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’ve been wondering when the inevitable tempest would blow up in that particular teapot– the schedule has been up for a good while now, including that panel and the full line-up. I have to say, I’m not wild about the idea either, though not for exactly the same reasons as Sean.
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.
In keeping with Internet tradition, I’ll give you the Shorter version of the panel Sean would prefer:
ATHEIST SCIENTIST: Science and religion are totally incompatible.
RELIGIOUS SCIENTIST: Are not.
ATHEIST SCIENTIST: Are too.
RELIGIOUS SCIENTIST: Are not.
MODERATOR: G’night everybody!
I’m being snide, but really, there’s not much you can do with that. I mean, it’s great fun if you’re on the Internet or in elementary school, but the World Science Festival is aiming for something a little more high-toned. (They have, after all, had the good taste to schedule me for a book signing for How to Teach Physics to Your Dog…)
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. 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. Really, the only reason to have a militant atheist or a Biblical literalist on the panel is as a hedge against incompetent moderation.
(I know nothing about the actual moderator chosen for the panel, Bill Blakemore, and how he would handle such a panel. I hope he does a good job, for the sake of the people in the audience (it’s sold out, by the way).)