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Can science and religion come together to improve global health?
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On Friday, leaders from both scientific and religious communities will meet to discuss how they could work together to make the world a healthier place. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Doctors relied on safety suits and isolation wards in the recent fight against the global Ebola epidemic. Scientists had tests for potential cures. And the United Methodist Church armed itself with an animated video.

"Ebola: A Poem for the Living" followed a young Ebola sufferer from his diagnosis to his death. The boy was both the focus of the film and its narrator, instructing his family on how to behave around his body in order to protect themselves.

The video distilled information on Ebola prevention and contagion into an engaging four-minute clip, combining scientific findings with the church's knowledge of West African culture. It presented important information, illustrating the benefits of approaching a problem from both a religious and scientific perspective.

Jennifer Wiseman, director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion, is very interested in projects like the Ebola video. Through her work, she's become a kind of evangelist of the potential to improve global health that exists at the intersection of religion and science.

"Many religious communities are interested in bettering human health as a way of service to others," and they need the best scientific research in order to provide the best service, Wiseman wrote in an email. She added that "health care practices are not carried out in a vacuum," requiring the insights of people like faith leaders to make a difference in communities.

In other words, global health should be a meeting point for people of faith and scientists. And yet biases on both sides sometimes stand in the way of cooperation.

These roadblocks were part of the inspiration behind Perceptions: Science and Religious Communities, a conference hosted in Washington, D.C., on March 13 by Wiseman's organization. Public health experts, scientists, nonprofit leaders and people of faith are coming together to discuss the challenges and opportunities created when religious and scientific communities work together.

Galen Carey, moderator of a panel on global health, said he enjoys the opportunity to highlight partnerships forming and to be candid about ongoing issues.

"I want (participants) to understand what amazing progress has been made in recent years in improving health conditions around the world and reducing preventable deaths" because of cooperation between people of faith and scientists, Carey said. "But there is still more work to be done."

Science and religion

The "Perceptions" conference is not unique in its focus on the divide between religion and science. Tension between the two groups is a perennial topic in the U.S., informing discussions about birth control, abortion, embryonic research and the Affordable Care Act, to name a few.

One study, commissioned by AAAS to aid its bridge-building efforts, offered a snapshot of how American adults describe the relationship between religion and science. Although 38.3 percent of respondents said it was a "collaboration" and recognized the opportunity for mutual support, 26.8 percent said it was best summed up by "conflict." The latter group was split nearly down the middle in terms of favoring religion or science.

Like Wiseman, many researchers have highlighted how broken lines of communication across the two communities weaken the work of both groups.

In January, Deseret News National reported on two separate studies that explored this phenomenon one from the Pew Research Center and one from the American Sociological Review noting that ongoing misunderstandings impact policymakers in their efforts to make meaningful laws and allocate resources. Scientists and everyday people were found to have dramatically different understandings of issues like the safety of genetically modified foods or the causes of climate change, a situation that exacerbates the two groups' habit of speaking past each other.

Wiseman, Carey and other participants in the "Perceptions" conference agree that a healthier dynamic won't happen overnight. But they said getting scientists and people of faith together in the same room is a good place to start.

"We wanted a discussion where leaders from scientific, national and faith-based organizations could discuss the interface of global health needs with cultural values and beliefs" and work together to find solutions, Wiseman said.

At the intersection of faith and health

Carey and his co-panelists have seen community transformation result from cooperation between religious groups and scientific researchers.

Amy Gambrill, senior technical specialist with the water sector communications and knowledge management program at ME&A, said working to improve water availability in the Horn of Africa helped her understand how it takes all types of expertise to solve a problem.

"Whenever you do a project, you need to work with people who have a stake in it, who have knowledge and who can work with you," she said. For scientists focused on global health, faith-based organizations are often filled with those people.

Similarly, Meredith Long, senior adviser for integral mission and international health at World Concern, said experiences throughout his career taught him to never underestimate the value of bringing people of faith's focus on social justice together with scientific knowledge. Just three weeks ago, he was in Somaliland, watching science-based teachings on nutrition benefit the mothers and children being served by a faith-based program.

Carey, who worked with World Relief, a faith-based nonprofit organization that serves underprivileged communities, before becoming the vice president of government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals, noted that religious groups and missionaries can often provide the on-the-ground energy behind scientific initiatives.

Global health programs "rely heavily on insights from scientific researchers, but when you get to the level of promoting that information science doesn't have anything like the church in terms of being able to understand communities or win their trust and support," Carey said.

To these panelists, partnerships between people of faith and health researchers make sense, because both groups care deeply about nurturing a healthier world. But they also recognize the hesitation that exists on either side.

"There are tensions between the two communities. And for some, even hostility," Carey said.

Gambrill said concerns vary widely from situation to situation. Scientists might worry that connecting with one religious group weakens outreach to another or turn up their noses to the idea that faith leaders have something to add to a technical, scientific project. People of faith might fear being taken advantage of and having relationships with a community jeopardized in the process.

"Some faith groups have been in regions (of Africa) for centuries. They know way more than a scientist coming in and taking a snapshot," Gambrill said, adding that reaching the point of healthy collaboration requires high amounts of trust.

She said the goal of Friday's panel is to illuminate and increase opportunities for partnerships while also modeling the importance of open communication.

Perceptions

The "Perceptions" conference grew out of a multi-year effort to assess and then improve relationships between scientists and religious leaders. AAAS's Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion conducted surveys and enlisted partners from across the country, fostering national conversations about ongoing tensions between the two communities.

As an associate scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and an evangelical Christian, Anbrasi Edward, who will also appear on the global health panel, is passionate about Friday's event. She said her preparation for the discussion solidified her understanding of the many overlaps between public health initiatives and religious concerns.

She said both scientists and people of faith seek answers to health obstacles impacting human life, adding, "There are many things that religion does not fully explain and that science cannot fully explain."

That's why Long said it's valuable to get members of both communities together in the same room.

"Many (miss) the connections between what the church does and health," especially in the U.S., Long said. He believes conferences like Perceptions can "help us illuminate what those connections are."
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