The Sciences

Science and Religion Dialogue at the AAAS

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJun 21, 2010 1:38 PM


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Recently, I did a long post describing the substance of the Templeton Cambridge fellowship, and why it is valuable. Fortunately, that's not a tough argument to make. The fact is, journalism (and dialogue) about science and religion are pretty difficult to oppose. Case in point: Last week, here in D.C. (my old, new home), I attended an event at the American Association for the Advancement of Science to reintroduce its Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER), which now has a new infusion of energy and a new director, Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, formerly of NASA and an astrophysicist with a special expertise in the study of exoplanets. Yes, that's right: America's leading scientific society has created a program to foster more dialogue between science and religion--and of course, considers that to be a very good thing. (Note: My understanding is that at present, significant funding of this initiative comes from Templeton.) AAAS CEO Alan Leshner has more to say about DoSER in a recent piece over at Huffington Post entitled, appropriately, "Science, Religion, and Civil Dialogue." As Leshner writes, the idea is to find new ways to bring science and religion into a humble, nonjudgmental dialogue, and break down the barriers between the two. It is not to drive toward a particular conclusion. At the AAAS event last week, several memorable presenters--including William Phillips, a 1997 Nobel Laureate in Physics who happens to be a Methodist, and David Anderson, the Founder and Lead Pastor of Bridgeway Community Church, and author of Gracism: The Art of Inclusion--gave talks about how to help science and religion get along better. At the close of the session, I rose and posed a question. One can never remember exact words, but in essence, it was this: "I'm glad you're trying to foster dialogue between scientists and the religious community, and I'm sure you'll succeed. But here is a harder question--how will you foster dialogue with the New Atheists?" Phillips, the Methodist Nobel Laureate, had a very interesting answer. He essentially replied that if the New Atheists would get to know serious religious people--people who do not in any way represent the parody version of religion that is so frequently attacked--they could no longer maintain their point of view. I'm not so sure, though. I think the New Atheists have a ready and built-in answer to this appeal to the significance of so-called "religious moderates." They claim--in an argument that I for one find weak--that the moderates enable extremists, and so are part of the problem. (Even, I suppose, if they are perfectly lovely human beings.) Still, surely the New Atheists must on some level recognize the critical importance religion plays in many people's lives--which implies that we can hardly expect believers to discard their faith based on philosophical considerations, no matter how persuasive these may seem to many secularists or scientists. At the AAAS event, the pastor David Anderson told an unforgettable story underscoring this point--the story of a single mother who just lost her husband, and has two poorly behaved kids, disciplinary problems who keep getting in trouble at school. Does this woman care about the latest scientific discoveries about, say, asteroids? No, explained Anderson, "because an asteroid has just hit her family." Science, alone, is no consolation in this context. Religion gives this single mother something she can lean on. Religion, explained Anderson, provides one with inspiration, whereas science provides information (and science fiction provides entertainment). So how do you get into true dialogue with religious believers when you're coming from the scientific perspective? Once again, Anderson had an answer. He said his church would certainly welcome scientists who wanted to come and visit, and talk to the attendees--and added that many churches, and many pastors, feel the same way. But, Anderson added, that will not be the case if the scientists show up wanting to convert, or deconvert, or debunk, or whatever. Or if they give off an air of superiority, the sense that they are smarter than everybody else. That won't fly. It will shut down dialogue, rather than encouraging it. It is not only in the science-religion context, of course, that humility is called for, and where superiority is counterproductive. The same is true of any dialogue, almost by definition. But again, that shouldn't be a problem for science--is not the scientific method itself fundamentally based on a kind of humility before nature?

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