to my rebuttal. The Committee had two major disagreements with my letter: they denied (1) that "almost every course at Stanford espouses a religious perspective," and (2) that "it is impossible to teach about ethics, values and morals, without engaging in a religious activity."

She wrote:

 The Committee made a distinction between "espousing" a religious perspective, and critically "examining" religious values, and asserted that only the critical examination of religious perspectives - with the emphasis on the plurality of perspectives - was intellectually respectable. Thus your course's espousal and assumption of a shared religious and moral position was viewed as objectionable by the Committee.... The Committee noted that its own position was supported by the recent Supreme Court decision on secular humanism.

March 14, 1988

I replied by letter to the Director with regrets that the unacceptability of my seminar seemed to be based on a misunderstanding of the seminar itself. The Committee's requirement that "only the critical examination of religious perspectives" - with the emphasis on the plurality of perspectives - was intellectually respectable, was certainly fulfilled by the seminar.

I wrote:

We examine the insights obtainable from authentic science on a particular issue, distinguish them from its religious counterpart "scientism," and we examine the insights that have been historically derived, and may be derived today on that same issue from the Judeo-Christian tradition... Surely in calling for a plurality of perspectives, you cannot imply that "intellectual respectability" is reserved only for that approach that treats all perspectives as relative and equally viable, or for a situation in which one would attempt to treat all possible religious and non-religious positions in one Seminar. How could one lead a Seminar on "Issues in Science and Religion" from a non-religious perspective?

On the same day I wrote a letter to the Dean of the Chapel at Stanford, expressing my concerns to him. I asked, "Can it be that Stanford has come to the point where it is being argued that the opportunity to integrate one's scientific insights with insights from the Judeo-Christian tradition is not an `intellectually respectable' activity? That it is permissible to carry out activities that are not `intellectually respectable' under other auspices at Stanford, but not under the auspices of the Committee?"

The Director apologetically informed me that the Committee 
had refused to approve the seminar because of lack of balance.

The Dean replied graciously to my letter, and we did get together a few days later to discuss the issues. I also provided my Chairman the same background of information, and he replied in a sympathetic way.

March 21, 1988

The Director wrote to me to thank me for my recent letter. She proposed a new approach. "In an effort to give the proposal further consideration, I am seeking out someone with well-established academic expertise on science and religion to review your course outline.... Please know that we are doing our best to give all the issues you raise a fair hearing."

March 29, 1988

I received a phone call from the Director apologizing for the mistake in listing the seminar earlier as one that was being given, indicating that the review would continue, and promising to keep in touch.

April 6, 1988

I wrote a note to the Director thanking her for her note and phone call. I passed on to her suggestions for "someone with well-established academic expertise on science and religion," which had been made to me by a Stanford Professor of Philosophy who gave general support to the seminar.

I also noted that over 40 students had registered for the seminar, and that I had decided, in response to urgings from different quarters, to give four 2-hour Open Seminars on Tuesday afternoons during the quarter. I invited her to send a representative to evaluate them. None came.

April 11, 1988

I followed up by letter on contacts made by the Professor of Philosophy mentioned above with the Undergraduate Dean, also a Professor of Philosophy. The suggestion had been made to me by the former that the seminar might be approved in future if its reading list reflected a number of pro and con discussion issues involved in the seminar.

The seminar was unsuitable for their program because it openly 
set forth to discuss the relationship between 
only the Judeo-Christian tradition and science.

I asked for the opportunity to meet personally with the Undergraduate Dean, and wrote:

 It is not my purpose to give a general treatment of how science and religion in general have and may interact; it is my purpose to give a general treatment of how science and the Judeo-Christian tradition interact. This is in itself an enormous task and far more than can be accomplished within a 10-week Seminar. Other conceivable Seminars might treat "Science and Islam," "Science and Buddhism," "Science and Confucianism," "Science and Existentialism," "Science and Marxism," "Ethical Solutions for Atheists," etc. and each of these would have more than it could handle in a 10-week Seminar.... To require that in the midst of a critical examination of the many issues involved in the interaction between science and Judeo-Christian tradition, one must interject problems raised by those who believe that science has totally invalidated the Judeo-Christian tradition, or by those who believe that the Judeo-Christian tradition totally invalidates tenets of modern science, would do violence to the whole purpose of the Seminar and its learning experience.

April 18, 1988

The Undergraduate Dean graciously replied that, as "an interested layman" with respect to the topics in the seminar, he would prefer to defer our actually getting together until the report had been received from the "objective third party with genuine expertise." He felt that "it is entirely possible that the Committee will reverse itself just on the basis of the outside evaluation, without necessitating a meeting between us. If, on the other hand, the evaluation supports the Committee's original decision, then I will feel more confident defending it to you when we do meet."

April 20, 1988

The Director forwarded to me a review of the seminar from "a scholar in the field." She suggested that the review "provides both an affirmation of the objections raised by our Committee, and a strategy for remedying them. If you are willing to revise your course so as to reflect these changes, I would welcome a new syllabus.

The review read as follows (quoted in its entirety):

The proposed course is said to focus on the "interaction" of science and religion, but some of the issues discussed are only very peripherally related to science. In fact, the course is not so much about the intersection of science and religion as about a wide range of topics in one or the other area (but not always both). I realize that one of the points of the offering is to break down artificial boundaries between science and religion, but the discussion of divorce, for instance, has little or no relation to what is said about science or scientific method. And this brings me to the major problem. The matters treated are so numerous and so various - from abortion to nuclear energy to free will" - that none can be treated in depth. Moreover, though the title is "Issues in Science and Religion," only the Christian faith is treated at any length, with some reference to Hebrew Scripture. And finally, the fact that the students read only Professor Bube's manuscript (acknowledged to be a "personal integration") means that inevitably a tone of special advocacy prevails.

Now, I do not think it inappropriate for a teacher to indicate what he believes and why, on everything from religious ethics to electrical engineering. (I am a Christian myself.) But it is best to do this in a pluralistic context, where alternate opinions are presented within a diverse reading list. Thus, I would make three recommendations: (1) that Professor Bube narrow the focus of the course to cover a more clearly delimited set of topics, (2) that he alter the reading list to include a mix of religious and secular authors, both scientists and people in the humanities, and (3) that he change the title to "Issues in Christianity and Science," or something similarly indicative of actual content. Were such changes made, I myself would have no hesitation in approving the course for the future.

April 27, 1988

I thought it best at this point to have a personal visit with the Undergraduate Dean.

I pointed out that although I could respond positively to some of the reviewer's suggestions, a number of others indicated that the reviewer really did not understand the nature of the seminar itself. I argued as follows:

(1) Apparently the reviewer had been provided only with a copy of Science and the Whole Person: A Personal Integration of Scientific and Biblical Perspectives, and was under the impression that this collection of papers was the seminar. For example, although a discussion of divorce appears in this collection, it has never been discussed in the seminar precisely because it is an issue that does not involve the interaction of science and religion.

"How could one lead a Seminar on `Issues in Science and Religion' 
from a non-religious perspective?"

(2) It is not the purpose of the seminar to treat issues "in depth" but to provide the participants with an appreciation for the wide range of issues in which authentic insights from science and from religion can play complementary roles. It is precisely the consideration of a number of such issues that heightens this appreciation.

(3) The seminar has always had an extensive reading list, and it has never been true that participants read only Science and the Whole Person. Supplementary reading from the list or any other references desired by the students has always been urged in general and required in connection with the two papers required by the seminar.

(4) One cannot in a quarter's seminar discussion of the major issues in which science and religion interact - already argued by the reviewer to be too numerous - interject serious consideration of a mix of religious and secular authors, both scientists and people in the humanities without hopelessly diluting the effectiveness of the seminar.

The Undergraduate Dean was receptive and provided me with advice on how to add information to the seminar syllabus that would be used as the basis for deciding on permission for the future. I believe it is an accurate quote to say that we parted with his remark, "I don't know about the rest of the Committee, but you've convinced me."

April 29, 1988

I sent the Committee a 5-page revised syllabus for the seminar, now retitled, "Interactions Between Modern Science and Christianity." The syllabus starts with a description of the Course Purpose: "This Seminar deals with the interactions between modern science and Christianity. It is assumed that participants are agreed that meaningful insights can be derived from both science and the Judeo-Christian tradition. It addresses areas where these insights come into critical contact, raises questions, encourages discussion, and tries to help participants explore ways of integrating them."

It then summarizes the subject matter to be discussed in each of the ten weeks of the seminar, with about 50 words of detail for each subject. Next comes a full statement of Course Requirements including seminar discussion involvement and subject areas for the two papers. "The only essential requirement for each paper is that it present a discussion with both scientific and religious inputs."

Finally, the syllabus presents and describes the contents of 11 books suitable for basic reading in the subject area of the seminar. Included in the list are The Anthropic Principle by D. Barrow and F.J. Tipler, who reject any religious foundations to their thinking; Brave New People by D.G. Jones, a Profesor of Anatomy in New Zealand; God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science by D.C. Lindberg, Prof. of the History of Science, and R.L. Numbers, Prof. of the History of Medicine and the History of Science; God and the New Biology by A. Peacocke, a physical biochemist, Anglican priest, and Director of the Ian Ramsey Center at Oxford University; Bioethics edited by T.A. Shannon, Prof. of Social Ethics; and Mechanical Man: The Physical Basis of Intelligent Life by D.E. Wooldridge, a classic expression of the materialistic perspective which finds no place for any traditional religious concepts or for the concept of God beyond the sum of all physical mechanisms.

June 8, 1988

No word had been heard from the Committee to date. I telephoned the Director to find out the current status of the seminar. She reported that the Committee found the seminar too broad and recommended leaving out several weeks' topics, and requested the addition of philosophical texts to the reading list, with Stephen Jay Gould's book on evolution as an example. She promised to send me a written report.

October 6, 1988

About four months later I wrote a note to the Director welcoming her back to Autumn Quarter, and reminding her that she had promised to send me in written form the last comments of the Committee with respect to my seminar. I repeated a request often made earlier for an opportunity to meet with the Committee.

October 10, 1988

The Director wrote me with the information promised the previous June. She wrote:

Several members of the committee were concerned by the "breadth and thinness" of what the course proposed to undertake; they felt it was over-ambitious while not including major works on several of the disputes considered. Thus, the following strategy for revising the course was proposed: it was suggested that you cut the number of topics treated, while adding reading on the remaining subjects.

More specifically, the committee suggested that you cut weeks seven through nine (abortion, euthanasia, and genetic engineering), and expand on the first six weeks and on week ten. They proposed that you explain at the outset your religious point of view on the disputes you will cover. On readings, it was suggested that you include reading from the secular humanist perspective rather than (or in addition to) Wooldridge's Mechanical Man, and that you include major writings on creation and evolution such as Stephen Jay Gould's Panda's Thumb.

October 12, 1988

I called the Director concerning her letter of October 10, and requested a brief meeting with the Committee. She indicated that she wasn't sure about logistics and promised to get back to me.

@HEAD 2 = November 3, 1988

The Director phoned and I discussed my continuing concerns with: (1) "narrowing the course," in which the very critical areas, where interactions of scientific and Christian inputs were put to the test, had been recommended for deletion, and (2) representing "secular humanism" in the course, which seemed to be an extraneous and diluting complication.

The Director agreed to set up a meeting with Committee members, the Undergraduate Dean, and herself after Thanksgiving.

December 16, 1988

I met in the Undergraduate Dean's office with the Dean, the Director, and one of the faculty members of the Committee, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy.

Comments and recommendations made during the meeting were: (1) the seminar covers too many topics and too few perspectives; (2) Week 3, "The Relationship Between Scientific and Theological Descriptions" and Week 6, "Human Responsibility: Chance, Freedom and Free Will," should be dropped as specific week themes; (3) a discussion of ethical guidelines to be provided by the Assistant Professor of Philosophy and an article recommended by the Undergraduate Dean were to be included; (4) inputs were to be sent to me by the Assistant Professor of Philosophy for the reading list; (5) all this was to be completed by January.

The Committee found the seminar too broad and recommended 
leaving out several week's topics, and requested the 
addition of philosophical texts
 to the reading list, with Stephen Jay Gould's book on evolution as an example.

February 1, 1989

I called the Director to remind her that I hadn't received any inputs from the last meeting in writing. She apologized and said that she had forgotten.

February 7, 1989

The Director phoned me to give me four book titles to add to the list. I asked if I was supposed to read all of these and incorporate them into the course; apparently I was. When I indicated that this didn't seem all that reasonable, I received noncommittal agreement. There was a February 17, 1989 deadline for the revised syllabus.

February 10, 1989

I sent in the revised copy of the syllabus. I added another paragraph to the Course Purpose that read: "It is not expected that one two-hour period will be sufficient for the thorough discussion of any of these topics. Rather the purpose of the Seminar is to lay the foundation for future perspectives and investigations by the student. It is also true that many themes will reappear several times throughout the course of the Seminar."

I replaced the former Week 3 ("The Relationship between Scientific and Theological Descriptions") with the title, "Philosophical Attitudes Toward Science and Theology: How They Relate and šInteract."

I moved in a new title for Week 4, "Determinism, Chance and Chaos," and dropped the former Week 6 ("Human Responsibility, Chance, Freedom and Free Will").

The rest of the class schedule remained unchanged.

"...the purpose of the Seminar is to lay the foundation for 
future perspectives and investigations by the student."

I added the four recommended books to the reading list: R. Harre, Philosophies of Science (1972), T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (1970), W.H. Newton-Smith, The Rationality of Science (1981), and B. Williams, An Introduction to Ethics (1972).

 During the Week of February 20, 1989

I received a call from the Director to let me know that the seminar had been approved for Spring Quarter 1989. I told her that the seminar would be given Tuesdays 4-6 pm, with the first meeting in room 550A. She thanked me for my patience throughout all of the preceding negotiations.

March 14, 1989

I received official notification from the Committee that the seminar had been approved as FSS 015.

I learned for the first time that it had been approved as a Freshperson/Sophomore Seminar, not as an Undergraduate Seminar, bringing full circle our discussion initiated the previous February 14, 1988. The reason was that they wished to have the FSS taught by regular faculty and so assigned one to me (the other one was "Towards the Development of an Artificial Person"). It appears that most, if not all, of the other seminars were taught by non-faculty.

Ten other Undergraduate Special Seminars were offered: "American Violence: The Gun Connection;" "The Contemporary Alternative Press;" "Hindu Mythology;" "Informatics and Third World Development;" "Medical Models: Wellness and Healing in Cultural Perspective;" "Principles and Practice in the American Conservative Movement;" "Puerto Rico: An American Experiment in Colonialism;" "The South African Image in the United States;" "Voices from the Grassroots: Social Movements in India;" and "Women's Literature of the Holocaust."

The information sent to me from the Committee contained a few inappropriate items. It listed the wrong room on campus for the first meeting. It requested my Social Security Number, my resume, and my address since "these are not on file." And it also informed me that I "will receive a temporary teaching appointment as Preceptor," and that I am "expected to be in contact with [my] faculty sponsor and to let them know how [my] course is proceeding."

April 4, 1989

The first meeting of the seminar was held on Tuesday, April 4, 1989. The information sent to me from the Committee indicated that 12 students had been allowed to sign up as participants in the seminar, with another 6 students placed on a waiting list. Over 20 students came for the first meeting, and I indicated that all interested would be welcome.


That's about the whole story. You, the reader, must decide what, if anything, can be learned from it.