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Examining the intersection of science and religion

By Lara Palmquist '13
September 13, 2012

A mutual interest in the history of science and religion led Associate Professor of Political Science Douglas Casson (left) and Christophe Porot '13 to team up on a research project that enabled Porot to spend the summer at the University of Oxford.

It was through a casual conversation that Christophe Porot '13 and St. Olaf Associate Professor of Political Science Douglas Casson first discovered a shared interest in the history of science and religion — an academic field that examines the intersections of philosophy, theology, and natural science.

That shared interest — along with support from the St. Olaf Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program — enabled Porot to spend the summer at the University of Oxford, where he was already studying through the St. Olaf Junior Year Abroad program. There he researched the ways in which theological assumptions shaped the emergence of scientific thought.

"A false understanding of the history of science and religion has led many people to believe they are incompatible," says Porot. "The truth is, major theological shifts helped facilitate modern science and they have shaped each other ever since."

Looking at Locke
Porot's research focused on the role of philosopher John Locke in revolutionizing Western theology and establishing the foundations of secular modernity. He was especially interested in understanding Locke's role in the rise of modern science and the contributions of popular religion to Locke's famous philosophies.

"Locke's writings describe the rigors of experimental science as part of one's Christian duty," explains Casson. "He insisted that science prepares the mind for revealed truth."

For Porot, conducting this research at the University of Oxford was of particular significance, as Locke was an Oxford scholar himself. "I was walking in the shadows of the very scholar I was studying," he says.

The university also provided him with individual instruction on the use of modern research methodologies from faculty, as well as access to the Ian Ramsey Center for Science and Religion.  

While Porot was abroad, Casson traveled to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to participate in a seminar with distinguished scholar Peter Harrison, who presented the renowned Gifford Lectures earlier this year on the historical intersections of science and religion.

"It was wonderful to see how all of these various threads came together throughout the summer," says Casson.

An ongoing interest
Casson and Porot plan to continue their research in the months ahead and hope to eventually publish their findings in academic journals.

"This will be an ongoing endeavor," says Porot. "There is at least a year's worth of work left and probably much more."

This fall they hope to share their findings with a wider audience, including the St. Olaf community. In presenting their work they hope to demonstrate the contemporary relevance of their historical scholarship and encourage further dialogue on the topic.

In spring 2013 Casson will take his turn at the University of Oxford as a fellow at the constituent Harris Manchester College. His work will further explore the relationship between Locke, religion, and the rise of modern science using essential artifacts such as Locke's Bible and the private notes and marginalia of Royal Society figures.

Curiosity continues to drive their work. "We are solving a historical puzzle," says Casson, "and plan to continue to pursue this topic in great depth."

While the research is ongoing, its impacts are already apparent on a personal level for Porot.

"Not only do I look at the structures of society with more fascination, but I also see science and religion in a whole new light," he says. "This was one of the most intellectually stimulating and generally enriching experiences of my life."

Following his graduation this spring, Porot hopes to attend Oxford's graduate program for science and religion — a decision that was finalized by his rewarding experience this summer.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or