Revolution #75, January 7, 2007
Atheists Push Back
Beyond Belief 2006 Conference--Scientists Debate Science and Religion
A Scientist Speaks on Wonder, Romance, and Meaning
One highlight of the conference was a presentation by Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini spacecraft Science Imaging Team. (Cassini is a spacecraft orbiting Saturn that is sending back images and data. See http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/home/index.cfm and http://ciclops.org/view_event.php?id=56) She showed amazing photographs from the Hubble telescope and Cassini missions. One picture was of a moon of Saturn, Enceladus. Scientists have discovered that Enceladus has hot fractured regions at its south pole, and that jets of fine icy particles issue forth from below its surface. Enceladus appears to have liquid water, excess warmth, and simple organic compounds. Porco said that we may have stumbled on the “holy grail” of modern-day exploration--an environment that may be suitable for living organisms. If it is ultimately found that life has developed twice in this solar system alone, we can assume it has occurred a staggering number of times in the cosmos as a whole – and such a finding would prove, in Porco’s understated words, “very difficult for religious doctrine.”
Carolyn Porco described growing up Catholic and practicing earnestly to try to find answers within it to her questions about meaning and purpose and why we’re here. She said religion couldn’t provide these answers, so she turned to astronomy. “It seemed to me, if there were any answers to be found at all, they were going to be found in the facts, and understanding the greater theater in which human life has unfolded. And I was right about that. Being a scientist, and staring immensity and eternity in the face every day is about as meaningful I think, and grand and awe-inspiring as it gets. We, especially we astronomers, confront the big questions of wonder every day and the answers to these questions in the aggregate have produced, and this is absolutely with no hype,…the greatest story every told. And there isn’t a religion, I think, that can offer anything better. And as Jules Verne said, reality provides us with facts so romantic that imagination itself could add nothing to them.”
Leading scientists and academics recently came together for an important conference, “Beyond Belief--Science, Religion, Reason and Survival.” The event was sponsored by the Science Network and held at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California Nov 5-7. The conference website (http://beyondbelief2006.org/) described the impetus for the gathering this way:
“Just 40 years after a famous TIME magazine cover asked ‘Is God Dead?’ the answer appears to be a resounding "No!"…. Religions are increasingly a geopolitical force to be reckoned with. Fundamentalist movements--some violent in the extreme--are growing. Science and religion are at odds in the classrooms and courtrooms. And a return to religious values is widely touted as an antidote to the alleged decline in public morality. After two centuries, could this be twilight for the Enlightenment project and the beginning of a new age of unreason? Will faith and dogma trump rational inquiry, or will it be possible to reconcile religious and scientific worldviews? Can evolutionary biology, anthropology and neuroscience help us to better understand how we construct beliefs, and experience empathy, fear and awe? Can science help us create a new rational narrative as poetic and powerful as those that have traditionally sustained societies? Can we treat religion as a natural phenomenon? Can we be good without God? And if not God, then what?
“This is a critical moment in the human situation.”
Among those participating in the conference was Richard Dawkins, a scientist and popularizer of the theory of evolution. Dawkins’ book The God Delusion has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 13 weeks in a row, and he has been getting large and enthusiastic audiences on tour in the U.S. promoting his book. In a U.S. News and World Report article (“The New Unbelievers”--Nov. 5, 2006), Dawkins commented on why he is now getting such a hearing: “Six years of Bush, which seems to be a step in the direction of theocracy, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism seem to suggest that the world is moving toward two extreme religious views.”
Video of the La Jolla conference sessions are available online at the conference website. We encourage Revolution readers to check out the videos and critically listen to the different viewpoints and controversies expressed.
One main arena of controversy in the conference was whether there is an inherent conflict between science and religion. Some participants said that scientists should focus on spreading a greater appreciation and knowledge of science but stay away from a debate over the existence of God, or other things that would conflict with mainstream religious belief.
But others argued that science inevitably conflicts with religious faith. Since scientific thought and discovery is based on evidence and fact, it undermines the unfounded faith of religion--which has no basis in evidence for any of its wild claims. And religion cannot help but contest with science. As the author Sam Harris put it, “Every religion is making claims about the way the world is… these are claims about the divine origin of certain books, about the virgin birth of certain people, about the survival of the human personality after death. These claims purport to be about reality…and this inevitably puts religion on a collision course with science because these are claims made on bad evidence.” Richard Dawkins argued that with the loss of religion would be lost the religious brainwashing of children, the subversion of science, and the view that faith is a virtue--“belief without evidence.”
Steven Weinberg, professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Texas, commented that science has dug away at core religious beliefs-- showing that humans are not the center of creation but another animal species that has evolved from other animal species, and that science sees less and less of a special role for humans in the laws of nature or the universe. Weinberg said science has shown that the earth is not the center of the universe, the solar system is not the center of the galaxy, our galaxy is not unique and now there is plausible evidence that the Big Bang may well just be one episode in a much larger multiverse with Big Bangs “popping off all the time.” And so science has increasingly made religious explanations unnecessary. Weinberg said, “The world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief. And anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done, and may in fact in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.”
These arguments are both a welcome “pushback” against the attack on scientific thought and method by Christian fascist theocrats at the core of power and throughout U.S. society today, as well as a response to those who would try to tiptoe around the theocrats, fundamentalists, and Bushites by not challenging religion’s claims. But again, readers should go to the site to get a full sense of the back-and-forth discussion and debate over this. Also up for debate were the seriousness of the threat from religion, and particularly religious fundamentalism, in the world today; the relation between science and morality; and other topics as well.
There were also some secondary shortcomings to the conference. In particular, many participants lumped communism in with fascism as one of the “twin horrors” of the 20th century. This view was not challenged and was accepted as a sort of “common logic” or conventional wisdom. But such a view cannot stand up to the deep study of the evidence and the testing and debating of contesting theories that should characterize a scientific approach to any question, and the unthinking acceptance and repetition of such views does damage to the whole scientific project, closing off the examination of a genuinely scientific approach to human society itself and thus giving ground to sloppy and unscientific thinking more generally. For those, scientists and others, who wish to read an actually scientific account of the history of communist revolution, see the Revolution series “Socialism Is Much Better Than Capitalism, and Communism Will Be a Far Better World” by Raymond Lotta [revcom.us/strs/set-the-record-straight.html], as well as the article “The Outrageous Equating of Communism with Nazism” by the Set the Record Straight project [revcom.us/a/011/outrageous-equating-nazism-communism.htm].
Overall however, the La Jolla conference was an important and stimulating event advancing opposition to the attacks on science and the scientific method, and in grappling with the role of science in contending with religion in the world today. The video sessions are well worth delving into.
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