"A Nation of Cowards": Science and Religion

Reality BaseBy Adam FrankFeb 19, 2008 10:56 PM


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Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

I grew up in particularly ratty part of North Jersey. The population was the usual American hodgepodge: Italian, Irish, Polish, African American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican. It was a tough place with a kind of democracy of animosity. In general, everybody was looking to pound the other guy if the opportunity presented itself. Still, I was regularly amazed at the strange friendships that would pop up. “Lippy,” the Italian-Irish small time hood who was a regular at Guys and Dolls Pool Hall, was best friends with a bunch of Puerto Ricans from the other side of town. Nobody got it. Normally these guys would have been at each other’s throats, but somehow it worked. Sometimes people just manage to find each other in the midst of the general warfare and chaos. Which leads me to the Attorney General of the United States. Yesterday, Attorney General Holder made the rather stunning comment that we Americans are a “nation of cowards” when it comes to the discussion of race. Wow, pinch me. Was that a U.S. politician telling us the truth? I wasn’t sure that could happen. That is certainly change we can use. Holder talked about the need for "very legitimate debate…that can and should be nuanced, principled and spirited." He also made an observation that relates to discussion of science and spiritual endeavor (you can read this as “Religion” if you want, but clearly I am not interested in institutional politics). Holder said, “the conversation we now engage in as a nation on this and other racial subjects is too often simplistic, and left to those on the extremes.” This seems pretty relevant to our topic. Left to the extremes, we get the bullies in Arkansas trying to outlaw atheists holding office, or the I.D. enthusiasts banning evolution from being taught in schools. Left to extremes, we get the silly (though somewhat humorous) bus-ad war going on in Britain. I am all for calling a spade a spade, and intolerance must be dealt with squarely. But the extremes force out the possibility of difficult and nuanced discussion. It’s exactly that discussion that might challenge us to think more deeply about what any honest and authentic search for truth looks like. I love science, and am deeply interested in where it comes from. I am fascinated by how it fits into the long and broad tapestry that is human being. I don’t expect to agree with many things that come from the domains of spiritual endeavor. But when we are all at our best, we have the possibility to live in accord with our lived response to the world’s beauty. At our best, that aspiration seems common, and it seems like something worth having difficult and honest conversations to achieve.

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