November 25, 2006

Evangelizing Science

Science and religion: complementary methods of studying competing spheres of experience or opposing forces with irreconcilable views of reality? Regardless of your position on this question, I suspect you will agree that science has been marginalized under the Bush administration. If you are still not convinced of this, do yourself a favor and read Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science.

In this post, I'd like to draw your attention to a recent article in the New York Times by George Johnson, "A Free-for-All on Science and Religion." The article discusses the manner in which science should respond to religion, and you will see that there is anything but unanimous agreement here. In fact, this article reflects some fairly heated disagreement among atheist scientists.

Acknowledging some oversimplification, let me label one side of the argument as cautious realism. According to this position, our goals should be realistic. According to Francisco J. Ayala, “If we think that we are going to persuade them [theists] to live a rational life based on scientific knowledge, we are not only dreaming — it is like believing in the fairy godmother.” Clearly, it is unrealistic to expect a world without religion anytime soon or to expect that science will provide people with the meaning they currently find in religion. Perhaps our efforts should be both cautious and respectful. As Lawrence M. Krauss suggests, maybe science does not necessarily render theism impossible. “We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it.”

I will label the other side of the debate aggressive secularism for lack of a better phrase. This is the position of Dawkins and Harris, and I'll assume that you are generally familiar with it. According to Dawkins, “I am utterly fed up with the respect that we — all of us, including the secular among us — are brainwashed into bestowing on religion.” The idea here is that science should be hostile to religion and that respect for religious belief simply perpetuates ignorance and the many maladaptive effects of religion.

While I generally find myself in closer agreement with the aggressive secularist camp, I do worry that their methods may do more to increase hostility to science and lead to an even more thorough embrace of religion. Why? Because their attacks are unlikely to reach anyone who is susceptible to influence. They will remain popular among atheists, continue to be demonized by theists, and be largely misunderstood by the rest.

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