Back in December of last year, a federal judge ruled against a Dover school board including intelligent-design theories in curriculum. The ruling basically said that intelligent design is religion-based and therefore false science. Mainstream coverage pounced on this. I raised a question about the coverage then:
Why is it that people have such an easy time seeing into the hearts of intelligent design proponents and discovering nefarious religious motivations but never question the religious motivations of evolution proponents?
Well, George Johnson had a fantastic piece in The New York Times that surveys religious attitudes of various scientists who attended a conference on science and religion. The article is so well-written and has so many juicy parts that I'm having trouble picking which ones to excerpt.
Johnson's experience writing about science and religion shows. He wrote Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for Order a decade ago. He's won the Templeton-Cambridge journalism fellowship in science and religion. And he's written numerous articles on the subject.
For this article, Johnson covered a Science Network event referred to by some as an anti-Templeton conference on science and religion. Most of the numerous speakers Johnson quoted expressed a great deal of animosity toward religious belief:
Dr. [Steven] 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 civilization."
He quoted the noted atheist Richard Dawkins, but many other scientists also expressed anti-religious views, including Harold Kroto, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carolyn Porco.
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 ever told.
Here's what Porco, a research scientist at the Space Institute, proposed:
"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."
Johnson provides perspective on the story, detailing efforts by the Templeton Foundation to smooth over differences between science and religion. He explains that more prominent believing scientists were invited to the conference but didn't attend. And he quotes evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala, a former Roman Catholic priest, pooh-poohing efforts to fight six billion people finding meaning and purpose in life. When physicist and nonbeliever Lawrence Krauss argues that science does not make it impossible to believe in God and that nonbelievers should stop being so pompous, Dawkins explodes.
"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.
While many reporters have been enamored with Dawkins and his colorful quotes, Johnson goes on to quote two religion-opposing scientists in response, including anthropologist Melvin Konner.
"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 [doctoral student Sam] 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."
There are many other things in the article -- notably allegations against some believers -- that are left unanswered, but the piece is properly limited to the people and ideas expressed at one conference.
More than a few atheist and non-religious commenters here have suggested previously that Richard Dawkins is equivalent to Christians' Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell. Reporters run to them ad nauseum whether they deserve it or not.
This article showed debate with Dawkins. The debate was over tactics rather than underlying views, but in the crusade to win converts to their belief system, scientists' tactics are important. It's nice to have a well-written look at the same.