Extremists Aren’t Interesting

Sean Carroll is miffed about a science-and-religion panel at the World Science Festival:

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).)

Comments

  1. #1 vera
    June 2, 2010

    Well said. Pitting two extremist sides against each other is getting damn old.

  2. #2 Tom
    June 2, 2010

    Thank you for a fair and well-balanced post on this issue. I certainly get sick of the extremists on both sides always yelling and playing the ideologue. If you haven’t yet, check out Boyer and Atran on religious belief; good reads, both.

  3. #3 Paulino
    June 2, 2010

    And the short version of the debate at WSF

    RELIGIOUS SCIENTIST: Religion and science are sooo compatible.

    RELIGIOUS SCHOLAR: Yes they are. They are just NOMAs.

    RELIGIOUS SCIENTIST: Absolutely!

    RELIGIOUS SCHOLAR: So true…

    RELIGIOUS SCIENTIST: Sure…

    RELIGIOUS SCHOLAR: Yeah…

    MODERATOR: Oh Joy! G’night everybody!

    ;)

  4. #4 Joseph Smidt
    June 2, 2010

    I did want to see the “science and religion are incompatible” view expressed in fairness, but you raise an interesting point. Two extremists fixed to their opposite views is not nearly as intellectually stimulating as discussing all the nuances of these issues.

  5. #5 Dave W.
    June 2, 2010

    “…how do you maintain faith while practicing science when both religious extremists and other scientists are saying that’s impossible?”

    I know of no scientists who are saying that that’s impossible. They all seem well aware that compartmentalization works, even in the face of obvious philosophical incompatibilities. Scientists maintain their faith by not applying the same critical thought to it as they would to any other hypothesis.

  6. #6 Glendon Mellow
    June 2, 2010

    I’m not convinced. “Extremists” can be interesting. There are many interesting -and not widely known- reasons why many atheists find religion and science incompatible.

    In between all those are-not-are-too’s are insights into why people hold each of those positions.

  7. #7 benjdm
    June 2, 2010

    The simple fact is that people with fixed and absolute views do not make for an interesting conversation.

    The people that are on the panel have views as ‘fixed and absolute’ as any of the anti-accomodationists.

  8. #8 mdiehl
    June 2, 2010

    In some disciplines, a second conference panel expressing the opposing views would be perfectly acceptable.

    Mentioned recently in Science Blogs select . . . Elaine Howard Eckland’s _Science v Religion: What Scientists Really Think_, see: http://www.amazon.com/Science-Religion-Scientists-Really-Think/dp/0195392981/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1275492752&sr=1-1

  9. #9 Chris Granade
    June 2, 2010

    While I generally love your blog and writings in general, I have to take issue with something here. If no-nonsense atheists (to borrow a description applied to Dawkins by Channel 4) are seen as “extremists,” it’s only because the conversation has been shifted so far into the religious spectrum. Using that label begs a kind of false equivalence between the anti-accomodationist position and the fundamentalist position.

    When atheists such as myself take positions on the “incompatible” end of the spectrum, we may in fact be wrong in our thinking, and thus our positions are open to debate. That said, we at least attempt to be rational and reasoned in our approach, which stands in diametric opposition to those often cast as our equivalents on the other side. For instance, Biblical literalism cannot be seen as the result of a rational and reasoned approach to any particular issue. Though I disagree with NOMA and other such arguments, I can respect that, like my own arguments, they arise from a good faith attempt at rationalism.

    Thus, I completely disagree with the implicit characterization of the “incompatible” view as “extremist” and “militant” without any further qualification to separate those terms from how they are typically used to describe fundamentalists, literalists, YECs and others.

  10. #10 Chris Granade
    June 2, 2010

    While I generally love your blog and writings in general, I have to take issue with something here. If no-nonsense atheists (to borrow a description applied to Dawkins by Channel 4) are seen as “extremists,” it’s only because the conversation has been shifted so far into the religious spectrum. Using that label begs a kind of false equivalence between the anti-accomodationist position and the fundamentalist position.

    When atheists such as myself take positions on the “incompatible” end of the spectrum, we may in fact be wrong in our thinking, and thus our positions are open to debate. That said, we at least attempt to be rational and reasoned in our approach, which stands in diametric opposition to those often cast as our equivalents on the other side. For instance, Biblical literalism cannot be seen as the result of a rational and reasoned approach to any particular issue. Though I disagree with NOMA and other such arguments, I can respect that, like my own arguments, they arise from a good faith attempt at rationalism.

    Thus, I completely disagree with the implicit characterization of the “incompatible” view as “extremist” and “militant” without any further qualification to separate those terms from how they are typically used to describe fundamentalists, literalists, YECs and others.

  11. #11 Eric Lund
    June 2, 2010

    I also don’t think “extremist” is quite the right word here. In one sense, asserting that science and religion are incompatible is extreme: you cannot go farther in that direction without wandering into Godwin territory. OTOH, there are some Biblical literalists who do wander into Godwin territory, and these people are properly labeled as extremist.

    The problem here is the Overton window. At least in large parts of the US, it is socially unacceptable to be an unbeliever. If you have any doubts, check out the posts Ed Brayton has written about various unsuccessful attempts to get pro-atheist ads on public buses. It is, however, perfectly acceptable to take your religion far too seriously, at least if it’s the right kind of religion. This problem has gotten much worse over my lifetime; I can remember when being a holy roller (as opposed to someone who was quietly religious, or someone merely going through the motions) actually would get you laughed out of polite society. Since then the fundies have taken over the Republican party (this is why my mother is no longer a Republican).

  12. #12 Benjamin Franz
    June 2, 2010

    I am reminded of the CNN panel about “Why do atheists inspire such hatred?”. It didn’t have any atheists on the panel and ended with the majority of the panel telling atheists to “shut up” (in exactly those words).

    http://freethoughtweekly.blogspot.com/2007/02/majority-of-cnn-panel-concludes-that.html

    :/

  13. #13 Jason A.
    June 2, 2010

    And the reason the debate stays at a low level is because the accommodationist side consistently refuses to acknowledge the actual argument the atheists are trying to make by conflating trivial psychological compatibility (compartmentalization) with epistemic compatibility.
    So the solution is to leave the atheists out and let the accomodationists, the ones who have shown their commitment to characterizing the other side with strawmen and using other dishonest tactics, have the run of the forum? Some thing doesn’t seem right about that…

  14. #14 Mark P
    June 2, 2010

    I think Dave W. hits it: compartmentalization. Scientists can be religious because they are not scientists when they are religious, and they are not religious when they are scientists.

  15. #15 Ewan
    June 2, 2010

    Just to get this straight, only people who don’t think there’s a ‘compatibility’ are dogmatic, set-in-their-ways extremists? Whereas those who believe that there is are… what, exactly?

    This whole piece just seems like ill-thought-out bullying, frankly.

  16. #16 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    June 2, 2010

    Oh, come on.

    The point is: both the “science is incompatible with religion” atheists and the “science is compatible with religion” theists are completely set in their ways. Any debate between them is going to end up with “Is too, is not, is too, is not”. Every atheist who’s been around the block has heard all of arguments for why they’re compatible; likewise, every theist has heard all of the arguments about why they’re not. Nothing new or interesting is going to come out by having them just repeat their arguments to each other.

    Interesting discussions are always based on some amount of common ground. You can have an interesting discussion within one of the camps. You can have an interesting discussion within an incompatibility group about why and/or how scientists feel the need to compartmentalize in order to keep their religion. You can have a discussion within a compatibility group about how they reconcile the two, and why they think that they don’t conflict. But when you take a group of devout theists who are absolutely certain that there is a god, and that therefore their religion is compatible with science on the one hand; and a group of confident atheists who are equally absolutely certain that there isn’t a god, and that all religions are fundamentally incompatible with science — well, there’s no way to have a real discussion. There’s no common basis on which to have the discussion; it always comes down to a disagreement on the basic axioms.

  17. #17 Chad Orzel
    June 2, 2010

    If the argument is seriously going to be that a bunch of people whose position boils down to “You know, we can all get along” are unreasonable extremists, and a panel taking that position is a symbol of repression, then we’re so far around the bend that meaningful communication is probably impossible.

    There are two extremes in this argument, which are “Science and religion are incompatible; only science is acceptable” and “Science and religion are incompatible; only religion is acceptable.” The people on this panel are squishy moderates. Advocating peaceful coexistence is not an extreme stance, at least not in the universe I inhabit.

  18. #18 andre
    June 2, 2010

    I’m clearly biased by my non-religiousness, but:

    There’s an obvious difference between the two extremes. If a “religion-not-science” type were to present the “science-not-religion” type with evidence of their side being correct, the “science-not-religion” type would reevaluate his or her position (if they are a good scientist).

    If the opposite were true, it wouldn’t matter. New and contrary ideas are rejected out of hand.

    That being said, this idea depends on nature of the religion involved. I’m sure that there are some religions that make no solid claim on the physical world and that are irrelevant to science and scientific discourse, but those are not the religions that are important in our society.

  19. #19 Rob Knop
    June 2, 2010

    This is the key here:

    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.

    The term “extremist” has become so loaded in conversation (i.e. extremist=bad) that using it (even when it technically applies) derails the conversation.

    Chad makes the real argument for why it’s not useful to have those completely set about incompatability: it’s not that interesting a discussion, and it’s not what the discussion is about. It is a fact that there are a lot of scientists who have non-atheistic religious views out there. We could just dismiss them as being wrong or inconsistent, as Sean does, but it’s interesting to see if there are things to be learned from how they combine the two views. And, that is what this is really about. The “incompatible” position seems not to want to hear from these people at all, or to at least have the ability in any forum to dismiss them as just being wrong, rather than seeing if there are things to learn from them.

    From the point of view of advocacy of science, there’s a lot to be learned. Maybe you hate “framing” and think it’s impure, but at least in the USA, if you want to promote science, you will benefit tremendously from knowing how to do so in a context that doesn’t insist that the promotion of science requires the rejection of religion!

  20. #20 eNeMeE
    June 2, 2010

    “Science and religion are incompatible; only science is acceptable”

    …Except they could have gone out and found one of the (vastly larger group of) people saying that “Science and religion are epistemically incompatible”, for which I’ve never seen a counter-argument, instead of picking squishy moderates who really have nothing to say.

    The main difference between all the groups is that one is willing to change based on evidence and coherent arguments while the others aren’t.

    “You know, we can all get along”

    ‘Cept they aren’t saying that, generally – they’re usually saying “Shut up, atheists who think science and religion are incompatible” and then don’t bother to address any of the actual issues raised.

    When you’ve got a group saying “We’re right and you’ll all suffer for eternity if you don’t agree with us”, a group saying “We disagree, and think that their way of thinking is wrong based on X, Y, Z”, and a group saying “Hey, we can all get along – but be quiet group two”…

    One of these extremes is not, in any way, like the other.

  21. #21 Rob Knop
    June 2, 2010

    eNeMeE — you mischaracterize the position you disagree with. Heck, you mischaracterize many of those who espouse your position, who basically confuse skepticism with being a dick about religion.

    Those who are in the middle don’t say they’re compatible and those who think they aren’t shut up. They say that they’re compatible, and give reasons. This includes the fact that lots and lots of scientists are religious, and still good scientists, which seems to indicate that one can hold both views without being a bad scientist– and thus there might really be something to it. It also includes arguments that claims they are incompatible are at least implicitly based on the assumption that the only kind of true knowledge is scientific knowledge, which is an assumption that many of us don’t find stands up to scrutiny. And, finally, many of them say that those who argue that you have to reject religion to accept science while being intellectually consistent are HURTING the cause of promoting public acceptance of science, for the simple reason that religion is important to a lot of the public. Hence, it’s not “be quiet”, it’s “you might consider being quiet because you may be hurting the more important and attainable cause right now by pushing your broader and, at least in the short term, hopeless cause.”

  22. #22 Rob Knop
    June 2, 2010

    Let me also add that the reason the “accomidationists” and religious scientists tell the “new atheist” scientists who say religion is incompatible with scientists to be quiet, while not telling the creationists to be quiet as much, is because the creationists are by their own claim not amenable to reason– they have The Book which they will not deviate from. On the other hand, pro-science types who claim they’re incompatible with religion claim to be all about reason. Hence, it really ought to be possible to reason with them. I find this isn’t always true– there really are some fundamentalist atheists out there, who have gone past any sort of reason in adhering to their position, just as there are with people on any position. But in principle, at least it ought to be possible to make an argument with them.

  23. #23 Ivan
    June 2, 2010

    Are you using the phrase “militant atheist” in a non-ironic way? Yeesh…

  24. #24 eNeMeE
    June 2, 2010

    This includes the fact that lots and lots of scientists are religious, and still good scientists

    …and it’s a really bad reason. Compartmentalization works as an explanation, is consistent, and explains everything. The explanation you gave falls to a redcutio ad absurdum so quickly it’s not even funny.

    It also includes arguments that claims they are incompatible are at least implicitly based on the assumption that the only kind of true knowledge is scientific knowledge, which is an assumption that many of us don’t find stands up to scrutiny.

    One is based on “Do not accept claims without appropriate amounts of evidence, and the longer you fail to find evidence against something (while looking for it) the more you should trust it” while the other is “Because someone said so, with (usually) no or conflicting evidence that doesn’t fit with anything else we know about how the world operates”.

    Apply the methods of science to religion and it would be pretty much universally rejected (except for the ones that wedge themselves into a space too small to be examined – which would still be rejected as unnecessary hypotheses). Apply the methods of religion to science and it would be useless – Aristotle would rule.

    “you might consider being quiet because you may be hurting the more important and attainable cause right now by pushing your broader and, at least in the short term, hopeless cause.”

    I guess I was being generous, then – they’re actually saying “Hey, lie!” instead of “Be quiet and let us do the talking”?

  25. #25 Dave W.
    June 2, 2010

    Rob Knop @21: “eNeMeE — you mischaracterize the position you disagree with.”

    That’s why the debate is so polarized. When otherwise reasonable and moderate people like Chad Orzel can so badly and obviously mischaracterize their opponents’ (for the purposes of this discussion) positions (as in this post and comment), it may very well be the case that “we’re so far around the bend that meaningful communication is probably impossible.”

    I’ll keep trying, though. I would truly like to see a thoughtful and valid argument for the philosophical compatibility of science and religion. Such an argument would turn numerous incompatibilists into compatibilists overnight.

  26. #26 Paul
    June 3, 2010

    Chad, I am afraid that the fact you were invited to do book signing colors your perception here.

    Your logic can be used to rationalize removal of any viewpoint from any debate. For example evolution doesn’t need to be represented in disputes because it’s such an inflexible “extremist” view. I mean who wants to listen to the following discussion on the origin of species:

    priest: God created species
    evolutionist: No, species evolved
    priest: No, they we created
    evolutionist: No, they evolved
    moderator: g’night

  27. #27 ponderingfool
    June 3, 2010

    Of course when I read Dawkins and Larry Moran they usually don’t say all religion is incompatible with science but rather theistic religion that most people practice is incompatible with science. Which I think makes for an interesting debate. The Dawkins and deGrasse Tyson exchange from a few years back was fun to watch.

    The out & proud atheists don’t want special consideration for religion. Prayer instead of medical intervention should be held to the same level questioning from science as the anti-vaccine movement, and both with regards to a child considered child endangerment when the non-scientific side endangers the life of a child.

  28. #28 Dave W.
    June 3, 2010

    Paul @26: I think Chad (and now Josh Rosenau) is just stating a truism: people who aren’t interested in discussing a particular idea won’t discuss that particular idea. I think his mistake (along those lines) is in thinking that no anti-compatibilist would be willing to say, for example, “let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that science and religion are compatible. How does that benefit us?” But since Chad thinks that anti-compatibilists deny obvious facts, it’s not puzzling that he thinks they’re all inflexible extremists, unable to cope with or comprehend hypotheticals or counterfactuals in order to foster an “interesting” discussion.

  29. #29 benjdm
    June 3, 2010

    Advocating peaceful coexistence is not an extreme stance, at least not in the universe I inhabit.

    Peaceful coexistence of people or peaceful coexistence of different ways of knowing? The anti-accomodationists argue against the latter, not the former. Jerry Coyne says many good things about Ken Miller as a person and a scientist and definitely doesn’t advocate violence against him. Anti-accomodationists work with religious scientists all the time; they already ‘get along.’

    You either chose a poor phrase or are deliberately confusing the issue.

  30. #30 Rob Knop
    June 3, 2010

    I sometimes wonder why people don’t go around calling me intellectually inconsistent and/or dishonest, a compartmentalizer, or even just wrong because I live my life and treat both Quantum Mechanics and Relativity as being completely right.

    (And that’s not even considering the serious intellectual blinders that some people have in thinking that science is the only “way of knowing”, and that all of the rest of the tremendous intellectual enterprise of humankind is not really knowledge.)

  31. #31 onymous
    June 3, 2010

    I sometimes wonder why people don’t go around calling me intellectually inconsistent and/or dishonest, a compartmentalizer, or even just wrong because I live my life and treat both Quantum Mechanics and Relativity as being completely right.

    Because they are both completely right, to the best of our knowledge? There’s no mystery there.

    On the one hand, I think Chad is right that then panel wouldn’t be very interesting if it’s an argument between people with fixed opinions. On the other hand, it’s not “extremist” to say that science and religion are incompatible; it’s a perfectly reasonable and, I think, correct, opinion.

    Similarly, Chad has gone off the rails before when mentioning that he doesn’t think global warming is a big deal. There are people who think it’s a major problem, see, and people who think it isn’t real at all, so clearly the answer lies in the squishy middle, right? But no; sometimes one extreme opinion simply is the correct one. In all such cases it might be true that a panel of people with different opinions isn’t very useful (I’ve never heard a useful panel discussion in my life, so maybe I’m a bad judge of this anyway…), but a talk from someone with the “extreme” correct opinion might be pretty useful.

  32. #32 Chad Orzel
    June 3, 2010

    Similarly, Chad has gone off the rails before when mentioning that he doesn’t think global warming is a big deal.

    I have?
    I don’t recall saying that. Certainly not recently– in fact, I caused some awkward moments at DAMOP last week by referring to a well-known global warming denier (who is a respected member of DAMOP) as “crazy.”

    I don’t blog about global warming much because I don’t have anything useful to say about it, and I don’t think it’s a completely unavoidable billions-will-inevitably-die catastrophe, but global warming is undeniably real and undeniably a significant problem that needs to be addressed.

    If that counts as “not a big deal” then again, we’re in looking-glass territory and meaningful communication is exceedingly unlikely.

    As to the larger question of compatibility, you will not get a detailed philosophical argument from me regarding the compatibility of religion and science, because I don’t give a rat’s ass about philosophy. The only reason this question is remotely worth talking about is a pragmatic one: people in the US are being told that they have to choose between science and religion, and large numbers of them are opting for religion over science, with harmful consequences for society as a whole.

    As there are very successful scientists who manage to reconcile their personal beliefs with their scientific careers, this is an unnecessary choice, and people who are or might be wavering about whether to choose science or religion need to know that they don’t need to choose. It is perfectly possible to both believe in religion and practice science (albeit not the more extreme forms of either), and having that known more widely might help mitigate the worst effects of the science-religion split on issues like, well, global warming. You can make a case for acting to reduce global warming that is both scientifically and theologically sound, and doing so might be our best chance to sway enough voters to take meaningful action.

    This is a case of the disagreement about axioms that Mark Chu-Carroll notes in comment #16. One set of people is arguing entirely on grounds of philosophical purity, while the other is interested in pragmatic results. Neither group cares very much about the central concern of the other, and so any discussion is quickly sucked into a quagmire of mutual incomprehension, because they’re arguing about different things.

  33. #33 Margaret
    June 3, 2010

    Atheists are not the only ones missing from this panel. What about the scientists who are researching faith as a phenomenon? A growing number of neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists are studying Homo sapiens’ biological predisposition to “believe.” Faith is fascinating and scientists are putting human belief systems under the microscope.

    Also, why is there an event on “Faith and Science”–which focuses on religious scientists rather than science–when there are no panels on human evolution or climate change at the World Science Festival? Teaching evolution and findings in climate science are under constant attack by the religious right, and public events that explain the science behind these two fields are critical to developing public understanding. The only thing that this “Faith and Science” panel accommodates is the religious agenda of the Templeton Foundation.

  34. #34 J. J. Ramsey
    June 3, 2010

    Jason A.:

    And the reason the debate stays at a low level is because the accommodationist side consistently refuses to acknowledge the actual argument the atheists are trying to make by conflating trivial psychological compatibility (compartmentalization) with epistemic compatibility.

    Not necessarily. There are accommodationists, such as John Pieret, who argue that

    science is not a philosophy but a method that, in truth, draws its greatest strength from the fact that it can be practiced by people of many differing and incompatible philosophies …

    If one thinks of science as a method, then the arguments about philosophical incompatibility make little sense.

  35. #35 Chad Orzel
    June 3, 2010

    Atheists are not the only ones missing from this panel. What about the scientists who are researching faith as a phenomenon? A growing number of neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists are studying Homo sapiens’ biological predisposition to “believe.” Faith is fascinating and scientists are putting human belief systems under the microscope.

    If you look back at their past events, you’ll find earlier versions of the panel that did include some discussion of psychology of religion (at least, that’s what the description sounds like). They try to vary things up from one year to the next so it’s not the same exact panel every time.

    Also, why is there an event on “Faith and Science”–which focuses on religious scientists rather than science–when there are no panels on human evolution or climate change at the World Science Festival?

    Because it’s a single five-day event organized by a physicist and some artsy types, and there isn’t time for everything. They’re also pretty short on geology and chemistry, and even low-energy physics.

    Presumably, some of the many cognitive science events will include evolutionary content.

  36. #36 yogi-one
    June 3, 2010

    There’s a panel on this at WSF because the organizers recognized it would fill up, and generate a lot of discussion, therefore it was a viable thing to have at WSF.

    Second, nothing, of course will be resolved by the panel. The point is to whip up the issues, not solve them.

    And margaret@33 is right: how come no panel on climate change? Especially since the Deepwater disaster the specter of climate change is right behind many national discussions about our future.

    Or human evolution – a World Science Fair with no panel on Human Evolution. Huh? Did I read that right? Hello??

    Maybe they should have had it in Berlin. They can discuss these topics there without the Teapartiers crashing in and making sure the debate turns into a dumbed-down screamfest.

  37. #37 ponderingfool
    June 3, 2010

    And that’s not even considering the serious intellectual blinders that some people have in thinking that science is the only “way of knowing”, and that all of the rest of the tremendous intellectual enterprise of humankind is not really knowledge.
    *******************************
    What other knowledge is there not studied by the physical, life, and social sciences?

    Are you going to say love? Love is not knowledge. It is a concept we use to express a complex set of physiological responses we have to certain stimuli. Beauty? Similar.

  38. #38 onymous
    June 3, 2010

    I apologize, Chad. I think I was misattributing some blog posts I remembered about global warming, along with your very brief remark about the discussion of it in Physics for Presidents:

    and global warming (or at least CO2 emissions) can be addressed relatively easily. I can’t claim any great expertise in any of these fields, but I find his back-of-the-envelope estimates fairly convincing.

    So you didn’t exactly claim that Muller definitely has it right and that solving the problem of CO2 emissions is easy, just said that his arguments were “fairly convincing”. I was remembering someone else who was making a lengthier, and naive, argument about how the problem could be easily solved. Not sure who it was, or why I was thinking it was you. Sorry about that.

  39. #39 onymous
    June 3, 2010

    And as for this:

    people in the US are being told that they have to choose between science and religion, and large numbers of them are opting for religion over science, with harmful consequences for society as a whole.

    It’s a very nice pragmatic point. On the other hand, I sort of expect that it’s irrelevant for deciding what should be a topic of discussion at a “World Science Forum”; the sort of people who belong to churches that take an anti-science point of view simply won’t be there.

  40. #40 Dave W.
    June 3, 2010

    Chad Orzel @32: “It is perfectly possible to both believe in religion and practice science…”

    You’re certainly not helping to get anyone out of the quagmire when you repeatedly fail to understand the position of the philosophic “set,” and can’t even seem to grasp that there’s a massive overlap in the two “sets” of people you’re talking about. So I wasn’t expecting any sort of pro-compatibilist philosophical argument from you in particular, even though such a thing would go far towards solving the pragmatic problem, also.

    Then again, many of the loudest anti-compatibilists aren’t loud about this argument because they think that science needs to be protected from religion, but instead because they think that everything needs to be protected from religion. “Religion poisons everything” isn’t a call to choose between science and religion, it’s a call to eliminate religion from all human endeavors.

    You might argue that such a position is worse, from your pragmatic viewpoint, as it might make people even more defensive about their religion(s) and reject science in even greater numbers, but there’s no way you’ll ever get those out-and-loud atheists to shut up about, or be in any way otherwise accommodating towards, what they see as a clear-and-present danger to all of humanity.

    Of course, they also aren’t the sort of atheists who would accept an invitation to be on a Templeton-funded panel discussion about science and religion, if one were to have been extended. They’d probably just mock the idea. So pragmatically speaking, you seem to be wasting time and effort by building straw men of the wrong targets, for the wrong reasons.

  41. #41 Irene
    June 3, 2010

    Chad Orzel: “Extremists aren’t interesting”

    You mean, “Religionists think uncompromising atheists are extremists and therefore of no interest to them”? What a shocker. No surprise either when accomodationists/faithteists fail to see the issue and jump to defend the religionists.

    (Oh, and btw, sure, the “militant” kind of atheists are interesting, if only to move a notch or two the Overton window…)

  42. #42 Ewan
    June 3, 2010

    Chad, the point is you played fast and loose with the definition of “extremist” in what is clearly a mean-spirited attack on people who disagree that science and religion are compatible. This is the main problem.

    In addition to that, what is “interesting”? I’m sure you’d sit, chin in hand, listening intently to discussions of how many angels can sit upon a pinhead. Then if some ‘extremist’ comes into the room and asks quite why we’re discussing such a phenomenon in light of the lack of evidence, and much to suggest that there are no angels, you’d be bored? You wouldn’t want to think, “actually, maybe this guy has a point and the premise is open to challenge?” If you find simpering adherence to orthodoxy interesting then I wonder why you associate with science at all.

  43. #43 Moshe
    June 3, 2010

    I think you are missing the point of Sean’s argument. If funding for science (and its exposition) is going to gradually shift to private hands, the natural worry is that this will distort both the science and its presentation to the public. The panel in question is not a debate, there are better ways to debate philosophical questions to do with science and religion. Rather, it is an exposition to the public, a megaphone to use Sean’s language. In this context, I think it is good to point out that the range of views given that megaphone is narrow and suspiciously close to those of the sponsor.

    As for the point of extremism, I doubt there is a simple algorithm to judge merits of any argument by its placement on some linear scale, but it certainly saves time. So, packaging your views as moderate became a standard talking point, an all too familiar rhetorical tactic. Of course, it works…

  44. #44 Chad Orzel
    June 3, 2010

    I think you are missing the point of Sean’s argument. If funding for science (and its exposition) is going to gradually shift to private hands, the natural worry is that this will distort both the science and its presentation to the public. The panel in question is not a debate, there are better ways to debate philosophical questions to do with science and religion. Rather, it is an exposition to the public, a megaphone to use Sean’s language. In this context, I think it is good to point out that the range of views given that megaphone is narrow and suspiciously close to those of the sponsor.

    Which is only a problem if you think that the views of the sponsor are a problem. Since I don’t share Sean’s view of the Templeton Foundation as a pernicious organization, I’m not terribly bothered by the fact that they sponsor events espousing their particular point of view. In fact, since I find their views useful from a pragmatic point of view, I’m perfectly happy to have them put out there.

    The organizers of the World Science Festival are under no obligation to provide philosophical balance in their programming about religion, or disciplinary balance in their scientific programming. They put on the programs that they think will best meet their goals of generating public excitement about science, and selling tickets to their events. If their judgment is that a religion panel without hard-core atheists is what best suits their goals (and I think one could make a reasonable case that it does), then that’s what they put on.

    To spin this another way, do you think they have an obligation to invite Peter Woit to take part in one of their many programs about string theory?

  45. #45 AL
    June 3, 2010

    One set of people is arguing entirely on grounds of philosophical purity, while the other is interested in pragmatic results.

    But why assume that these two goals are disjointed? Sure, I don’t doubt that if you remind people there are scientists who are both religious and accepting of evolution, that they too might be inclined to accept evolution, but is this a genuine cure for the problem or a band-aid placebo? Do you think that evolution will be the last issue in science disputed by the religious? Others will no doubt crop up. Already we are seeing that the things psychology says about our moral and behavioral dispositions may not be what classic religion says they are. Already we are seeing that neurobiology is doing much to undermine the explanatory value of the concept of a “soul,” something that is very fundamental to nearly all the major religions. Ideas like this may play out with even more hostility than evolution.

    In the short run, you may get many people on the side of evolution by pointing out that someone like Francis Collins believes it, and having them accept it on his authority, but in the long run, if they don’t understand the actual reasons (a.k.a. the philosophy) why science accepts the things it accepts, we’re going to continue seeing conflicts down the line. In fact, you can already see the beginnings of a future clash brewing with Dr. Collins himself, who has argued (influenced, if not outright based on his religious background) that the existence of morals separates us from animals, and that evolution cannot account for our moral behavior. I’m not arguing whether Collins’ position is right or wrong, defensible or untenable, but only pointing out that saying some idea is OK because Collins and other accomplished scientists like him believes it is promoting the wrong kind of reasoning and is sweeping the larger problem of rejection of science under the rug.

  46. #46 Moshe
    June 3, 2010

    I guess it does come down to which point of view you find reasonable, which I am happy to agree to disagree on. Depending on that, of course, you may choose to label the viewpoint you find unappealing as “extreme”, but that label is secondary, and not particularly useful. As a side note, I find it amusing that at least some of the panel participants pride themselves at being controversial, they may not be so pleased being labeled as moderates.

  47. #47 Dan L.
    June 3, 2010

    There are two extremes in this argument, which are “Science and religion are incompatible; only science is acceptable” and “Science and religion are incompatible; only religion is acceptable.” The people on this panel are squishy moderates. Advocating peaceful coexistence is not an extreme stance, at least not in the universe I inhabit.

    I know you’re a physicist, but isn’t this a little TOO reductionist?

    Take the position: “Science and religion are obviously compatible; anyone who says otherwise has his head up his rear. There are no legitimate criticisms of the accomodationist position, and therefore no accomodationist should have to defend his position.”

    You don’t think THAT’S an extreme? You seem to want to boil this down to “science v. religion,” but it’s not necessarily that simple, at least not for those of us who think that “NOMA” and the notion that “science and religion are compatible” are philosophically facile non-arguments that elide the epistemological consequences of a debate such as this one.

    Basically, you seem to me to be taking the position that the fact that I care about the truth, the fact that I care about addressing the question about whether science and religion are epistemologically compatible, makes me an extremist. The fact that I even want to debate about WHETHER they are before we debate about HOW they are makes me an extremist.

    Do you really think this is a question we shouldn’t be allowed to ask?

  48. #48 Dan L.
    June 3, 2010

    Here’s the real problem with having two religious scholars and two religious scientists discussing the question of whether science is compatible with religion:

    John Jackson: “It’s time someone had the courage to stand up and say: I’m against those things that everybody hates.”
    Jack Johnson: “Now, I respect my opponent. I think he’s a good man. But quite frankly, I agree with everything he just said.”
    John Jackson: “I say your three cent titanium tax goes too far.”
    Jack Johnson: “And I say your three cent titanium tax doesn’t go too far enough.”

    If you think extremists aren’t interesting, wait until the thin gruel these four actually serve up as part of this panel.

  49. #49 Stone
    June 3, 2010

    Rob Knop@30…”serious intellectual blinders…only ‘way of knowing’”…

    Not sure I would consider the scientific method the *only* way, but it seems to reasonably be the best we’ve come up with so far. What precise ‘ways of knowing’ are you aware of that have out-performed it in the task of elucidating reality?

  50. #50 Matt Penfold
    June 3, 2010

    OS let me get this right Chad.

    You think a panel can be set up to explore the relationship between science and religion but you do not think there is place for those who claim science and religion are not compatible. And you think this because you would not be interested.

    Well sod you. Get over yourself. Panels are not set-up to interest you and you alone.

    Personally I suspect you want to silence (and be honest that is what you want) those who claim science and religion are not compatible because neither you, nor any one who tries to claim they are compatible can support they claims with anything other than a pathetic “But you can be a scientist and be religious”.

    Why don’t you explain how claims like the virgin birth, or resurrection are compatible with science. When you have done that, then your opinion is worth something. I suspect you will be not be able to do that because like Mooney, Knopp, Rosenau et al you talk big but refuse to support your position.

  51. #51 A
    June 3, 2010

    Chad, you say:”In the end, I’m not convinced you need anyone on the panel to make the case that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. ” No, one does need to make that case. I have rather religious in-laws and through them and my wife meet priests too often. Most of them are convinced that science, the big bang, Einstein, etc. all >support< – their religious views; after all we all investigate God’s creation. Most of the time, and not to upset elderly in-laws, I cannot point out that I do not agree to this (and that Einstein himself said he was -from the point of view of the Catholic Church- an atheist). So many people think that science supports (of course, their) religion, because they rarely hear anything else, and assume they are with the majority, including that of scientists. The Templeton event may reinforce that view, and that’s why they pay for it. (I actually think that e.g. Elaine Pagels may be considered subversive to religious dogma, but only few people may notice, and a month later, it is forgotten).
    (Perhaps it is that theology has fared so well in the last century, but ‘science’ is held in high regard, so religion seems to crave for scientific confirmation these days. See also the rise of religions such as ‘Christian Scientists’, Scientology, who want to exploit the high regard for science.)
    The argument(made in some comments) that outspoken scientists who are atheists should shut up about atheism, because it hurts the acceptance of science has logical consequences, if widely followed:
    - perhaps a scientists may not say anything, or give impression of being religious just for this ‘tactical reason,’ to gain acceptance for his science. So he is disingenuous (polite for: a liar).
    - The public sees no counterexample of non-religious thought leaders, hence the assumptions that science supports and confirms (their) religion. (..and discussions, like that at the WorldSciFest, are limited to the extent that science is compatible or supportive of religion, omitting the ‘incompatible’ part).

    There are actually a fair number of people out there, including, of course, scientists, who even show up at religious services, who do so only for cultural reasons, to be polite, to please a spouse or in-law, for political reasons (part of community, or instructor at a religious college),… and could not care less for religion. Perhaps the public deserves to know, that there are more atheists out there, among them.

  52. #52 A
    June 3, 2010

    The about 4th phrase in previous comment 51 should read:
    Most of them are convinced that science, the big bang, Einstein, etc. all -support – their religious views.

    (I shouldn’t use angle bracket for emphasis; sorry )

  53. #53 Peter Beattie
    June 3, 2010

    For somebody who favours the “let’s all just get along” position in the science–religion compatibility question, calling those who argue for incompatibility “people with fixed and absolute views” and putting them on a level with Biblical literalists is quite a dick move.

    As for your shorter version of the panel with Strident Atheists™ on it, I think it’s quite funny. Until you realise what Paulino said in comment #3. Then it seems really stupid.

  54. #54 bad Jim
    June 4, 2010

    One point of having an atheist on the panel would be to keep the discussion honest. It shouldn’t be necessary, but it’s common for either side to caricature the other.

    For example, contrasting methodological and philosophical naturalism misses the point for the average atheist and believer alike; the atheist draws certain tentative conclusions from the absence of observed supernatural influences, and the believer insists that God has in fact been involved, if only in mysterious ways. This may seem like a trivial epistemological dispute which ought to be conceded to the devout for the sake of their acceptance of science, but it reinforces teleological thinking, which is antithetical to an understanding of biology.

    It’s also important to recognize that many religious beliefs are in conflict with science, and this obvious point is often simply ignored. To his credit, Josh Rosenau has acknowledged this. It shouldn’t be a point of contention. Some scientific knowledge is in conflict with some religious teaching.

    Yet another reason to have a suitably well-behaved atheist on the panel would be to forestall atheist-bashing. We’re not a threat to any church, and the spectacle of our lack of belief is not the reason people reject evolution, relativity or quantum theory. Moreover, we only eat babies on feast days.

  55. #55 Matti K.
    June 4, 2010

    Jerry Coyne has written an interesting article:

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/05/19/scott-to-grads-use-your-brains/

    He states:

    “But why is it always the psychics, the homeopaths, and the astrologers who take it in the neck when scientists attack irrationality? What about the most widespread form of irrationality?”

    I ask in the spirit of this thread: is scientific reasoning against homeopathy and astrology an extremist position?

  56. #56 Escuerd
    June 4, 2010

    The simple fact is that people with fixed and absolute views do not make for an interesting conversation.

    There’s no obvious reason that the view that science and religion are incompatible should be more fixed and absolute than the view that they are compatible. It may be more “extreme”, but it’s a mistake to conflate an extreme view with an absolute, fixed one.

    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).

    Young-Earth Creationism doesn’t belong not because it’s “extreme” but because it’s empirically false. The idea that these two views are the proper balance for each other or mere mirror images is too harsh to the atheist/incompatibilist view or too generous to the creationist view.

    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–

    People rarely change their minds about anything substantive in the midst of debate or discussion. That doesn’t mean that the discussions aren’t worth having, especially if there’s an audience. I think people that see this debated all the time until it becomes tiresome for them tend to assume that most educated people have heard it all and are tired of it. I also think this is a mistake.

    but rather how it is that religious scientists reconcile the supposedly incompatible sides of the issue.

    And no one could profit from seeing how they failed to reconcile them? Seriously?

    Really, the only reason to have a militant atheist or a Biblical literalist on the panel is as a hedge against incompetent moderation.

    Right. Since we know that both positions are wrong and barely represented among scientists, there could be no other possible reason to put forth those views. Er…no. That’s only true for one of them.

  57. #57 Escuerd
    June 4, 2010

    I sometimes wonder why people don’t go around calling me intellectually inconsistent and/or dishonest, a compartmentalizer, or even just wrong because I live my life and treat both Quantum Mechanics and Relativity as being completely right.

    Probably because they’re both known to be approximately true within certain domains to high degrees of precision. If you really believe that GR and QM are both completely true, then I guess you are being intellectually dishonest.

    But realizing that they’re both good enough approximations to reality to be trustworthy to a point is not dishonest. It is supported by good evidence, even.

    I would argue that maintaining belief in supernatural beings that have been pared down to more and more ethereal, untestable forms over time is antithetical to the scientific way of thinking. The beliefs themselves don’t even have to contradict (indeed, this form of religion usually sees to it that they don’t).

    (And that’s not even considering the serious intellectual blinders that some people have in thinking that science is the only “way of knowing”, and that all of the rest of the tremendous intellectual enterprise of humankind is not really knowledge.)

    I often hear about other ways of knowing (I assume you don’t mean math or logic), but rarely have any idea about how to use them to go about distinguishing a reality from a fantasy. If there are some good methods for this, though, I’m sincerely curious to know more about them.

    As far as I have seen, the most popular non-scientific ways of knowing are intuition/common sense, faith, and revelation. The first one is good for lots of heuristic stuff, but doesn’t have a great track record in lots of matters, especially if they’re removed from our experience. The other two are useless in distinguishing truth from falsehood. There could well be other really good ones that I’m just not aware of, but so far I have found myself unable to remove these “intellectual blinders”.

  58. #58 Jason A.
    June 4, 2010

    AL:

    Sure, I don’t doubt that if you remind people there are scientists who are both religious and accepting of evolution, that they too might be inclined to accept evolution, but is this a genuine cure for the problem or a band-aid placebo? Do you think that evolution will be the last issue in science disputed by the religious? Others will no doubt crop up.

    In the short run, you may get many people on the side of evolution by pointing out that someone like Francis Collins believes it, and having them accept it on his authority, but in the long run, if they don’t understand the actual reasons (a.k.a. the philosophy) why science accepts the things it accepts, we’re going to continue seeing conflicts down the line.

    Quoted for truth.
    Is the goal to get religious people to believe in one particular scientific finding (evolution), or to get them to understand scientific reasoning and why science has authority when speaking about the natural world? If it’s the latter, then the accomodationist-only position is a set up for an endless battle over each new scientific finding that is uncomfortable to the religious. You’re basically telling people they should accept science on basis of authority (this guy’s religious like you, and he believes it!), which seems pretty much directly opposed to increasing public understanding of science.
    I would actually go further than saying the accomodationist-only viewpoint (as opposed to a mixture of both) is ineffective – I would say it’s actively harmful*. We’ve been trying it for a very long time now (you’re the ones who call us the ‘new’ atheists, remember?) and public understanding of and respect for science has not achieved the increase you seem to believe will come if the atheists will just be quiet or lie about their positions.

    *but gosh, that would make me an extremist!

  59. #59 Jason A.
    June 4, 2010

    I sometimes wonder why people don’t go around calling me intellectually inconsistent and/or dishonest, a compartmentalizer, or even just wrong because I live my life and treat both Quantum Mechanics and Relativity as being completely right.

    It’s implicitly understood that you know there is a conflict between the two, but both work pretty well in their areas, and as ‘ways of knowing’ they both have clear ways of determining that they are superior to other ‘ways of knowing’ that occupy their domains – i.e. choosing between ‘general relativity and newtonian gravity’ is much clearer than ‘Jesus or Vishnu’.
    If you want to claim that both are completely, entirely true, then yes, you’re inconsistent (or just misinformed).
    And, apparently, it would be uninteresting to look at the inconsistency, or explain it, and no one would learn anything.

  60. #60 M.
    June 4, 2010

    Ah, temporary placations. Here is something for your consideration. Let me start with an example.

    Does prayer work? This is a question eminently answerable by science (observe frequency of prayed-for event in presence and absence of prayer), and the answer is a resounding “no.”

    There are two ways we can maintain the pretense of compatibility. One is to not mention this question, ever. As long as there is nobody to bring up the inconvenient facts, we can pretend they don’t exist.

    The other is for religion to accommodate (which some forms of religion are actively doing): theologians themselves “soften” the notion of prayer, or redefine their deity to be more remote (therefore pushing predicted intercession levels below the limit of statistical detectability, at least temporarily).

    However, both of these approaches have a definite boundary, which is quickly approaching.

    What will happen, for instance, when the fact that neuroscience has excluded the possibility of an immaterial soul finally percolates into the public consciousness? (And despite protestations, including some from people who ought to know better, this possibility has been completely and utterly eliminated.)

    Or morality – we already have enough data that demolishes practically all religious theories of ethics at least as thoroughly as evolution has trounced YECs. The fact just isn’t widely known yet (Marc Houser’s volume, the only semi-popular one available currently, is too difficult for most nonprofessional readers).

    There is a point where either we have to constantly ignore far too much science, or we have to redefine religion into pretty much absolute insignificance. The compatibility idea is simply untenable, at least with currently existing religions.

    Let me be clear: I do not oppose religious thought. The idea that somewhere, somehow there is something we may as well call God does not have to be incompatible with science. And for those philosophers and theologians who are developing such notions, the future presents many opportunities.

    But this requires developing completely new notions of religion. The CURRENT major religions – and come on, they are what we are talking about, not the musings of a few scattered academics – ARE absolutely incompatible with science.

    The incompatibilities will only keep growing, and pretending that the problem does not exist will only set us up for a MAJOR problem once the contradictions reach a critical level.

    Think getting churches to accept evolution is hard? Wait until we have to ask them to discard the idea of sin…

    Just my $0.02

  61. #61 Mike Olson
    June 5, 2010

    Yeah, look, I get that we are all trying to be all sciencey here and no one wants to be labled an extremist…But, you do realize that the Catholic church and most mainstream protestant churches believe in the theory of evolution…and generally support a wide variety of scientific endeavors or at least don’t take an official position on them. Many Presbyterian clergy were supportive of stem cell research. Chad had a point: moderates are being labeled extremist simply because they suggest that tolerance is a good thing, which really is insane. Yeah, fundamentalists can be real idiots, but on an individual level many do great things within their community. Many atheists are incredibly gifted and talented people who can go further than many Christians in charitable acts(an ironic example of the story of the good samaritan). Frankly, both the “Brights” and the “chosen” seem more than a little arrogant.

  62. #62 Ewan
    June 5, 2010

    Mike, you’re correct. Nobody wants to be labled an extremist – particularly when they aren’t one. That’s why Chad’s mean-spirited bullying gets the reception that it does.

    Your impassioned defence of those religious authorities who condescend to plaster their approval on the theory of evolution, while touching, miss the fact that (particularly in the case of the Catholic church) evolution was accepted grudgingly, late in the day, and as an example of God’s majesty. This last point, needless to say, is not backed up by the evidence. So long as accommodationists, though, pat the religious on the head and give them a lollipop, such poetic license seems not to matter.

    Nobody is arguing against tolerance in this thread. Religious people are perfectly free to be religious people and believe what they wish to believe. However, this works both ways, and if pointing out ways in which religious thought is incompatible with science is verboten then I’d ask who really cares about tolerance in our discourse.

    So we have a lie by omission and a straw man. Nice going. I can well see why you’d regard the topic at hand as “interesting.”

  63. #63 Chad Orzel
    June 5, 2010

    As an amusing counterpoint to the many comments saying “You think atheists arguing with accomodationists is boring, wait ’till you see how boring an accomodationist love-in is,” I was just checking the WSF site for something else, and they have a big splashy notice saying “Due to overwhelming demand, “Faith and Science” has been moved to a larger venue. Tickets are back on sale.”

    Popularity is, of course, no sure guide to quality (coughTwilightcoughcough), and to be honest, I wouldn’t go to either version of the panel. But it struck me as funny, and a good reminder of how little relationship there is between what plays well on the Internet and what people will pay to see.

  64. #64 Ewan
    June 5, 2010

    Wow, up to 400 people out of the 100,000+ who will attend at least one WSF event are going to pay to get into this. I take it all back.

  65. #65 Dave W.
    June 5, 2010

    Mike Olson @61: “Chad had a point: moderates are being labeled extremist simply because they suggest that tolerance is a good thing, which really is insane.”

    Yes, it would be insane. But who is labeling whom an extremist, and for what reasons, in this thread (don’t forget to check the title)?

    More ironic, of course, is Chad’s perpetuation of a myth which he claims to be a bad thing, a mistake he seems loathe to either acknowledge or correct. Pragmatically speaking, I suppose it’s acceptable to rail against fabricated extremist positions in order to “fire up your base,” but it looks like transparent political posturing to me. And it seems to me to be less motivated by any actual desire to spread tolerance than it is just a calculated means to an end.

  66. #66 J. J. Ramsey
    June 5, 2010

    Paulino:

    RELIGIOUS SCIENTIST: Religion and science are sooo compatible.
    RELIGIOUS SCHOLAR: Yes they are. They are just NOMAs.
    RELIGIOUS SCIENTIST: Absolutely!
    RELIGIOUS SCHOLAR: So true…
    RELIGIOUS SCIENTIST: Sure…
    RELIGIOUS SCHOLAR: Yeah…
    MODERATOR: Oh Joy! G’night everybody!

    Yeah, that’s the only way such a discussion could go, especially when at least one of the panel members has had to deal with complaints about her work from conservative Christians and another panelist is of a religion that’s usually far removed from conflicts about creationism. There’s no way we can expect a discussion of how religious scientists see science, how they see possible conflicts, or what beliefs one might need to let go of. At the very least, the panel as it stands can let us get a view of how some religious scientists think. That’s a discussion that can easily get derailed with Dawkins around.

  67. #67 M.
    June 6, 2010

    @Chad “Tickets are on back sale.”

    If I was attending, I would make it a point to go there, just to ask uncomfortable questions. The relative popularity of the event does not necessarily mean what you want it to mean.

  68. #68 Smitty
    June 6, 2010

    This thread clearly demonstrates that there are plenty who identify as a “Free-thinker” or “Bright” to embrace an agenda rather than meet the obvious description. The excuses given for demanding a dogmatic atheist be present for this rare event are both disingenuous and logically incoherent.

    How charitable are you really being by claiming to believe that individuals have the freedom to believe what they want, but cannot tolerate open discussion about these issues? The unreasonable concern that atheist-bashing will occur is very telling that either :
    1. Atheist panels usually revolve around bashing theists
    2. They cannot imagine what a ridiculous waste of time this would be when the participants are expecting deep and meaningful content.
    3. A thorough misinterpretation of the 1st amendment that establishes atheism as the national worldview by oppressing freedom of religious expression.
    4. A moderately religious view is a problem, not a solution, and thus a refusal to acknowledge any possibility.
    There can be no discussion; only debate.
    Excluding both dogmatic atheists and religious fundamentalists is essential to foster an open and progressive discussion on this issue. At an event to promote race relations, inviting a Neo-Nazi or member of the KKK would clearly be counter-productive. Just like the Aryan Nation, the new atheists assert superiority. Embracing the relationship between faith and science is as disgusting and disturbing as interracial marriage.
    From http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/atheologies/1433/the_two_faces_of_new_atheism_
    “Militant disbelief depends on the excesses of fundamentalists to sustain strong anti-religious sentiment. Progressive believers, on the other hand, demonstrate that faith and reason can coexist peacefully in modern societies; that is something the New Atheists do not want to admit, as it denies them the moral high ground and turns their case against God into an intellectual argument with little social or political significance.”
    From the unexpected popularity of this particular event, it appears there is an itch to be scratched, ironically similar to a few years ago when Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins authored surprising best-sellers.

  69. #69 Dave W.
    June 6, 2010

    Some of us actually see any faith as a moral failure. “Progressive believers” only get credit from me for being somewhat less immoral than their fundamentalist brothers, but that’s sorta like saying that a guy who only murdered one cop for fun is less immoral than the guy who slaughtered a bus full of children.

    Faith and reason can peacefully co-exist in modern societies only by ensuring that reason isn’t applied to faith. And when society dictates that certain areas of human endeavor are off-limits for rational inquiry, but should be used as guidelines for life, love and a host of other activities, then everybody loses. Even the faithful.

  70. #70 John Kwok
    June 6, 2010

    Chad -

    I regret I couldn’t clone myself to attend your WSF event but am sure it was well attended. Hope you realize that Sean Carroll’s post was in response to Jerry Coyne’s “verdict”. Have no doubt that both Brian Greene and his wife Tracy Day strongly felt their “slings and arrows” since I heard both state emphatic declarations of support expressing their gratitude to the Templeton Foundation for being one of the World Science Festival’s original sponsors and for its current ongoing support (I personally plead the fifth on their statements, though I, myself, may have opted for other, more religiously neutral financial supporters if I was in charge of the World Science Festival. In the
    interest of full disclosure, I have spent two years volunteering at the festival and was a volunteer usher at this year’s Science Faith session.).

    Sincerely yours,

    John

  71. #71 John Kwok
    June 7, 2010

    Chad -

    I am surprised that, for whatever reason, World Science Festival has ignored the possibility of substantial participation by scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society, New York Botanical Garden and the American Museum of Natural History, especially when these very institutions are among the major reasons why New York City remains an important global center for scientific research. It is IMHO reasonable to ask the World Science Festival why it has ignored these institutions or the rapid emergence of ecological engineering that others, most notably CUNY (in its summer Governors Island lecture series), have picked up as important aspects of New York City’s future in science and engineering.

    Regrettably evolution wasn’t well-covered at all at this year’s festival nor was it covered last year (especially when last year was the Darwin Bicentennial). Hopefully that will be redressed by the World Science Festival in the future.

  72. #72 John Kwok
    June 7, 2010

    Chad,

    You can have an interesting, quite engaging, but still friendly, debate between a New Atheist and a religiously devout scientist. That occurred at last year’s Science Faith Religion panel at the World Science Festival. Lawrence Krauss and Ken Miller were quite eloquent expressing their dissenting views, while remaining not only cordial, but quite friendly, in their response(Unfortunately Krauss is probably the only New Atheist who can do this in a debate with a religiously devout scientist like Ken Niller.).

  73. #73 Ender
    June 9, 2010

    “Some of us actually see any faith as a moral failure. “Progressive believers” only get credit from me for being somewhat less immoral than their fundamentalist brothers, but that’s sorta like saying that a guy who only murdered one cop for fun is less immoral than the guy who slaughtered a bus full of children.”

    Your faith that you know what is moral and what is not makes you a hypocrite and under your own rules – just as much of a moral failure as any theist.

  74. #74 Matt Springer
    June 9, 2010

    I wouldn’t bother with it one way or another. On this subject, everything that can be said has been said. Exhaustively, repeatedly, heatedly, calmly, and constantly. Nothing will be said at that panel that we haven’t heard already, and if the panel were constituted in some other more dramatic way we still would hear not a single new thing.

    Which isn’t to say it won’t be interesting or entertaining, but I personally wouldn’t bother to go no matter which parts were written into this well-trod bit of theater.

  75. #75 John Kwok
    June 9, 2010

    @ Matt -

    Well this year’s edition was rather dull and lifeless IMHO. It began with Brian Greene giving a most impassioned plea explaining how he has been touched by the religious attitudes of his mother and his three siblings, while thanking the Templeton Foundation for its support. If Brian thought that this would answer the criticisms of his critics, then regrettably, it didn’t. Then the program opened with the moderator, ABC News correspondent Bill Blakemore, asking each guest in turn to describe his or her religious and scientific feelings with respect to a work of art and a piece of music (the art was shown and a recording of the music played). Then what ensued was a rather odd discussion, in which the most useful points were made by Paul Davies and Francisco J. Ayala. In Davies’s case he observed that those who wish to unentangle science from religion must be prepared to forego prior well-accepted concepts about the linear directon of time and the recognition of deep time (though he did not use this term, it is what he meant) as artifacts from Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Ayala claimed that he would not discuss his religious views because they were his private ones, and also gave a succinct summary of Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of NOMA.

    Although I have ample admiration and respect for what Brian and his wife, journalist Tracy Day, are seeking to accomplish, I would hope that, in light of recent Militant Atheist opposition, that they not only reconsider the possibility of organizing a similar panel next year, but the extent to which they would accept funding from the Templeton Foundation in the future. Personally I have no objections to their ties with the Templeton Foundation. But I wonder whether such ties are worth keeping in light of Militant Atheist condemnation, and especially, the potential for substantially more backlash from others, such as, for example, Richard Dawkins (Since I saw Carroll’s online rebuke also posted over at the Dawkins Foundation website.).

  76. #76 John Kwok
    June 10, 2010

    @ Chad -

    ABC News Correspondent Bill Blakemore has moderated the two previous World Science Festival panels pertaining to science and faith. While he did an excellent job again this year, I think he was limited by the contraints placed for this session (e. g. asking each panelist to choose a favorite work of art and piece of music beforehand, with the selected items on screen and tape as he spoke to each one) and the personalities involved. Far more meaningful would have been a freewheeling discussion of the kind that I saw last year, when the panel consisted of University of Miami philosopher Colin McGinn, Arizona State University physicist Lawrence Krauss, Brown University cell biologist Ken Miller and Vatican Astronomer (and Jesuit brother) Guy Consolmagno.

    In lieu of yet another Science Faith session next year, I would prefer instead, a discussion on Science Denialism, in yet another freewheeling discussion format, that would include the likes of Ken Miller, AMNH astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson, NCSE Executive Director Genie Scott and Columbia University philosopher Philip Kitcher. I am quite confident that such a discussion would prove to be more popular than yet another one devoted to Science and Faith.

  77. #77 Nathan Myers
    June 10, 2010

    I am glad that Elaine Pagels writes. It’s astonishing to see the sort of knots she is obliged to tie herself into by assuming follies she must if she is to write on the subject at all. I do feel a little guilty about enjoying it, but she could stop any time. Couldn’t she?

  78. #78 John Kwok
    June 12, 2010

    @ Nathan -

    She was a terrible choice for the panel, discussing mostly her work on Biblical Studies without trying to connect with much of the discussion. That’s a shame when there were quite a few others here in New York City who could have been an asset to the discussion, such as, for example, philosopher and evolutionary biologist Massimo Pigliucci, writer Susan Jacoby, philosopher Austin Dacey, and last, but not least, philosopher Philip Kitcher (a colleague of Brian Greene’s at Columbia University).

  79. #79 John Kwok
    June 12, 2010

    Posted originally at the “That’s a Wrap (Or is it?)…” post at the World Science Festival’s Science Blogs site:

    Thank you, Greg. Was a pleasure working with you and the rest of the staff – permanent and volunteer – which made the World Science Festival the success it was, though, it might be said that in some respects, it didn’t quite cover the ground that was covered in last year’s event (I am thinking especially of programs emphasizing conservation biology in honor of Festival honoree E. O. Wilson, the utility of nuclear power and contending with global climate change. But noticeably absent was any substantial discussion on evolutionary biology and its importance to society, including the arts and humanities, when it was the Darwin bicentennial. A similar dearth was quite apparent this year as well.).

    Hope the World Science Festival succeeds in getting more input and participation from several research institutes which are among the major reasons why New York City remains a global center for research in science; the Wildlife Conservation Society (which owns the Bronx Zoo and New York Aquarium and operates the Queens and Central Park Zoos for the City of New York), the New York Botanical Garden, and last, but not least, the American Museum of Natural History. Would also think it desirable to work too with organizations like the Linnean Society of New York, New York City Audubon Society, The River Project, Wings World Quest, The Explorers Club, and other related metropolitan New York organizations interested in science and in public outreach.

    Left unsaid in your summary is recognizing that, unfortunately, several prominent New Atheist scientists criticized the World Science Festival again this year for having both a session devoted to science and faith and to have it and several others supported by the John R. Templeton Foundation (I am an agnostic with regards to whether this foundation should be involved in funding scientific research and public activities, such as festivals, which publicize science.). Unfortunately, one of these critics, Cal Tech cosmologist Sean Carroll (a 2009 WSF panelist), had his comments distributed widely through the blogosphere, including, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website. This raises the distinct possibility that Richard Dawkins may be among the festival’s harsh New Atheist critics next year, and should this happen, such adverse publicity may dilute the impact and importance of WSF and what it is trying to accomplish on behalf of a public interested in science, both those who attend and the countless others fortunate to view its events online.

    In lieu of a Science Faith session next year, may I suggest instead one devoted to Science Denialism (why the public refuses to accept as valid science, anthropogenic global warming and biological evolution)? An ideal panel could consist of ABC News Correspondent Bill Blakemore (as moderator), American Museum of Natural History astrophysicist – and Director, Hayden Planetarium – Neil de Grasse Tyson, Brown University cell biologist Kenneth R. Miller, National Center for Science Education Executive Director Eugenie Scott, and last, but not least, Columbia University philosopher Philip Kitcher in a freewheeling format that would discuss these issues, with the possibility of some discussion on faith as it pertains to science denialism.

    As for future financial support by the John R. Templeton Foundation, I suggest that WSF should note who the sponsors of the forthcoming USA Science and Engineering Festival (to be held in Washington, DC over a two-week period in October) are. None have any interest in or any affiliation whatsoever with religious issues.

  80. #80 John Kwok
    June 16, 2010

    Posted this yesterday at Rod Dreher’s blog (http://blog.beliefnet.com/roddreher/2010/06/science-religion-incompatiblists-shut-out.html) and I think it bears repeating here (Incidentally he works for the John M. Templeton Foundation.):

    Rod -

    I have heard a well-founded rumor (I can’t disclose the source) that the Templeton Foundation does have some input in determining who the participants will be on those World Science Festival panels which are part of the Templeton’s Big Idea Series. If that rumor is true, then I think there are certainly legitimate reasons for criticizing the Templeton Foundation’s support of World Science Festival, not simply because it has been one of its major benefactors since its inception.

    While I had the pleasure and privilege of attending both this year’s festival (as well as last year’s) as a volunteer and an audience member of several panel discussions, this year’s Science Faith session was by far the worst. I thought the format – which opened with the moderator asking each panelist in turn to describe how a favorite work of art and piece of music reflected their thoughts on science and religion – was quite odd and not suitable for having a fruitful dialogue. Moreover, it was obvious from the beginning that one of the panelists, Biblical scholar Elaine Pagels, was clearly out of her depth, unable to offer any meaningful discussion to the commentary offered by the other panelists.

    In stark contrast to this year, last year’s Science Faith Religion panel was a sharp divide between atheists and theists, with well considered, but still friendly, exchanges betwee the atheists, philosopher Colin McGinn and physicist Lawrence Krauss, and the theists, Vatican Astronomer Guy Consolmagno and cell biologist Ken Miller. Much to their credit, both Consolmagno and Miller stressed that, as scientists, their scientific principles and duties outweigh their religious ones, except in the privacy of their personal lives when they are able to devote themselves to their faith as devout Roman Catholic Christians.

    Reluctantly I have to agree with Sean Carroll and Jerry Coyne’s observation that a discussion on science and faith does not belong at a World Science Festival (though I am willing to concede that it might, but only in the context of discussing science denialism, that is why some people strongly object to well established science such as evolutionary biology, and even, though to a substantially lesser extent (that it is established), climate change science. Should World Science Festival opt to present another next year, especially with Templeton Foundation support, I believe it is a distinct possibility that none other than Richard Dawkins himself will be leading the chorus of New Atheists and others willing to condemn both the World Science Festival and the Templeton Foundation (especially since his foundation’s website posted both Carroll and Coyne’s condemnations).

    On a more positive note, I often considered your columns in The New York Post to be insightful and well stated. I look forward to reading more of the same when that new magazine is launched.

  81. #81 John Kwok
    June 18, 2010

    Courtesy of Tom Paine’s Ghost:

    http://www.tompainesghost.com/2010/06/faith-and-science-at-world-science.html

    Excellent summary and hope that World Science Festival links to it if it doesn’t use all of it. Unfortunately, that session led me to an entirely different conclusion as to the necessity of having such a discussion. Reluctantly I have to agree with both Sean Carroll and Jerry Coyne’s condemnation of having this panel discussion, especially when last year’s session – also moderated by Blakemore (Incidentally, he has moderated all three, including the first one in 2008.) – was far more informative in trying to determine how religiously devout scientists should comport themselves when working as scientists and then, in private, as devoutly religious adherents of their faith.

    With the notable exception of Francisco Ayala – whom I might add is a prominent contributor to our organization, the National Center for Science Education (http://www.ncse.com) – none of the commentary was as insightful or as noteworthy as the comments stated by last year’s panelists; philosopher Colin McGinn, physicist Lawrence Krauss, planetary scientist – and Vatican Astronomer (and Jesuit brother) – Guy Consolmagno and cell biologist Ken Miller. By far Elaine Pagels was the worst, and her comments clearly demonstrated that she could not add much intellectual depth or respond effectively to the comments uttered by her fellow panelists.

    In lieu of this panel discussion, the World Science Festival should instead, host a freewheeling panel discussion – which could be moderated by Blakemore – on how to deal with science denialism, with an ideal panel consisting of NCSE Executive Director – and physical anthropologist – Eugenie Scott, cell biologist Ken Miller, astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson and philosopher of science Philip Kitcher. Such a group could also delve into questions of faith as it pertains to science denialism. I also believe that their commentary would be far more interesting and insightful than what transpired for reasonable discourse at this year’s World Science Festival Science Faith session.

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