Senior Staff Writer

TORONTO - Science and religion often take diverging paths, leading away from the question of life in seemingly opposite directions, but both are born from a desire for answers.

And, as the science and industry of biotechnology grows - as the capability of scientists becomes more and more breathtaking - the world increasingly wants answers about such issues as cloning, stem cell research and the genetic modification of plants and animals.

At times, answers from the cloth seem opposed to those from the lab coats.

Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, stressed during Tuesday's plenary luncheon of the Biotechnology Industry Organization's International Biotechnology Convention & Exhibition the need to open the lines of dialogue on the ethical and faith-based dilemmas that face the biotechnology industry.

Saying that at the heart of religion is "a commitment to care about sustaining this planet we call Earth," Edgar reminded the crowd of past pitfalls surrounding divisive issues.

"We need to find the right language [to discuss biotechnology issues] and not put us in the position that we have in abortion," he said, adding that so few people are truly "pro-life" or "pro-choice," the two labels used to define one's stand on the issue. That kind of typecasting merely polarizes, he said.

Once the right language is found, he said, the next step is "forming the right questions."

"I would hope that as we shape those right questions, we would articulate them in such a way that don't have us come to a specific conclusion," Edgar said.

"We need to figure out some new strategies to build this conversation much broader than it is today," he said. "Very few people in the religious vocations think they have the expertise to talk to scientists. Talk with your religious leaders. We need to talk with them about the questions of bioethics and biotechnology."

But, Edgar warned, "There is an urgency now. Procrastination is the thief of time." Pointing out that the estimated carrying capacity of the planet is 12.6 billion people, a sum expected to be reached in the next 100 years, and borrowing from Martin Luther King Jr., Edgar said, "This may be our last chance to choose between chaos and community."

Edgar also spoke at a morning panel session in one of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre's South Building rooms - one small cell in the biotechnology catacomb that the center has become during BIO 2002. The panel dealt with religious perspectives on biotechnology and boasted Muslim, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish representation.

There, Edgar, who is Protestant, said that "what troubles me most is that [the majority of religious leaders] aren't dealing with the questions" surrounding biotechnology.

"I'm concerned that the poor are not part of the conversation," he added. "I'm not frightened by the decisions that we have to make, but I think we need to make them thoughtfully."

Mohammed Lazzouni, director of interfaith relations for the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester, said in the session his religion - like many others - falls short when faced with biotechnology's ethical and faith-based snares.

"When it comes to biotech, there is nothing in our sacred tradition or the Koran that gives us a position on stem-cell research," he said. "Here is a case where the Muslim community can learn from other communities - this will help the Muslim community come up with clear positions on this debate."

Lazzouni, too, cautioned against dividing the masses into sides.

"Stay away from the arguments of polarization," he said. "The first thing from that point on is language is used to confuse."

The competitive landscape of biotechnology, with its nondisclosure policies, exclusive research collaborations and select intellectual property licensing deals, isn't best known for its free flow of information. Perhaps not surprisingly - it's a business, after all - but to effectively, ethically and morally shape the sector's future, no biotechnology company is an island, said Robert Gibbs, professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and the Jewish voice on the panel.

Gibbs suggested that a method he has of studying his religion might be the best way of forging ahead against biotechnology's most inflammatory issues. He often meets with a group of international Jewish scholars in open dialogue. However, they meet "not to legislate on opinion, but to confer with one another," he said.

"For us, reasoning means we study the text, especially the Torah," he said. "It is a task that no one can do alone."

The convention continues through today.