Wednesday, November 22, 2006
My invitation to the big, recent atheist fandango in San Diego must have gone astray in the mail. Sounds like a good time was had by all. Some highlights from the New Scientist:
. . . Patricia Churchland of the University of California, San Diego, . . . was charged with answering the question "can we be good without God?". Values, Churchland said, are set by what we care about, and as social animals we care about mates, kin and insider-outsider relationships. Every human social value and moral, she said, can be traced back to group dynamics and biochemistry; there is no need for a scriptural mandate. Thus the answer to the third question of the meeting became an overwhelming yes.
With three positive verdicts in the bag, the mood was clear: science can take on religion and win. "We've got to come out," urged chemist Harry Kroto of Florida State University, Tallahassee. Dawkins also used the same phrase, and compared the secular scientists' position to that of gay men in the late 1960s. If everyone was willing to stand up and be counted, they could change things, he said. "Yes I'm preaching to the choir," Dawkins admitted. "But it's a big choir and it's an enthusiastic choir."
Kroto certainly declared himself ready to fight the good fight. "We're in a McCarthy era against people who don't accept Christianity," he said. "We've got to do something about it." His answer is to launch a coordinated global effort at education, media outreach and campaigning on behalf of science. Such an effort worked against apartheid, he said, and the internet now provided a platform that could take science education programmes into every home without being subject to the ideological and commercial whims of network broadcasters. He has schools run by religious groups firmly in his sights too. "We must try to work against faith schooling," he said.
For all the evangelical fervour, some attendees suggested that a little more humility might be in order. "This is Alice in Wonderland, it's just a neo-Christian cult," Scott Atran of the CNRS in Paris told New Scientist. "The arguments being put forward here are extraordinarily blind and simplistic. The Soviets taught kids in schools about science - religiously - and it didn't work out too well. I just don't think scientists, when they step out of science, have any better insight than the ordinary schmuck on the street. It makes me embarrassed to be an atheist."
More here (though you may have to pay for enlightenment). I find myself in agreement with the scientist from Paris. I don't see why a biologist or astronomer has any more claim to speak about religion than any other reasonably intelligent person. It seems quite the same thing as the bad habit so many Americans have of turning to movie actors for their opinions about politics. Yet the ability to appear sad (or intelligent) when one really isn't, is hardly a qualification for opining about how to fight nuclear proliferation. What poor, deluded apes we are sometimes. I remember watching with growing horror some TV show years ago where Patick Stewart (a.k.a. Jean-Luc Picard) ran around outdoors and enjoyed the wilderness, or something like that. When choosing his own words, instead of saying "Make it so" with unquestionable authority, he appeared to be a man who had never had a deep thought, or unbanal sentiment, in his life. He was also wearing a hair piece. One more idol bit the dust.
As long as scientists are in the mood for educating people, perhaps they could start with themselves. Many of them appear to need a class in Philosophy 101. Or maybe Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. They would no doubt emerge with their atheism intact, but they might at least learn that most of the questions they impale themselves upon are philosophical questions, such as, Is there a God? Can we know if there is a God? Could the universe possibly be infinitely old? Or even, Is it a waste of time to even ask questions such as these? You don't see many philosophy PhD's blundering into conferences on the Higgs boson (which I think they are still looking for, but I for one have faith that it is there), because philosophers rightly think they would look like idiots if they did. Yet famous scientists can stand up and say that religion must be stamped out, replaced by science, and so on and on, and expect to be taken seriously. Then there are all the other questions, ones of culture and history I suppose, having to do with whether one would even want to live in a society from which religion had been eradicated by "education". While living under the Taliban or the Spanish Inquisition would have been a nightmare, living in a land where Science had finally taken Its throne does not sound like any bargain either.
It had all the fervour of a revivalist meeting. True, there were no hallelujahs, gospel songs or swooning, but there was plenty of preaching, mostly to the converted, and much spontaneous applause for exhortations to follow the path of righteousness. And right there at the forefront of everyone's thoughts was God.
Yet this was no religious gathering - quite the opposite. Some of the leading practitioners of modern science, many of them vocal atheists, were gathered last week in La Jolla, California, for a symposium entitled "Beyond belief: Science, religion, reason and survival" hosted by the Science Network, a science-promoting coalition of scientists and media professionals convening at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. They were there to address three questions. Should science do away with religion? What would science put in religion's place? And can we be good without God?
First up to address the initial question was cosmologist Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas, Austin. His answer was an unequivocal yes. "The world needs to wake up from the long nightmare of religion," Weinberg told the congregation. "Anything we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done, and may in fact be our greatest contribution to civilisation."
Those uncompromising words won Weinberg a rapturous response. Yet not long afterwards he was being excoriated for not being tough enough on religion, and admitting he would miss it once it was gone. Religion was, Weinberg had said, like "a crazy old aunt" who tells lies and stirs up mischief. "She was beautiful once," he suggested. "She's been with us a long time. When she's gone we may miss her." Science, he admitted, could not offer the "big truths" that religion claims to provide; all it can manage is a set of little truths about the universe.
Richard Dawkins of the University of Oxford would have none of it. Weinberg, he said, was being inexplicably conciliatory, "scraping the barrel" to have something nice to say about religion. "I am utterly fed up with the respect we have been brainwashed into bestowing upon religion," Dawkins told the assembly.
He was soon joined by Carolyn Porco of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, who had been charged with providing an answer for the second question: if not God, then what? Science, she said, could do at least as well as religion. "If anyone has a replacement for God, then scientists do." Porco said. "At the heart of scientific inquiry is a spiritual quest, to come to know the natural world by understanding it... Being a scientist and staring immensity and eternity in the face every day is about as meaningful and awe-inspiring as it gets."
Astronomers in particular, she suggested, regularly confront the big questions of wonder. "The answers to these questions have produced the greatest story ever told and there isn't a religion that can offer anything better." Religious people, she claimed, use God to feel connected to something grander than they are, and find meaning and purpose through that connection. So why not show them their place in the universe and give them a sense of connectedness to the cosmos? The answers to why we are here, if they exist at all, will be found in astronomy and evolution, she said.