The Sciences

Science and Religion on the Cam, Part II

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJun 10, 2010 5:33 PM


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In my last post, I mentioned that I would be addressing some criticisms of the Templeton-Cambridge fellowship. There is, for instance, the take of former fellow John Horgan, which is widely cited and certainly critical (although it also acknowledges the value of the fellowship--which, after all, Horgan applied for and accepted). Among other things, Horgan writes the following:

My ambivalence about the foundation came to a head during my fellowship in Cambridge last summer. The British biologist Richard Dawkins, whose participation in the meeting helped convince me and other fellows of its legitimacy, was the only speaker who denounced religious beliefs as incompatible with science, irrational, and harmful. The other speakers— three agnostics, one Jew, a deist, and 12 Christians (a Muslim philosopher canceled at the last minute)— offered a perspective clearly skewed in favor of religion and Christianity.

First, I do not agree that I have heard skewed perspectives here. I don't think any of the talks during the past two weeks could be said to have delivered arguments "in favor of religion and Christianity." If anything, some of them--a presentation by Petr Granqvist

that interpreted religion from the viewpoint of "attachment theory

," suggesting it might merely fulfill a psychological need from childhood; or a presentation by Kathleen Taylor

on morality, which gave an evolutionary view that deeply undermined the workability of religious moral systems--could be taken as quite corrosive to traditional religion. Yesterday, meanwhile, we heard from Robin Le Poidevin, a philosopher who is the author of (that's right) Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion

. And we heard from Dame Gillian Beer

, who has written with tremendous insight about the relationship between Darwin and literature (including the literary aspects of The Origin of Species) but whose talk was not really about religion at all, and certainly not about promoting either Christianity or atheism. So to claim this fellowship is some kind of religious Trojan horse strikes me as pretty untenable. To be sure, most of the speakers presenting to us here haven't been atheists, so far as I can tell. But all have spoken in a scholarly fashion, presenting expert takes on their respective fields. None have been preaching. I get the strong sense--and after all, this is Cambridge, a scholarly environment--that to do so would be deemed quite unseemly and inappropriate. But let's go on to the other aspect of Horgan's point. When it comes to the modern conflict between religion and atheism--which, I must emphasize, comprises only one part of the broader subject of "science and religion"--I fully agree that journalists should hear both sides of this issue. Indeed, I get the sense that from the Templeton perspective, that's a no brainer. After all, Dawkins himself came to speak here and present his arguments during Horgan's fellowship year (an experience Dawkins relates in The God Delusion

). It sounds like he got into some fantastic debates, and that he vigorously disagreed with lots of folks--which, after all, is precisely what is supposed to happen in a university setting. But since then, the New Atheist approach appears to have changed. New Atheists like Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and A.C. Grayling have taken to

slamming the fellowship and (apparently) refusing to cooperate or participate. Dawkins reports that he was invited back the next year, and declined to come. But here's the problem: You can't both denounce the fellowship for being intellectually tilted and also boycott it, thereby refusing to help lend it more of the balance you claim it needs.

* * * * *

Of course, these New Atheists do present an argument for their stance. To quote Daniel C. Dennett


Many years ago I made the mistake of participating, with some very good scientists, in a conference that pitted us against astrologers and other new age fakes. I learned to my dismay that even though we thoroughly dismantled the opposition, many in the audience ended up, paradoxically, with an increased esteem for astrologers! As one person explained to me, "I figured that if you scientists were willing to work this hard to refute it, there must be something to it!" Isn't it obvious to you that the Templeton Foundation is eager to create the very same response in its readers? Do you really feel comfortable being complicit with that project?

Dennett is suggesting that he doesn't want to lend credibility, through his participation, to views that are intellectually equivalent to astrology. But I haven't heard any such views here. It would be one thing if the Templeton Fellowship were involved in undermining real, established science in some way. But it isn't. There is no creationism to be found here in the Cambridge program. There is no climate denial (quite the opposite, in fact; one of the directors of the program, Royal Society fellow Sir Brian Heap

, is a biologist who is very concerned about climate change). And last I checked, the University of Cambridge does not have an astrology department. So it seems to me that whatever issue one may have with this fellowship, it can't really be about the betrayal of science. Rather, it seems to be about whether to engage in dialogue and debate with those who have religious beliefs but also accept cutting edge research--and indeed, may be scientists themselves. And I really do not understand why there could be a problem with atheists engaging with religious scientists like Alasdair Coles

(religion and the brain) or John Barrow

(cosmology), any more than with Francis Collins or Kenneth Miller. Granted, there is also the matter of theology, which does have some presence in the Templeton Cambridge program. As mentioned in the last post

, I feel much as the New Atheists do towards this field. It is hard for me to see how it can possibly achieve the kind of universal knowledge that science offers. In a sense, it is inherently sectarian, and inherently dependent upon taking various ancient religious texts as if they are in some sense true (a leap an atheist is never going to be able to make, for it is essentially an argument from authority). But that doesn't make theology absolutely worthless, because even if you don't accept the premises, the field does feature rigorous attempts to clarify and explicate religious views and doctrines--views and doctrines embraced by much or most of humanity. We need to understand these views, if only because they are so prevalent. And as atheists, shouldn't we want religious arguments to have their most articulate and nuanced presentation before we reject them? Academic theology is valuable for these reasons, and worth at least listening to and understanding.

* * * * *

On the journalistic side, meanwhile, there are also a few points to make about what is happening here. First, I don't know what the New Atheists gain by slamming a journalistic fellowship, or how it helps get their word out. But I doubt they are inclined to take media advice from me. Also on the journalistic front, it is important to note that the work which emerges from this fellowship is not editorially controlled in any way. We are not required to reach particular positions or defend particular views. The idea is merely to get a chance, which one might not have otherwise, to study one or more aspects of the science and religion question in an academic context--and then write about them. To be sure, the fellowship certainly helps to generate more journalism about science and religion than might exist otherwise. But I would say that more journalism on this subject is a good thing, given the vast misunderstandings and tensions around the issue. (Most of this journalism, once again, will not be directly about the New Atheist/reconciliationist divide. The topic of science and religion is far broader than that.) In any event, such is my take on science and religion from Cambridge--which I have waited to compose until I'd experienced the bulk of the fellowship itself. I may have more to say, but with the last post

and now this one, I think I've pretty much covered it. I greatly enjoyed the fellowship, considered the experience very intellectually serious, and look forward to returning to Cambridge in late July for the second half.

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