This piece, which I gather has been
circulating on the Internet, was sent to me by a correspondent.
November 21, 2006
A Free-for-All on Science and Religion
By GEORGE JOHNSON
Maybe the pivotal moment came when Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in
physics, warned that "the world needs to wake up from its long
nightmare of religious belief," or when a Nobelist in chemistry, Sir
Harold Kroto, called for the John Templeton Foundation to give its next
$1.5 million prize for "progress in spiritual discoveries" to an
atheist — Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist whose book
"The God Delusion" is a national best-seller.
Or perhaps the turning point occurred at a more solemn moment, when
Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York
City and an adviser to the Bush administration on space exploration,
hushed the audience with heartbreaking photographs of newborns
misshapen by birth defects — testimony, he suggested, that blind
nature, not an intelligent overseer, is in control.
Somewhere along the way, a forum this month at the Salk Institute for
Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., which might have been one more
polite dialogue between science and religion, began to resemble the
founding convention for a political party built on a single plank: in a
world dangerously charged with ideology, science needs to take on an
evangelical role, vying with religion as teller of the greatest story
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.
There has been no shortage of conferences in recent years, commonly
organized by the Templeton Foundation, seeking to smooth over the
differences between science and religion and ending in a metaphysical
draw. Sponsored instead by the Science Network, an educational
organization based in California, and underwritten by a San Diego
investor, Robert Zeps (who acknowledged his role as a kind of
"anti-Templeton"), the La Jolla meeting, "Beyond Belief: Science,
Religion, Reason and Survival," rapidly escalated into an invigorating
intellectual free-for-all. (Unedited video of the proceedings will be
posted on the Web at tsntv.org.)
A presentation by Joan Roughgarden, a Stanford University biologist, on
using biblical metaphor to ease her fellow Christians into accepting
evolution (a mutation is "a mustard seed of DNA") was dismissed by Dr.
Dawkins as "bad poetry," while his own take-no-prisoners approach
(religious education is "brainwashing" and "child abuse") was condemned
by the anthropologist Melvin J. Konner, who said he had "not a flicker"
of religious faith, as simplistic and uninformed.
After enduring two days of talks in which the Templeton Foundation came
under the gun as smudging the line between science and faith, Charles
L. Harper Jr., its senior vice president, lashed back, denouncing what
he called "pop conflict books" like Dr. Dawkins's "God Delusion," as
"commercialized ideological scientism" — promoting for profit the
philosophy that science has a monopoly on truth.
That brought an angry rejoinder from Richard P. Sloan, a professor of
behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, who said his
own book, "Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine,"
was written to counter "garbage research" financed by Templeton on, for
example, the healing effects of prayer.
With atheists and agnostics outnumbering the faithful (a few believing
scientists, like Francis S. Collins, author of "The Language of God: A
Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief," were invited but could not
attend), one speaker after another called on their colleagues to be
less timid in challenging teachings about nature based only on
scripture and belief. "The core of science is not a mathematical model;
it is intellectual honesty," said Sam Harris, a doctoral student in
neuroscience and the author of "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and
the Future of Reason" and "Letter to a Christian Nation."
"Every religion is making claims about the way the world is," he said.
"These are claims about the divine origin of certain books, about the
virgin birth of certain people, about the survival of the human
personality after death. These claims purport to be about reality."
By shying away from questioning people's deeply felt beliefs, even the
skeptics, Mr. Harris said, are providing safe harbor for ideas that are
at best mistaken and at worst dangerous. "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," he said.
Dr. Weinberg, who famously wrote toward the end of his 1977 book on
cosmology, "The First Three Minutes," that "the more the universe seems
comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless," went a step further:
"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
With a rough consensus that the grand stories of evolution by natural
selection and the blossoming of the universe from the Big Bang are
losing out in the intellectual marketplace, most of the discussion came
down to strategy. How can science fight back without appearing to be
just one more ideology?
"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,"
"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
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."
Dr. Tyson put it more gently. "Persuasion isn't always 'Here are the
facts — you're an idiot or you are not,' " he said. "I worry that your
methods" — he turned toward Dr. Dawkins — "how articulately barbed you
can be, end up simply being ineffective, when you have much more power
Chastened for a millisecond, Dr. Dawkins replied, "I gratefully accept
In the end it was Dr. Tyson's celebration of discovery that stole the
show. Scientists may scoff at people who fall back on explanations
involving an intelligent designer, he said, but history shows that "the
most brilliant people who ever walked this earth were doing the same
thing." When Isaac Newton's "Principia Mathematica" failed to account
for the stability of the solar system — why the planets tugging at one
another's orbits have not collapsed into the Sun — Newton proposed that
propping up the mathematical mobile was "an intelligent and powerful
It was left to Pierre Simon Laplace, a century later, to take the next
step. Hautily telling Napoleon that he had no need for the God
hypothesis, Laplace extended Newton's mathematics and opened the way to
a purely physical theory.
"What concerns me now is that even if you're as brilliant as Newton,
you reach a point where you start basking in the majesty of God and
then your discovery stops — it just stops," Dr. Tyson said. "You're no
good anymore for advancing that frontier, waiting for somebody else to
come behind you who doesn't have God on the brain and who says: 'That's
a really cool problem. I want to solve it.' "
"Science is a philosophy of discovery; intelligent design is a
philosophy of ignorance," he said. "Something fundamental is going on
in people's minds when they confront things they don't understand."
He told of a time, more than a millennium ago, when Baghdad reigned as
the intellectual center of the world, a history fossilized in the night
sky. The names of the constellations are Greek and Roman, Dr. Tyson
said, but two-thirds of the stars have Arabic names. The words
"algebra" and "algorithm" are Arabic.
But sometime around 1100, a dark age descended. Mathematics became seen
as the work of the devil, as Dr. Tyson put it. "Revelation replaced
investigation," he said, and the intellectual foundation collapsed.
He did not have to say so, but the implication was that maybe a
century, maybe a millennium from now, the names of new planets, stars
and galaxies might be Chinese. Or there may be no one to name them at
Before he left to fly back home to Austin, Dr. Weinberg seemed to
soften for a moment, describing religion a bit fondly as a crazy old
aunt. "She tells lies, and she stirs up all sorts of mischief and she's
getting on, and she may not have that much life left in her, but she
was beautiful once," he lamented. "When she's gone, we may miss her."
Dr. Dawkins wasn't buying it. "I won't miss her at all," he said. "Not
a scrap. Not a smidgen."
Yea and Amen.