Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Scientists Prepare for Battle

There’s a fascinating article in today’s New York Times that talks about the growing number of influential scientists who are itching for an all-out fight between science and religion. The article takes us to a conference in La Jolla, California, that brought together many of the leading anti-faith minds of the day, including Dawkins and Sam Harris, along with a few more moderate voices. The general tone at the meeting was one of anger and despair that so many people around the world continue to hold “irrational” religious beliefs. “I don’t know how many more engineers and architects need to fly planes into our buildings before we realize that this is not merely a matter of lack of education or economic despair,” said Mr. Harris, who has never been afraid to tar billions of people with the actions of a few. Why, oh why, are people so stupid, wailed the scientists.

Many of the scientists are fed-up, frankly, and they’re not going to acquiesce to religious belief anymore. Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, thinks that “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.” When someone mentioned that we should respect people’s deeply-held beliefs, Dawkins went into one of his hate-filled tirades: “I am utterly fed up with the respect that we — all of us, including the secular among us — are brainwashed into bestowing on religion.” For Dawkins, religious people are “brainwashed”, and those who respect religion are “brainwashed.” Only those who have spent decades practicing science in the insular world of academic research are not brainwashed. Amazing!!

The scientists, or at least the ones in La Jolla, want a war, an apocalyptic struggle that will settle the science versus religion issue once and for all. A bizarre wish, in my opinion, as this is a battle that science will never win. The vast majority of the world’s people hold some form of religious belief, and have for thousands of years, and a tiny cadre of scientists is not going to change that, no matter how many books they write. Not to mention that a concerted campaign by the scientific community against religion would put an incredible strain on the thousands of dedicated scientists who are also devout believers. I, for one, already feel like something of an outsider in the scientific world, and an anti-religion crusade by the scientific establishment would probably send me fleeing the lab as fast as possible.

Interestingly, once of the strategies advanced in the meeting was to present science to the public as a religion:
Carolyn Porco, a senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., called, half in jest, for the establishment of an alternative church, with Dr. Tyson, whose powerful celebration of scientific discovery had the force and cadence of a good sermon, as its first minister. She was not entirely kidding. “We should let the success of the religious formula guide us,” Dr. Porco said. “Let’s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome — and even comforting — than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know.” She displayed a picture taken by the Cassini spacecraft of Saturn and its glowing rings eclipsing the Sun, revealing in the shadow a barely noticeable speck called Earth.

Two thoughts come to mind. First, it’s refreshing to hear a scientist acknowledge that the product peddled by Dawkins & Co. really is another form of religion (scientism), and not simply disinterested science. Secondly, her statement that the “incredible richness and beauty” of the universe is “so much more glorious and awesome — and even comforting — than anything offered by any scripture or God” reveals a profound ignorance of how religious people view the cosmos. For the faithful, the glory of God and the glory of creation are not in competition. Quite the contrary, they feed off each other in a synergy of glory, with the beauty of the world testifying to the goodness of its Creator, and the love of God infusing every corner of the universe. The atheist presents a false choice: either love God or love the “real world.” But the believer looks at the rings of Saturn and loves both even more.


anderssontext said...

Well written.
I recommend you to listen to Alister Mcgrath´s lecture about Dawkins new book ("the god delusion") here: http://www.theocea.org/
Mcgrath´s review is very interesting and has a lot of good points.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

W/O Authority,
Thanks for the illuminating post. It is ironic how similar the science extremists sound to their religious extremist opponents. While the Christian right speaks of a culture war, and Muslim extremists speak of a war against the West, Dawkins appears to be declaring a war of the religion of scientism against all other religions.
There are many people of faith, myself included, for whom the discoveries of science are not a threat, whether in the fields of biology or cosmology, physics or archeology. The really sad result of extremist tirades like Harris' and Dawkins' is that it limits their ability to work together with progressive people of faith to advance a common agenda. If they were really scientific, they would do their sociological homework and find out that many people of faith are neither brainwashed nor idiots, but rather share many of their values - along with a very scientific and healthy dose of skepticism about the limits of science itself.

Robin said...

I will recommend Getting a BitTorrent of Dawkin's two part BBC documentary "The Root Of All Evil", in which he outlines his beliefs that religion is harmful to free thinking by visiting some easy marks and berating them. It's fascinating to see how far he will go to avoid actually meeting an informed source.

It's a series of low blows, misunderstandings and basic theological mistakes that's actually fun to pick apart at, say, a homegroup meeting. Enjoy!