Friday, November 24, 2006

More on the faith wars

For those who may have missed it, a follow-up to my post on religious and anti-religious intolerance: an interesting piece in the New York Times on a forum titled “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival.” With anti-religionists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris on hand, and some believing scientists apparently invited but unable to attend, the event turned into a spirited religion-bash, with such declarations as this, from physicist Stephen Weinberg:

Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.

Of course, this is precisely the kind of talk that makes many people think scientists have an ideological agenda of undermining religion. In fact, a few speakers highlighted this problem:

“There are six billion people in the world,” said Francisco J. Ayala, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Irvine, and a former Roman Catholic priest. “If we think that we are going to persuade them to live a rational life based on scientific knowledge, we are not only dreaming — it is like believing in the fairy godmother.”

“People need to find meaning and purpose in life,” he said. “I don’t think we want to take that away from them.”

Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University known for his staunch opposition to teaching creationism, found himself in the unfamiliar role of playing the moderate. “I think we need to respect people’s philosophical notions unless those notions are wrong,” he said.

“The Earth isn’t 6,000 years old,” he said. “The Kennewick man was not a Umatilla Indian.” But whether there really is some kind of supernatural being — Dr. Krauss said he was a nonbeliever — is a question unanswerable by theology, philosophy or even science. “Science does not make it impossible to believe in God,” Dr. Krauss insisted. “We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it.”

That was just the kind of accommodating attitude that drove Dr. Dawkins up the wall. “I am utterly fed up with the respect that we — all of us, including the secular among us — are brainwashed into bestowing on religion,” he said. “Children are systematically taught that there is a higher kind of knowledge which comes from faith, which comes from revelation, which comes from scripture, which comes from tradition, and that it is the equal if not the superior of knowledge that comes from real evidence.”

And the last word, at least for me, goes to anthropologist Melvin Konner:

By the third day, the arguments had become so heated that Dr. Konner was reminded of “a den of vipers.”

“With a few notable exceptions,” he said, “the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?”

His response to Mr. Harris and Dr. Dawkins was scathing. “I think that you and Richard are remarkably apt mirror images of the extremists on the other side,” he said, “and that you generate more fear and hatred of science.”

The conflict may be particularly pointed because some of the science supremacists' notion of outmoded prejudices includes not only religion but the traditional humanistic belief in human agency and moral autonomy. For more, see my August 2005 Reason column on "the new neuromorality." A common line of attack on science from the right is that it destroys the foundations of right and wrong, treating people as no different in moral status than slugs. For science to actually start championing that viewpoint is not a smart thing.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Konner's point is well taken. It is simply unscientific to contend that science has anything to say on moral questions or the spiritual claims of various faiths. Science describes the physical world, and moral judgements are based on a priori contentions that have no physical basis at all.

What discredits the comments of people like Dawkins is their refusal even to engage or respond to the arguments from the other side. They just dismiss them and claim it would be absurd for anyone holding their position to spend any time consideriing the opposing position. This just transparently unscientific and lazy. It just puts them out of the conversation.

Maybe they are wise to avoid the fight - the work of philosphers such as Nagarjuna knocks the foundations out from under the phenomena these scientists study.

ada47 said...

Hi Cathy
I'm so glad you're back!
I was going to write a long comment on the importance of scientists distancing themselves from the extreme views of Dawkins and bring in all sorts of arguments from scientists and theologians who were much more comfortable with the idea that both science and religion, at their best, can be valid and complementary ways of understanding the universe, and then go off into a tirade about how the intellectual elitism of costal liberals (which is identical to the intellectual elitism of European academics) makes it really hard for us heartland/southern/western Democrats get our centrist-progressive candidates elected (2006 midterms notwithstanding).

But I'll skip all of that, because I just read a brilliant critique of "The God Delusion" in the Novermber Harper's by Marilynne Robinson. I can't find it on line, so I can't link to it, but the article alone is worth the cover price (and you get Harper's list!). Bottom line from the review: Dawkins' thesis is fundamentally unscientific, and his triumphalist isnsitence that science is the way, the truth and the life ignores two important aspects of twentieth/twenty first century science, namely quantum theory and weapons of mass destruction. I can't begin to do justice to Ribinson's review. It is a must-read.

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