November 21, 2006

Faith + Reason, Religion + Science = 0?

I'm sure everyone has seen the NY Times article reporting on the “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival” conference (links to recorded lectures from the conference, some good, some not so good). If you haven't yet, go read it.

All the quasi-famous godless came together for the conference: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson and my personal favs, Lawrence Krauss and Steven Weinberg, both of whom are much less prone to mottos and anthems than Harris and Dawkins.

I like Weinberg. He's a very patient thinker, unlike Dawkins and Harris. I don't agree with him entirely; he puts all religious folks in the same basket and he's opposed to some of the ideas of E.O. Wilson and Lawrence Krauss. Krauss and Wilson want to nurture a relationship with religious moderates in order to accomplish educational and environmental goals. It sounds good, but I can certainly see why Weinberg is skeptical.

Why should the young Earth creationist care about saving the environment or education? Five thousand years is hardly a cosmological investment, and besides, Jesus will fill the sky soon, enrapturing all the faithful. Resources (animal, plant, mineral, etc) are here for our use to subsist until the end of the world which is, again, is right around the corner.

This directly conflicts with the moral weight of 3.8 billion years of life's history, a true story told through hundreds of years of careful study and published evidence. If you consider the life surrounding and living in and on you as relatives, analogs of ancestors long gone, it certainly changes one's perspective. It seems to me that this worldview places much more value on protecting what Wilson describes as our "cradle."

So I can see why Weinberg wants the world to awaken from its "long nightmare of religious belief." I just don't know how effective his methods would be versus Krauss' or Wilson's suggestions.

These scientists have a huge problem with acknowledging religious beliefs (conceptions of the natural and one some levels, the spiritual/emotional world), many of which are in direct opposition to available evidence. I agree wholeheartedly.

I remember my girlfriend describing a conversation she had about the environment with a coworker in the kitchen. He's a fundamentalist Christian, and spends dozens of hours every week in the Church community.

Heather asked him about what his church was doing to help out with protecting the environment (we used to take all of the recyclables to sort at the end of the day). He said that he didn't pay much attention to those issues; after all, if he were to burn an entire forest, God would grow it right back if it wasn't supposed to happen.

It is an issue of delusion, of attributing what we do not yet understand to supernatural causation.

I think the ideals of Krauss and Wilson need to be tempered with the skepticism of Weinberg. Science and religion are not separate and opposite entities, and should never be treated as such. With the progression of science, supernatural causation will continue to retreat, but that does not obliterate the importance of ritual to human beings, our psychological ties to the past through myth and the religious experience as a means to connect with others and the ineffable spirit of a god or the idea of a god.

I think that we're all forgetting how the media feeds on divisive issues like this and tends to exaggerate the rifts between camps. I personally could do without another "Religion vs. Science?" cover on Time or any other major publication. It depends on what portion of religious people are being discussed.

So, with tongue firmly in cheek, I propose the following:

Religion + Science ≠ 0

And if that is true, then what is the sum?

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