Do we need another reason?        

  Philip Ball visit his blog: Homunculus 



[This is the pre-edited version of my latest piece for Nature's online news. Do we really need more about science and religion? Probably not, although my excuse for this piece is the recent launch of two fairly high-profile projects pertaining to that topic. Richard Holmes puts the case much more succinctly in his splendid book The Age of Wonder: “The old, rigid debates and boundaries – science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics – are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective.”]


The ‘war’ between science and religion is stuck in a rut. Can we change the record now?  

The 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s famous ‘Two Cultures’ lecture has elicited mixed views. Some feel that the divide between the sciences and the humanities is as broad and uncomfortable as it was in 1959; others say the world has moved on. But perhaps we need instead to acknowledge that today’s divisions exist between two quite different cultures.


To my mind, the most problematic of these is the distinction between those who believe in the value of knowledge and learning, whether artists, scientists, historians or politicians, and those who reject, even denigrate, intellectualism in world affairs. Some have suggested that these poles are personified by the present and previous incumbents of the White House.


But others feel that the most serious disparity is now between those who trust in science and Enlightenment rationalism, and those guided by religious scripture. This feeling has apparently motivated the recent launch of the Reason Project, an initiative organized by neuroscientist and writer Sam Harris, which boasts a stellar advisory board that includes Richard Dawkins, Daniel

Dennett, Steven Weinberg, Harry Kroto, Craig Venter and Steven Pinker, along with Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ian McEwan.


The project aims ‘to spread scientific knowledge and secular values in society’ and ‘to encourage critical thinking and erode the influence of dogmatism, superstition, and bigotry in our world.’ It is not hard, given the list of backers, to see what that means: doing battle with religion.

There are plenty of reasons why this may be necessary. They are well rehearsed, pertaining mostly to the conflict between scientific and fundamentalist ways of understanding human origins. And it’s perilously easy, to the east of the Atlantic, to get complacent about this: when a wealthy, treacle-voiced American said proudly to me recently ‘I’m a creationist’, I was reminded that there are places where this isn’t deemed tantamount to announcing ‘I’m impressionable and ignorant’.


Important though such issues are, the Reason Project’s supporters would probably agree that they pale in comparison with the use (or generally, abuse) of religious dogma to justify suppression of human rights, maltreatment and murder. To the extent that those are in the project’s sights, it should be applauded. But with Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) on board, one can’t help suspecting that the Almighty Himself is the prime target.


This debate now tends to cluster into two camps. One, exemplified by the Reason Project, insists that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible, and that the world ain’t big enough for the both of them.


The other side is exemplified by another recently launched project, the BioLogos Foundation, established by the former leader of the Human Genome Project Francis Collins. In this view, science and religion can and should make their peace: there is no reason why they cannot coexist. The mission statement of BioLogos speaks of

‘America’s escalating culture war between science and faith’, and explains that the Foundation ‘emphasizes the compatibility of Christian faith with what science has discovered about the origins of the universe and life.’ (There is, incidentally, a third camp too, which insists that religion must expunge heretical science such as Darwinism. Without denying that this is a dangerously widespread view, its vacuity disqualifies it from discussion here.)


BioLogos is funded by the Templeton Foundation, which likewise seeks to identify common ground between science and religion. To the militant atheists, this is sheer appeasement, if not indeed capitulation, in an insidious war of stealth where religion insinuates itself into the heartlands of science.


That is what evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, a board member of the Reason Project, laments in an essay called ‘Truckling to the Faithful: A Spoonful of Jesus Helps Darwin Go Down.’ Coyne accuses the US National Academy of Sciences, and especially its National Center for Science Education, of irenic pandering to the religious masses.


What the Reason Project has in its favour is philosophical rigour. That may also be its failing, because it looks unlikely to venture beyond those walls. Like most utopian ideas, atheistic absolutism works so long as it ignores what people are like and remains in a cultural and historical vacuum. Logical neatness and self-consistency is, unfortunately, not enough.


Sadly, when that is pointed out – as for example when the Royal Society’s former director of education Michael Reiss suggested that it was best to understand religiously motivated delusions such as creationism as world views rather than as mere ignorance that the right information would set right – scientists tend to react badly. Reiss, a biologist and an ordained Christian clergyman, was forced to resign, I suspect because some scientists found a whiff of relativism in his remarks.


I’m glad people make it their business to expose bigotry and oppression. If some choose to focus on instances where those things are religiously motivated – well, why not? But it seems important to acknowledge that the supposed conflict between science and faith is actually not that big a deal. What is a big deal is the relatively recent strength of fundamentalist opposition to selected aspects of scientific thought, which has made the USA and Turkey the two Western countries with the lowest proportion of population who believe in evolution. Were it not for such developments, science and religion could continue their wary truce, with no compulsion to iron out the differences.


In other words, this is not a matter of science versus faith, but of the rejection of aspects of science that challenge power structures. (After all, fundamentalism rarely objects to technology per se, and indeed is often disturbingly keen to acquire it.) That’s not to minimize the problem, but recognizing it for what it is will avoid false dichotomies, and perhaps make it easier to find solutions. The over-exposed example of Galileo’s trial can still serve here to illustrate the point. If we choose to believe that the Catholic Church condemned Galileo’s heliocentrism because it conflicted with scripture, we have an unassailable case against superstitious dogma. If we recognize that the issue was at least as much about maintaining the Church’s authority, we have to concede some rationality in the papal position, however repugnant the motives.


So there is little to be gained from trying to topple the temple – it’s the false priests who are the menace. If we can recognize that religion, like any ideology, is a social construct – with benefits, dangers, arbitrary inventions and, most of all, roots in human nature – then we might forgo a lot of empty argument and get back to the worldly wonders of the lab bench. Given the ‘usual suspects’ feeling that attends both the Reason Project and most Templeton initiatives, I suspect many have come to that conclusion already.


Re-posted with permission to     July 14, 2009

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