The World Science (and Faith) Festival

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollJun 1, 2010 8:25 PM


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I have to agree with Jerry Coyne here: the program on Faith and Science at this year's World Science Festival is a mistake. I went to last year's Festival, and I have great respect for Brian Greene and Tracy Day for bringing together such a massive undertaking. It would be better if they didn't take money from the Templeton Foundation, but money has to come from somewhere, and I'm not the one paying the bills. I don't even mind having a panel that talks about religion -- it's a big part of many people's lives, and there are plenty of issues to be discussed at the intersection of science and religion.

But it would be a lot more intellectually respectable to present a balanced discussion of those issues, rather than the one that is actually lined up. The panelists include two scientists who are Templeton Prize winners -- Francisco Ayala and Paul Davies -- as well as two scholars of religion -- Elaine Pagels and Thupten Jinpa. Nothing in principle wrong with any of those people, but there is a somewhat obvious omission of a certain viewpoint: those of us who think that science and religion are not compatible. And there are a lot of us! Also, we're right. A panel like this does a true disservice to people who are curious about these questions and could benefit from a rigorous airing of the issues, rather than a whitewash where everyone mumbles pleasantly about how we should all just get along.

I'm not as much of an anti-Templeton fundamentalist as some people are; I won't take money from them, but I will cooperate with institutions and organizations that do take money from them, even as I grumble about it. (Money laundering as the route to moral purity.) But this event is a perfect example of the ultimately pernicious influence that Templeton has. I disagree with Jerry and others who consider Templeton money a "bribe" to people who are willing to go along with their party line; I have no doubt that Ayala, Davies, Pagels and Jinpa will express only views that they sincerely hold and would still hold in the absence of any monetary reward. What Templeton does is that it hands people with those views a giant megaphone. Francisco Ayala is a respected scientist who happens to believe that science and religion complement each other rather than coming into conflict; that's fine, although somewhat unremarkable. But then he wins the Templeton Prize, and that exact same opinion gets plastered all over the media.

(Update: upon reflection, I don't know what the process was by which the event was organized, and I shouldn't cast dark aspersions in the absence of evidence. My real point is that I don't think that the panel should have happened the way it did, and I don't want to detract from that.) Plenty of science festivals and museums seem to get along perfectly well without discussing religion at all. And if you did want to discuss it, there's no way that an honest investigation into how scientists feel about religion would end up leaving out some fully committed atheists who would be pretty uncompromising towards belief.

Four hundred years after Galileo turned his telescope on the heavens, it's incredibly frustrating that we still have debates over whether the world can be described in purely naturalistic terms, rather than accepting that insight as an amazing accomplishment and moving on to the hard work of articulating its consequences. It's a shame that the World Science Festival is helping to keep us back, rather than moving us forward.

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