Apparently, scientists get together to talk once in a while. Between the PowerPoint slides and the intra-conference podcasts, other burning issues make it to the fore. At “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival,” a conference held this month in La Jolla, these statements were overheard. Not in the boys' room.
Rather, at the pulpit --
Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics: “The world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief ... 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.”
Sir Harold Kroto, a Nobelist in chemistry, called for the John Templeton Foundation to give its next $1.5 million prize for “progress in spiritual discoveries” to an atheist — Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist whose book “The God Delusion” is a national best-seller.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and an adviser to the Bush administration on space exploration, hushed the audience with heartbreaking photographs of newborns misshapen by birth defects — testimony, he suggested, that blind nature, not an intelligent overseer, is in control.
Carolyn Porco, a senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., called, perhaps in fun, for the establishment of an alternative church: “We should let the success of the religious formula guide us. 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.”
Sam Harris, a doctoral student in neuroscience and the author of “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason” and “Letter to a Christian Nation”: “The core of science is not a mathematical model; it is intellectual honesty. 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.”
Francisco J. Ayala, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Irvine, and a former Roman Catholic priest: “There are six billion people in the world. If we think that we are going to persuade them to live a rational life based on scientific knowledge, we are not only dreaming — it is like believing in the fairy godmother ... People need to find meaning and purpose in life. I don’t think we want to take that away from them.”
Richard Dawkins, even shocking the scientists who wanted a gentler, slower kill-off of Christianity: “I am utterly fed up with the respect that we — all of us, including the secular among us — are brainwashed into bestowing on religion. Children are systematically taught that there is a higher kind of knowledge which comes from faith, which comes from revelation, which comes from scripture, which comes from tradition, and that it is the equal if not the superior of knowledge that comes from real evidence.”
At the end, this dialogue that sums up so well the gentleness, openness and rationality of some of our best fish-eaters, let alone humanitarians. As reported in the Times, the aforesaid Weinburg was about to fly back home to Austin. He described religion a bit fondly as "a crazy old aunt."
“She tells lies, and she stirs up all sorts of mischief and she’s getting on, and she may not have that much life left in her, but she was beautiful once,” he lamented. “When she’s gone, we may miss her.”
Dr. Dawkins wasn’t buying it. “I won't miss her at all,” he said. “Not a scrap. Not a smidgen.”
I have a colleague who seriously believes that Dawkins represents a fringe, psycho-segment of the scientific community. Like he is Behe's straw man or something.
I don't think so.
Real quick, here's what I want for Christmas. Aunt Agatha for Dr. Weinberg. A lifetime membership in the Blue Lodge for Dr. Ayala, so he can be part of meaning and purpose in life, even if it's not true. A time trip to the future for Dr. Harris, so he can find just how honest future generations think he was. A Church of Scientology for Dr. Porko, errrr, ahem. A year as a roommate and constant companion to Dr. Richard Dawkins for Dr. Kroto, so that he can see just how progressive he is.
For Dr. Tyson? He'll find out why these things happen, but I wouldn't wish that on him or anyone, at Christmas or any other occasion.
And for Dawkins? All his dreams will come true. Some day. Lord have mercy on him.
Hat tip to First Things for the story.