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.