Last year I attended a paleontology conference in Cincinnati. While I was there I attended a session on science and religion, during which a parade of people trumpeted the warm relationship between the two. Predictably, there was much bashing of the New Atheists, with Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Stenger all specifically called out by name. There was a lot of preening about how it is only clueless atheists who blur the lines between science and religion. This, remember, at a paleontology conference. The session consisted of a series of fifteen minute presentations with no Q and A’s after the individual talks. (There was a very brief Q and A after several of the talks, but it was nowhere near sufficient to address all of the dubious arguments being offered by the speakers). The participants were all invited, and it goes without saying that no atheists made the list.
In short, it was a disgusting display. I’ve been to young-Earth creationist (YEC) conferences that were more open-minded and welcoming of different viewpoints. (I really have, I am not just saying that to be flamboyant.)
The World Science Festival is going on in New York this week and it will include a panel on science and faith. There is no one on the panel representing the New Atheist viewpoint. Surprise! This has caused a bit of a dust up in the blogosphere. Representing sunshine and puppies are Jerry Coyne and Sean Carroll. Preferring darkness and obscurantism are Chad Orzel and Josh Rosenau.
I do not know if anyone unfriendly toward religion was invited to be on the panel. It seems that last year Jerry Coyne was invited, but he turned down the invitation rather than participate in an event funded by the Templeton Foundation. (I understand Jerry’s reasons for making this decision, but I wish he would have accepted the invitation.)
What I do know is that someone representing a less cozy view of the science and religion relationship should have been invited. (If it turns out that one was, then that’s great!) Here is a description of the panel:
For all their historical tensions, scientists and religious scholars from a wide variety of faiths ponder many similar questions — how did the universe begin? How might it end? What is the origin of matter, energy, and life? The modes of inquiry and standards for judging progress are, to be sure, very different. But is there a common ground to be found? ABC News’ Bill Blakemore moderates a panel that includes evolutionary geneticist Francisco Ayala, astrobiologist Paul Davies, Biblical scholar Elaine Pagels and Buddhist scholar Thupten Jinpa. These leading thinkers who come at these issues from a range of perspectives will address the evolving relationship between science and faith. (Emphasis Added)
Note the question that forms the basis for the panel. The view that there is, at best, very little common ground is well-represented among scientists and should have been represented on the panel. It makes no sense to frame your panel around a specific question and then only invite people who give the same answer to it. And when you consider that the New Atheists are almost certainly going to be bashed quite a bit, and that it is because of the success of their books that we are now seeing so many of these panels in the first place, the case for including them seems conclusive to me.
If it is asking too much to invite Jerry Coyne or PZ Myers or Richard Dawkins, why not someone like Phillip Kitcher, who is based right there in New York? He is not a fire-breather, but he wrote with great eloquence about the conflict between evolution and Christianity in his book Living With Darwin. How about Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, who has also written eloquently on this subject? Either of them would have provided some welcome balance, without any worries about them hijacking the discussion.
Both Josh and Chad point out that no young-Earth creationists were invited either. That is a specious comparison, for two obvious reasons. First, YEC has zero support among scientists, whereas the idea that there is conflict between science and faith has a great deal of support. As Sean Carroll puts it:
Nothing in principle wrong with any of [the panelists], 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.
The second difference is that YEC is so closely associated with political activities that are flatly hostile to science and science education that it would be perverse to include them in a festival that is celebrating science.
That said, I would be very curious to see a YEC invited to one of these panels. I think they have a lot of interesting things to say about the relationship between science and religion, and they certainly represent the views of millions of Americans. I nominate Kurt Wise or Todd Wood, since they are considerably more thoughtful and serious in their approach than, say, Ken Ham or John Morris.
Desperate for an argument against including a New Atheist viewpoint, Chad tries this:
Unlike Sean, though, I think there’s a reasonable devil’s-advocate argument to be made for having the line-up the way it is, provided the moderator handles things properly. The simple fact is that people with fixed and absolute views do not make for an interesting conversation.
Right, because it’s only New Atheists that have fixed and absolute viewpoints. When someone like Francisco Ayala writes,
I contend that both — scientists denying religion and believers rejecting science — are wrong. Science and religious beliefs need not be in contradiction. If they are properly understood, they cannot be in contradiction because science and religion concern different matters.
there is nothing fixed or absolute in his views? To declare bluntly that any conception of the science and religious dispute different from his own is an improper (as opposed to merely different) view is every bit as absolute as anything the New Atheists say.
Chad tries one more gambit:
In the end, I’m not convinced you need anyone on the panel to make the case that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. That idea is out there, coming from both sides of the science-religion split (and you’ll notice they don’t have any young-earth creationists on the panel, either). The interesting subject of conversation is not so much the absolute compatibility or not of science and religion — given that neither side is really going to budge on that — but rather how it is that religious scientists reconcile the supposedly incompatible sides of the issue.
This is mostly specious. The idea that science and religion are compatible is very much “out there”. It is not some fringe position no one has ever heard of, especially among people attending something called “The World Science Festival.” Furthermore, the point of the panel is not to change the minds of the panelists. It is to give a clear airing of the different viewpoints to an audience consisting of people who probably have not thought about this issue as thoroughly as the panelists.
There’s some potential for interesting personal stories and psychological depth there– how do you maintain faith while practicing science when both religious extremists and other scientists are saying that’s impossible? That’s presumably what they’re aiming for with the panel, and given competent moderation, they could get something a lot more interesting out of that than they could by putting a militant atheist or a Biblical literalist on the panel.
I am all in favor of psychological depth, but why is it only the perspectives of religious scientists that are psychologically interesting? How about the perspectives of people who are atheists in a society that overwhelmingly frowns upon that view? How about the balancing act required of those of us who are atheists but who teach in parts of the country that are culturally very religious? That sounds plenty interesting to me.
Josh’s arguments are even sillier:
The premise of a panel on “the relationship between science and faith” is, after all, that there is a relationship. Putting Richard Dawkins on that panel turns it into a debate, not a discussion.
What a load of crap. First, Richard Dawkins does think there is a relationship between science and faith. The relationship is that the former corrodes the latter. Second, it’s still a discussion even when not all of the panelists agree. I would think it makes for a far more interesting discussion, in fact.
Someone like Dawkins would stop the World Science Festival panel cold. The whole point Affirmative Atheists are making is that there is no dialogue to be had. Which means that the panel would descend into a metaconversation about whether there should even be conversations like the one they were supposed to be having. And that wouldn’t inform anyone.
This is more crap. Dawkins has been in many such situations, and he is always a model of decorum. I don’t think people like Ayala, Pagels and Davies (I’m not familiar with Jinpa) would have any trouble at all staying on point in such a forum, and I very much doubt that the conversation would be anything but cordial and informative. Frankly, I doubt even including Christopher Hitchens on the panel (who is much more confrontational and acerbic that Dawkins) would derail the discussion in the manner Josh fears. Josh does not help his case by comparing Dawkins to outright cranks like Hugh Ross or Rupert Sheldrake (who have apparently highjacked panel discussions in the way Josh fears). That he would make so ridiculous a comparison only shows the depth of his contempt for the New Atheists.
This has nothing to do with any high-minded desire to minimize the heat/light ratio. This is about Chad and Josh not liking the sorts of things New Atheists say and therefore wanting their viewpoint marginalized. That is all.