pointed me in the direction of this New Scientist article Beyond Belief: In Place of God
, covering a recent seminar (called Beyond Belief)
which on the surface appears to be a consideration of "Science, Religion, Reason And Survival". An interesting proposal, you might think, however it appears that it was more or less an exercise in religion bashing, which is unfortunate, because it could have been an excellent opportunity for informed debate from both sides. When you read further, the puropose of the meeting is to discuss the following questions:
"Should science do away with religion?
What would science put in religion's place?
And can we be good without God?"
It appears that almost all the speakers were scientists, and some very outspoken anti-religious ones at that. Of 34 speakers, only 9 or 10 are not involved in the hard sciences, two of whom are writers, and only two of whom appear to be involved in the study of religions at all (the others are involved in ethics, psychology and philosophy). This does not make for a balanced discussion, but then, that is not their aim, as you see, looking deeper than the misleading title.
Statements abounded in criticism and overt hostility to religion, such as:"The world needs to wake up from the long nightmare of religion." "Anything we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done, and may in fact be our greatest contribution to civilisation."
[Steven Weinberg, cosmologist] "I am utterly fed up with the respect we have been brainwashed into bestowing upon religion,"
[Richard Dawkins, evolutionary theorist]
Carolyn Porco [leader of the Cassini Science Imaging Team] argues that we do not need God to provide meaning and awe in life - these can be provided by science:"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."
This is a more reasoned opinion, and I can see where she is coming from with this - this is basically the view of many pantheists (and indeed atheists and agnostics).
And, it would seem, there are fundamentalists of the opposite extreme in science as there are in religion. Neil deGrasse Tyson [director of the Hayden Planetarium, New York]:Referring to a recent poll of US National Academy of Sciences members which showed 85 per cent do not believe in a personal God, he suggested that the remaining 15 per cent were a problem that needs to be addressed. "How come the number isn't zero?" he asked. "That should be the subject of everybody's investigation. That's something that we can't just sweep under the rug."
This is clearly an extreme view, but not all scientists think that way. However, views like this are not shared by everyone, as evidenced by the rebuttal from Joan Roughgarden [geophysicist and biologist]:Attempts by militant atheists to represent science as a substitute for religion would be a huge mistake, she said, and might even set back science's cause. "They are entitled as atheists to generate more activism within the atheist community," she told New Scientist. "But scientists are portraying themselves as the enlightened white knights while people of faith are portrayed as idiots who can't tell the difference between a [communion] wafer and a piece of meat."
Indeed, her comment on the opinions of many scientists to religion and religious ideas is one I have seen and heard myself. Generally, those of a religious persuasion keep quiet here because there are a number of vocal atheists and when such discussions arise, it generally results in a good dose of religion-bashing. It rarely starts with both parties open to discussion - it's usually an automatic "don't be ridiculous, religion is patently a load of rubbish." Which is an unfortunate position to start from.
There were a few speaking for some consideration and humility from the hard-core atheist scientsts:"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."
[Scott Atran, National Center for Scientific Research, Paris]"The presumption here was that any effort to respect the existence of faith is a bad thing," he told New Scientist. "Philosophically I'm in complete agreement, but it's not a scientific statement, and I've seen how offensive it is when scientists say 'I can tell you what you have to think'. They make people more afraid of science. It's inappropriate, and it's certainly not effective."
[Lawrence Krauss, astronomer]
All in all, I actually find some of the more extreme opinions from some scientists here to be on a par with the offensiveness of some fundamentalist Christian views - they are no better in their complete close-mindedness and unwillingness to discuss things in a civilised and educated way. Attitudes like this only further rifts between science and religion, where we should be looking to coexist peacefully. It is not for science to decide whether religion should or should not exist.
In my opinion, religion, while not scientific in form and teachings, serves a useful purpose, regardless of the truth of it or otherwise. It provides people with a comfort, a hope, a familiarity and a guideline by which to live their lives. The trouble arises when religion and science come to a face-off, as in the intelligent design/evolution debate in the USA at the moment, or when religion is used as an excuse for violence and evil acts as it has been throughout history. One cannot, generally, blame the religion for these acts - the people perpetrating them are solely responsible. Similarly, one cannot blame science for, say, Hiroshima - those responsible are the ones that made the decision to press the big red button, as it were. Humans are fallible, and we have the free will to choose whether to use certain technology, or to twist certain doctrine, to our own ends.
[Related links: New Scientist podcast, Science v. Religion