Report: AAAS panel on science and faith

As I predicted yesterday, the AAAS panel on science and faith turned out to be a warm, snuggly love-fest between the magisteria, with scientists and preachers united against those awful damned New Atheists. I’m sure that the Templeton Foundation, which funded this discussion, is licking its chops in glee.  Inside Higher Ed reports what the panelists said:

Jennifer Wiseman, astrophysicist and Christian:

Speaking to a crowd of scientists, she said that the disciplines of science and religion have a lot to learn from one another .

. . . Wiseman said it is incumbent on members of the scientific community to reach out to “the people who reach people,” or religious leaders.

William Phillips, Methodist and Nobel-winning physicist:

Facilitating such a conversation, however, is no easy task. Some of the scientists on hand to welcome Wiseman as head of the program noted that misconceptions about their general faith, or lack thereof, often go unchallenged. The stereotype that all scientists are atheists, they argue, hinders dialogue.

“There are plenty of scientists who have no problem being serious about their science and serious about their religion,” said William Phillips, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at the University of Maryland’s Joint Quantum Institute, and an active member of the United Methodist Church. “If DoSER [the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion] can get that message out, then that’s a good start.”

This issue took center stage last year when Francis S. Collins was named the new head of the National Institutes of Health. Some in the scientific community took issue with Collins’s open profession of his faith and belief in God.

Phillips described this as little more than name-calling, noting his disgust that some of his fellow scientists would consider someone unfit to lead an organization like the NIH purely because of his or her belief in God. He countered that those who protested Collins’s appointment “obviously” had not met him or did not know his work.

Howard Smith, astrophysicist and “observant Jew”:

Other scientists on hand for Wiseman’s introduction took aim at “new atheism” – a more provocative brand of non-belief that takes aim at religious beliefs and whose rise is often associated with the works of scientists like Richard Dawkins and thinkers like Christopher Hitchens. They argued that these individuals make civil discourse between science and religion nearly impossible.

Howard Smith, senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a self-described observant Jew, defended the compatibility of his faith and scientific inquiry against attacks from “new atheists.”

“I strongly object to the notion that I need to compartmentalize my life,” he said. “I do not have the absolute answers to science or religion.… I’m not religious because I’m ignorant. I’m religious because I’m in awe.”

David Anderson, pastor:

David Anderson, pastor of Bridgeway Community Church, in Columbia, Md., told the roomful of scientists, that “comprehension begins with conversation.” Anderson, who also anchors a popular daily talk show on a local Christian radio station, said that “it is hard to demonize one another,” as scientists and religious leaders, when they come together for face-to-face dialogue.

Sadly, the problem is not one of demonization.  It is, I fear, a problem of conflicting methods and outcomes.

41 Comments

  1. Wowbagger
    Posted June 18, 2010 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    Speaking to a crowd of scientists, she said that the disciplines of science and religion have a lot to learn from one another.

    I don’t understand what Wiseman can possibly mean by this. What, precisely, can science learn from religion?

    All religion has to offer is exactly what the methodology within science is intended to counter: tribalism, dogmatism, obfuscation, intellectual dishonesty and sophistry.

    Really, all religion can offer science is a lesson on what not to do.

    • Posted June 18, 2010 at 7:12 am | Permalink

      Agreed, what she really means is that proponents of science can pretend that religion teaches anything worth knowing because that is what the faith-heads demand.

      • Sigmund
        Posted June 18, 2010 at 7:20 am | Permalink

        Maybe she means things like fund-raising, tax-avoidance, political influence, media manipulation, encouraging undeserved deference and learning how to get the best deal on rent-boys who can ‘help you with your luggage’.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted June 18, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      Maybe she wants the Auto de fé back.
      or
      “Murder them and treat them harshly” (Koran 9:123)
      or
      You should not let a sorceress live. (Exodus 22:17)
      or
      They entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and soul; and everyone who would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, was to be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman. (2 Chronicles 15:12-13)
      or
      “So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds. (Revelation 2:22-23)

      These represent religion, do they not? Are these the lessons religion teaches science?

    • Jackson
      Posted June 18, 2010 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

      over on CFI forums it was explained that Wiseman is the president of an “evangelical science” organization ASA http://www.asa3.org/. She is listed as a plenary speaker in the brochure for the 2010 annual meeting as “Astronomer and ASA President, 2010″

      This whole topic seems strange.

    • Posted June 19, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      Doesn’t that also violate NOMA?

  2. J.J.E.
    Posted June 18, 2010 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Can we not prevail upon the AAAS to hold a panel and this time bring in a different perspective? I suspect that many scientists would be willing to explore the topic from the unpopular perspective of incompatibility.

  3. Matt Penfold
    Posted June 18, 2010 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Phillips described this as little more than name-calling, noting his disgust that some of his fellow scientists would consider someone unfit to lead an organization like the NIH purely because of his or her belief in God. He countered that those who protested Collins’s appointment “obviously” had not met him or did not know his work.

    I am not aware of anyone who opposed Collin’s appointment purely because of his belief in god. Why did Philips feel the need to lie about this ?

    • Janet Holmes
      Posted June 18, 2010 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

      It’s just a habit the religious have got into over the centuries. Lying I mean.

      • Microraptor
        Posted June 19, 2010 at 12:37 am | Permalink

        That, and there’s some sort of ingrained persecution complex for Christianity. You know, it’s really tough when you live in a country where roughly 80% of the population shares the same general religion as you.

  4. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted June 18, 2010 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    I wouldn’t describe it as much as a “warm, snuggly love-fest” as a reason to hurl; and I note that there is much hate in that purported “love”:

    They argued that these individuals make civil discourse between science and religion nearly impossible.

    Quite a feat for a party set not to “demonize one another” by “face-to-face dialogue”.

    Dawkins is, by my observation, the very paragon of civilized discourse. This _is_ little more than name-calling, and those who protests him must not have met him or know his work!

    After these preliminaries, the main course:

    This issue took center stage last year when Francis S. Collins was named the new head of the National Institutes of Health. Some in the scientific community took issue with Collins’s open profession of his faith and belief in God.

    Phillips described this as little more than name-calling, noting his disgust that some of his fellow scientists would consider someone unfit to lead an organization like the NIH purely because of his or her belief in God. He countered that those who protested Collins’s appointment “obviously” had not met him or did not know his work.

    Phillips is dishonest. No one did to my knowledge, or soundly can, take issue with Collins’ religion or his profession of it.

    What scientists and others do have problem with is his shown predilection of using of chairs of science for supporting his religion in public. We are mainly referring to the embarrassment called BioLogos.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted June 18, 2010 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      Ahh, I mirrored so much else in those quotes, so I couldn’t and I shouldn’t but I will:

      Phillips is _disgustingly_ dishonest.

      [Yes, really.]

  5. Kevin
    Posted June 18, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Re: Howard Smith being “in awe”….

    Asshole. Just because we KNOW what causes the sun to shine, that does NOT mean atheists can’t be in awe of a sunset.

    Accommodate THAT [raises hand in middle-finger salute].

    If we were a rational species, all religions everywhere should have died the instant it was determined that our sun was a star and the other stars are suns.

    “Oh, we’re not so special after all? Well, there goes the entire basis of every religion ever invented, then. So sorry. Keep that 10% of your income for better uses.”

    • Tulse
      Posted June 18, 2010 at 9:33 am | Permalink

      I find it profoundly awe-inspiring to realize that we are literally bits of stardust that have accreted in what is otherwise trillions of cubic lightyears of largely empty space at 3 Kelvin. That to me is far more impressive than some sky-daddy putting us together.

      • Kevin
        Posted June 18, 2010 at 10:16 am | Permalink

        And not only that, but that we’re the result of the birth and death of three other generations of stars!

        That is AWESOME. Mind-bogglingly AWESOME.

        And Smith would just piss that away with the most simplistic non-explanation of it ever conceived.

        Ooooo, some anthropomorphic supernatural entity poofed it into existence with magic thoughts so that humans could come into existence for the purpose of worshiping the aforementioned supernatural entity (why?) forever and ever. Amen.

        Bleh. Get a grip.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted June 18, 2010 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        And in fact that diluted high-entropic photon gas is exactly what we would expect if there were no gods among the awesomeness that is the universe.

        Now if AAAS was actually interested in public debate and science, a href=”http://arxiv.org/abs/1004.5009v1″>there is research that they can study>/a>:

        The underlying key mechanism of these puzzling and unfortunate conclusions are identified using the Galam sequential probabilistic model of opinion dynamics. It reveals that the existence of inflexible agents and their respective proportions are the instrumental parameters to determine the faith of incomplete scientific data public debates. Acting on one’s own inflexible proportion modifies the topology of the flow diagram, which in turn can make irrelevant initial supports. On the contrary focusing on open-minded agents may be useless given some topologies. When the evidence is not as strong as claimed, the inflexibles rather than the data are found to drive the opinion of the population. The results shed a new but disturbing light on designing adequate strategies to win a public debate. [My bold]

        So, since according to accommodationist thinking there is no evidence to the contrary against religion but more specifically to their belief of compatibility, they should rightly not be “focusing on open-minded agents” but to attract, support and level “the inflexibles” (well) to drive opinion. [Disclaimer: I haven't read that paper yet. I'm browsing it now, and the frame is one of evolution & AGW denial crackpotism. That doesn't make the results false, however.]

        • Janet Holmes
          Posted June 18, 2010 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

          I have read the paper you have linked to,(skipped the maths,sry) very interesting. It states that if you can’t frame your position with certainty you will lose the public opinion war. Therefore you need to overstate your case rather being cautious, which the public interprets as ambiguity which they don’t like. If you want to win a public argument you need confidence and clarity.

          This may be why the faitheists and religious get so upset when they are argued with in the manner that Hitchens et al use, it is far more likely to win the battle for public opinion! Being wishy washy and attaching a dozen qualifiers to each statement loses the battle, stating clearly and inflexibly what your position is is more likely to win the battle. So much for ‘playing nice’ if you do, you lose.

          • Sigmund
            Posted June 19, 2010 at 3:05 am | Permalink

            That is an excellent point Janet. Hitchens approach forces the religious to try to justify their beliefs in isolation rather than compare them to other beliefs (with all the potential for waffle that that entails). His technique seems to have the aim of illuminating the fact that, contrary to what they frequently publicly claim, religious teachings have no justifiable rational basis. For atheists this point is fairly obvious but it is not for most believers and that seems to be why Hitchens approach is so feared.

      • Microraptor
        Posted June 19, 2010 at 12:41 am | Permalink

        Indeed. I find it far more mindblowing that 3.8 billion years worth of completely unguided natural selection eventually resulted in a species with the capacity to wonder where it came from than to think that there’s some sort of invisible, undetectable being with a master plan that created everything just so.

    • Neil
      Posted June 18, 2010 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      I personally am awed that there are scientists who can believe that superstition and science are compatible.

    • SLC
      Posted June 18, 2010 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      Prof. Smith is also into Jewish mysticism having written a book purporting to describe relationships between cosmology and the Kaballah. This notion appears to have attracted the attention of certain nominally Christian Hollywood types like the singer/actress Madonna.

  6. Silver
    Posted June 18, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    I have to laugh at someone who believes that his imaginary friend is going to torture me for eternity – and then blames me for not wanting to have a civil conversation.

  7. Insightful Ape
    Posted June 18, 2010 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Yeah, I am sure our troll V will be gleeful.
    Incidentally can anyone name one thing that science had to learn from religion? I have no difficult naming quite a few things that religion has had to learn from science, but that seems to be a one way street.

    • littlejohn
      Posted June 18, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      Actually, religion does have one very important thing to teach science: How to sell the product. Let’s admit it, they’re much better at it than we are. Unfortunately, it seems to involve lying.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted June 18, 2010 at 11:04 am | Permalink

        Doesn’t 75% of all selling involve lying?

        • Andrew
          Posted June 18, 2010 at 11:13 am | Permalink

          Maybe not outright lying, but a great deal of manipulation. Lies of omission and half-truths but not so many naked lies. Fun Fact: Bill Hicks once start a bit by saying “by the way, if anyone here is in marketing or advertising, kill yourself.”

      • Insightful Ape
        Posted June 18, 2010 at 11:17 am | Permalink

        OK, there is no question that they are better salespeople than we are. But they sell a different kind of product.
        I am amazed at the way they have almost copyrighted the word “hope”. Any time I see a flyer with that word I know it is a church.
        And it is hope for something they can’t possibly deliver: everlasting life. It is consumer fraud, pure and simple. But to go back to my original point: I doubt science can learn anything from religion, unlike what people on the take from Templeton claim. And if science tries to learn this type of promotion from religion it will lose its credibility forever.

        • littlejohn
          Posted June 18, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

          Oh, come on, lying isn’t the only advantage they have.
          They have tent revivals.
          They have music – mostly shitty music – but we don’t have any.
          Their experts have uniforms – backwards collars.
          They produce better art and architecture than we do (don’t bring up the damn Hubble images – we colorize those just to make them faintly pretty).
          They’ve persuaded their followers to tithe.
          I could go on, but let’s face it – their advertising is better than ours.
          Their prize is even bigger than ours!
          Is it too much to ask that we put stained glass windows in laboratories?

          • NewEnglandBob
            Posted June 18, 2010 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

            Their experts have uniforms – backwards collars.

            You misspelled the second word. I’ve corrected it here: “perverts”.

            • littlejohn
              Posted June 18, 2010 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

              I stand corrected, sir.

        • Posted June 18, 2010 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

          Oh, I think there’s some question about the marketing talent advantage. They have habit going for them; they have tradition, and identity, and being born into. They really don’t have to do much of the marketing work themselves.

          Consider how hard it is for new religions to get more than a few followers (who have a sad tendency to immolate themselves shortly after getting together).

  8. Phillip
    Posted June 18, 2010 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    There is a fundamental difference ‘tween them an’ us. They pulled together a bunch of like minded individuals to “debate” the issue thus avoiding any conflict.

    We would have been happy to add our voices and provide a real debate.

    • littlejohn
      Posted June 18, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      No conflict? Are you high? Northern Ireland. Sri Lanka. Iraq. India. They don’t just debate, they kill each other.

      • Posted June 18, 2010 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, but no conflict on the actual panel.

        One problem we have, though, is that mamny people would feel uncomfortable taking part on such a panel if it’s funded by Templeton money. If Jerry, say, or Richard Dawkins got an invitation to take part, he’d have to think hard about it and perhaps decline. There’s a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t element to it. If you don’t, the panel ends up one-sided. But if you do, you lend your name to the whole suspect enterprise of Templeton.

        What I’d like to ask is why AAAS can’t run a panel like this using its own money and a range of people with different opinions. Doesn’t it realise that the whole thing simply loses credibility if it’s funded by Templeton? As things stand, the impression coming across is that AAAS is being manipulated by an organisation with big dollars to spend.

        • Insightful Ape
          Posted June 18, 2010 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

          Very good point. However, if Templeton were not involved, would AAAS ever care about such matters? They likely would be neutral on matters of this nature unless the funding comes from an organization that, unlike AAAS, has bottomless pockets.

        • Posted June 18, 2010 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

          That’s a very good point.

          Oi, Jerry – lean on the AAAS, get them to do that! You and yer sciencey buddies.

          • Posted June 18, 2010 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

            Damn, if I’d seen Ape’s “very good point” I wouldn’t have repeated it. Ah well.

  9. Posted June 19, 2010 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    “comprehension begins with conversation.”

    So why wasn’t there someone with a different viewpoint to have a conversation with? Don’t they have to comprehend the New Atheists as well, or is comprehension supposed to come from one side only?

  10. Posted June 19, 2010 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    “There are plenty of scientists who have no problem being serious about their science and serious about their religion,” said William Phillips.

    Yes but being serious about both isn’t the issue. The issue is doing both together. Are there plenty of scientists who have no problem using their religion to help out their science? Are there plenty of scientists who have no problem saying, when they get to a hard place, “God did it”?

    That’s the issue.

    • Wowbagger
      Posted June 19, 2010 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. The only relationship religion and science have had – other than when the religious had the power to make sure the science-types kept their blasphemous/heretical mouths shut, that is – is for science to force religion to take backward step after backward step, with the gods becoming responsible for fewer and fewer aspects of life each time.

      Hence the nebulous, hands-off god that religious scientists insist is the kind they believe in – or, at least, the kind they insist they believe in when the topic is up for debate; in reality it seems that the interventionary power of a believer’s god is inversely proportional to the number of atheists within earshot of the believer at the time.


4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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