Is God off topic?
Well, as I settle down to read Unscientific America, I thought I'd discuss how I think science ought to relate to religion, so I could get my view on the record independent of Chris & Sheril's.
There is a view in which science and religion address orthogonal questions, and in a sense I'm an advocate of that view.
The separation can't be said to be perfect. Certainly, here in Texas as we are besieged by people who are convinced who "don't believe in" evolution, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the belief baggage that religious people carry. As a related point, whatever the evidence for anthropogenic climate change is, it becomes weaker if you make a point of not challenging young earth creationism; all paleoclimate evidence vanishes in a puff of smoke, and really you're left with an incoherent view of the universe.
On the other hand, the Dalai Lama says:
if science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.Here is a view that by definition can't be at odds with science.
My own interest in religion centers around two facts: the first is the inherent value of the experience of Unity. This appears closely related to the mystical experience as described in many religious cultures, including traditional Catholic Christianity. The experience of God can be so dramatically intense (the word that the more intellectual person can hang onto it is "numinous") that regardless of what theory of the universe you hold, accounting for the experience itself cannot reasonably be considered as beside the point. This in turn draws attention to the phenomenon of experience, and how very feeble and hollow efforts to reduce the phenomenon of experience (formerly, the "soul") to a basis in a physical theory must be.
As theologian Paul Tillich (apparently; I've seen this attributed to others) said to atheists: "Tell me the God you don't believe in, and I probably don't believe in that God either".
So to me, people like P Z Myers and Richard Dawkins who celebrate atheism are celebrating a naivetee as severe as that of the people they criticize for believing literally in implausible miracles. Tangling up religion with superstition is unfortunate, but perhaps inevitable. Most people are not going to be philosophers. But dismissing it is equally unfortunate, leaving the poor adherent of the shallow materialism with no vehicle for spiritual development.
So first and foremost, atheists are very much the wrong people to go after superstition. That is because they don;t understand that there is a baby in among the bathwater. When we allow them to associate their "philosophy" (I use the word loosely because it's a rather shallow philosophy) with science, that serves to discredit science not only among the superstitious but also among the spiritual. It does no good to start to address people's superstitions by attacking God as chief among them.
I started this blog just as Nisbett and Mooney got their paper about "framing" into Science. See also their Washington Post op-ed:
Leave aside for a moment the validity of Dawkins's arguments against religion. The fact remains: The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his advocacy of evolution and his atheism. More than 80 percent of Americans believe in God, after all, and many fear that teaching evolution in our schools could undermine the belief system they consider the foundation of morality. Dawkins not only reinforces and validates such fears -- baseless though they may be -- but lends them an exclamation point.I guess I must have caught the zeitgeist; my first postings here preceded those arguments by just a few days. But I am now and was then convinced that they are raising the right issues.
We agree with Dawkins on evolution and admire his books, so we don't enjoy singling him out. But he stands as a particularly stark example of scientists' failure to explain hot-button issues, such as global warming and evolution, to a wary public.
Scientists excel at research; creating knowledge is their forte. But presenting this knowledge to the public is something else altogether. It's here that scientists and their allies are stumbling in our information-overloaded society -- even as scientific information itself is being yanked to center stage in high-profile debates.
I've seen some pretty negative comments about Unscientific America, and based on my first gloss of the material I expect I won't fall into that camp. I think some of the hostility has to come from Mooney's discomfort with the shallow and belligerent atheism of Myers.
In fact, I at one time wanted to be part of the SciBlogs list and managed to wangle myself an invitation. I think I was rather rude in ignoring it. After over a year the invitation remains the oldest item in my inbox. I had two complaints about SciBlogs that kept me away. Myers was one of them. (The other was their sense of design. I simply don't want to look at that color scheme every day.)
Anyway, my world view is explicitly theist and explicitly informed by the intrinsic experiential value of religious experience. In the end, if you are so foolish as to offer people a choice between love and reason, you shouldn't be astonished if they choose love.
I wasn't raised in the Christian tradition, and I find the Christian approach to religion confusing. So I'm not the person to do the outreach either.
But we can't proceed to approach the heartland culture by dismissing that part of the culture that they value most, and for perfectly good reasons: the church provides them with a foundation in community, ethics, and appreciation of life. How to approach such people with scientific reasoning is not an easy question, but you shouldn't be surprised if your attempt to trivialize what they consider most holy is not met with a forehead slap and a sheepish laugh and a "what was I thinking?"
Image: William Blake