A year after graduating from Carleton, Jayne Pasternak ’15 served for a year with Christ in the City, a Catholic non-profit that works with the homeless community in Denver, Colorado. In working with the homeless, Pasternak was challenged to relate to those whose daily experience of poverty meant that they literally saw the world differently than she did. To meet this challenge, Pasternak called on experience gained in a surprising place—a science and religion discussion group she helped to start and lead during her senior year at Carleton.
The group, now in its fourth year, renamed itself “Hard Questions: Science, Religion, and Ethics” this term to recognize the incorporation of ethics into its discussions. Students from numerous religious backgrounds, as well as students who do not follow a religious tradition, come together to discuss some of life’s biggest questions and society’s greatest challenges, with topics ranging from the origins of the universe to the mind-body problem to the role of faith in the public sphere. So far this term, the group has focused on ethics, with discussions about euthanasia, prostitution, and vegetarianism.
Pasternak, a geology major became interested in the relationship between science and religion after working for a Catholic summer camp. She applied to be a chaplain’s associate, with the idea of creating a space on campus where this discussion could unfold. Pasternak said she was confronted in many of her Carleton classes with “a perceived and assumed conflict between science and religion,” while in her own personal experience, she saw the possibility for deep integration of the two. With support from Chaplain Carolyn Fure-Slocum, Pasternak teamed up with classmate Iman Jafri ’15, who previously held a leadership role in Carleton’s Muslim Student Association, to start the original discussion group.
Thomas Redding ’17 joined the initial group in its first year. He had recently become an atheist after growing up Christian. He joined the group because while he no longer believed in a god, “ethics and philosophy and ideas of meaning were still important to me.”
“Generally speaking, at the end of the day, the discussion wasn’t binary, it was additive,” Redding said. “I don’t think I ever changed my mind, I think my mind grew.”
Over the years, the discussion group has filled a unique role in Chapel life. Redding believes that in contrast to the Chapel’s religious services, the group “serves a population that is less comfortable with rituals, but is still interested in the same big questions.” In addition, according to senior Jon Gillespie ’18, one of the group’s current leaders, the discussion group “provides a space for the Chapel to be intellectual” by challenging members to think about what they believe.
The discussion is enhanced by the presence of students from a variety of backgrounds. “Historically, we’ve had probably more people who identify as atheist or agnostic in this group than anywhere else in the Chapel,” said Katie Grosh ’18, a senior geology major and one of the group’s current leaders. Among participants who do practice a religion, many are Christian, but Grosh hopes the group can draw more non-Christian students in the future.
Given the variety in participants’ backgrounds and beliefs, discussions have not always been easy. Pasternak remembers many moments that were “really hard,” where she did not know what to say or which way to lead the discussion. Gaston Lopez ’17 recalls one discussion about the ethics of economics that got especially heated. However, these moments of tension were the exception rather than the rule, according to Redding. If the discussion got too confrontational, members would apologize afterwards. For Pasternak, the group was a reminder of the individual effort she must put in to truly listen to others. She said she has remembered this lesson while serving with Christ in the City and while following the news over the past few years. “As a discussion group, it was a very tangible, tangible experience of, ‘We have to shut up, and just listen to each other sometimes,’” she said.
The future of the group looks promising, and with the official addition of ethics alongside science and religion, there is now even more to discuss. The new name emerged when the Science and Religion discussion group was combined with Practicing Religion and Ethics (PRAE), a second discussion group that Gillespie and Chapel Seminarian Shannon Farrand-Bernardin started last term. PRAE hosted successful discussions of such difficult issues as abortion, capital punishment, and religious freedom.
This term, the group plans to invite professors from a variety of departments to speak. There is also a field trip on the schedule for eighth week. The group will attend the monthly meeting of the Twin Cities Creation Science Association, which will include a presentation arguing against whale evolution. Many of the Hard Questions members say they have never personally met a staunch creationist and are intrigued to be exposed to these opinions.
“I know why I think the things that I do, I don’t need anyone to tell me, ‘Oh, this is why I think the same thing you do,’” said Gillespie. In contrast, he explains, a conversation with someone who thinks differently than he does is “by far the most valuable conversation I can have.”
Whatever students’ backgrounds may be, and whether they have strong feelings on a subject or are simply curious to learn more, Hard Questions strives to create a space where students can come together to discuss. As Grosh explains, “People are here to listen to each other just as much as they are to share their opinions.”