“In place of God” is the lead article in the current (18 Nov 06) edition of New Scientist reporting on “Beyond belief: Science, religion, reason and survival”, a symposium held 5-7 Nov in La Jolla, California. The aim was to address three questions:
Should science do away with religion?
What would science put in religion’s place?
Can we be good without God?
The basic conclusion could be said to be summed up by Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas who said, “Anything we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done, and may in fact be our greatest contribution to civilisation.” His subsequent admission that, like the loss of a crazy old aunt, we might miss religion, was not enough for Richard Dawkins who countered, “I am utterly fed up with the respect we have been brainwashed into bestowing upon religion.”
In place of religion speakers offered the grandeur of the immensity and eternity apparent in the universe. Carolyn Porco of the Space Science Institute stated, “The answers to why we are here, if they exist at all, will be found in astronomy and evolution.” The fact that our atoms come from stardust and eventually return to the cosmos provides a substitute for the religious concept of immortality.
When it comes to values and morality in a world free of religion, there would be no need for a scriptural mandate since every human social value and moral can be traced back to group dynamics and biochemistry.
One significant conclusion was that scientists should “come out” and declare their rejection of religion boldly, much as gay men started to do in the late 60’s. But as well as this personal declaration, Harry Kroto of Florida State University felt that scientists should launch a coordinated global effort at education, media outreach and campaigning on behalf of science. Such an effort worked against apartheid 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. They should also work against schools run by faith groups.
Not all contributors were as convinced of the absolute primacy of science as a substitute for religion. One speaker felt that, “…scientists are portraying themselves as the enlightened white knights while people of faith are portrayed as idiots” and acknowledged that science can have it’s own dogma and prophets. That science’s ethics can be manipulated by, for example, biotech companies, also led to doubts that the scientific community could produce a workable morality.
New Scientist has a podcast on the science vs religion debate, as well as several others.
My take on it all
“Religion is leading us to the edge of something terrible,” writes Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith. “Half of the American population is eagerly anticipating the end of the world. This kind of thinking provides people with no basis to make the hard decisions we have to make.”
I agree, up to a point. Poor theology deserves to be challenged and I see no scriptural mandate for absenting ourselves from the needs and challenges of the world around us until Jesus himself appears in the heavens. But scientists also needs to look at the positive contribution that Christians are making to the lives of millions of people across the nations. As Michael Shermer, editor in chief at Skeptic magazine, pointed out, “What about the hundreds of millions of dollars raised just for Katrina by religions? Religions did way more than the government did, and there were no scientific groups rushing to help the victims of Katrina – that’s not what science does.”
Evangelical atheists like Dawkins seem to confuse religion with theology because, considering the whole field of religious enquiry to be totally devoid of value, they are not prepared to explore the difference.
Religion seems to be an intrinsic part of what it is to be human, whether expressed through a recognised world faith, vague attraction to superstitious practices or a devout belief in a world view (any world view). The question, “What would science put in religion’s place” might as well ask how we could replace love or creativity. As a scientific (rather than religious) observation, it seems you can’t escape religion. People will find something to put their faith in – whether that’s Christ, mother earth, superstition or science.
Theology, however, has the capacity to be good or bad, open or closed, beneficial or destructive. As Christians we can only speak for our own theology, but it is still helpful to listen to our critics. Some people still have wacky beliefs that do not easily bear the examination of either scripture or reason.
Ultimately, evangelical secularists reject religion, but talk and act in a way that can only be described as religious. They refuse to accept the judgement that their arguments have moved into the field of religious enquiry like a man thrashing about in a swimming pool who refuses to accept the existence of water or the need to learn how to swim.
As Scott Atran, research director in anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, said of the “Beyond belief” symposium, “This is just a neo-Christian cult. The arguments being put forward here are extraordinarily blind and simplistic. The Soviets taught kids in school 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.”
I think we could be in for a long haul on this one, but let me end with some predictions.
Expect some atheist scientists to “come out” as a way of encouraging people to see atheism as normal – but also look out for a response from theists and agnostics from within the scientific community angry at Dawkins assertion that all real scientists are atheists.
Campaigning atheists will increasingly be perceived by the general public to be little different to religious evangelists which will help the image of neither science or religion.
Human beings, made in the image of a relational God will continue to seek and find meaning through faith in Christ, even in secular states that suppress religion through ideology or violence.
Here are some useful links in the ongoing debate.
Theos is a new public theology think tank. It aims to provide alternative perspectives to the orthodoxies of secular culture and impact public opinion about the role of faith and belief in society.
Edge is an organisation that seeks to highlight the work and expository writing of scientists, thinkers and other intellectuals. It has a clearly secular agenda which makes it an excellent place to find out what contemporary secular thinkers are actually saying.
An excellent podcast from City Church, San Fransisco of Alister McGrath responding to “The God Delusion”.
An article in Beliefnet in which Richard Dawkins sets his reasons for his hostility to religion.