Never let it be said that I don’t acknowledge error. Ophelia Benson, responding in part to my earlier posts on the World Science Festival’s science and faith panel, points out amistake I made:
Meanwhile – Josh Rosenau’s claim, in his post on why there shouldn’t be any atheist scientists on the panel
Whoa, there. I can see how what I wrote implies that, but it wasn’t what I meant, and thus I need to apologize and correct myself. My point was about Affirmative/New Atheists, not about all atheist scientists. Frankly, Francisco Ayala’s religious views are fairly obscure, and according to some accounts of his current theology, there may well be an atheist on that panel. But, as Ophelia notes, my claim about what the panel seemed to be about how individuals integrate faith and science in their own lives. Given Ayala’s unwillingness to publicly discuss his personal views, a silence he’s fully entitled to maintain, that’s just not a credible claim on my part. I stand corrected.
Ophelia points this out also by citing the WSF’s own description of the panel:
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.
The question mark after the word ‘found’ seems to indicate that the panel has not been given orders to start from the certainty that there is a common ground to be found, but rather to discuss whether there is or not; that being the case, it is entirely unobvious that an atheist would send the discussion careening off into obsesso-crazy land, as Josh claims.
I’m not sure that the last couple clauses of that sentence are right, but she has a point. It would be possible to envision a panel with an abstract similar or even identical to this one (setting aside the list of panelists) in which panelists are invited to debate whether New Atheists are right or which, if any, brands of theistic evolution (say) might be correct. That’s not the only panel which could be described by that abstract, but I agree that they might have made that choice.
It’s also clear from looking at the list of panelists that that’s not what they intended this panel to be. On further consideration, I’m fairly sure that they also didn’t intend it to be a personal exploration by scientists of their own paths to reconciliation of religion and science (my earlier blog posts notwithstanding). First, because Ayala doesn’t talk about that, second because Paul Davies seems not to have made his own religious affiliations public (based on quick Googling), third because Pagels is a theologian, not a scientist, and fourth because Thupten Jinpa is not a scientist.
What unites the panelists, then, is not that they have personal experience describing how they navigate that fraught boundary, but because they are all people who have experience in academic studies of science and religion. It’s a fairly large community, with proper journals, university departments, think tanks, peer-reviewers, and experts that has existed for some time. The panelists chosen publish in those journals and can comment on the state of that academic field.
Which New Atheist can say the same? Dawkins has published a popular book on the topic, a book which denies that theology is a worthwhile academic discipline at all and which received some of its most stinging critiques in academic circles precisely for failing to engage the large academic literature on science and religion. I know that he has his reasons for doing so, not least that his goal is to engage with religion-as-practiced rather than with academic theology, but that doesn’t mean he’s ready for an academic panel on the topic. Jerry Coyne has written book reviews of science/religion books in popular magazines, but to my knowledge has no academic publications on the topic. Neither has Sam Harris or PZ Myers.
In the field of science/religion studies, there’s a consensus statement that’s been widely circulated and agreed to, and it states: “in most instances, biology and religion operate at different and non-competing levels… natural theology may be a legitimate enterprise in its own right, but we resist the insistence of intelligent-design advocates that their enterprise be taken as genuine science – just as we oppose efforts of others to elevate science into a comprehensive world view (so-called scientism).” The New Atheists reject this consensus, as they are entitled to do. But they reject it without going through the academic literature of the relevant field, preferring pop-culture books to academic engagement. I could see including a panelist on the WSF discussion who is recognized as an expert by that community but disagrees with the consensus, but including someone who rejects not only the community’s consensus, but the very legitimacy of that academic discipline would be problematic.
What would Sean Carroll or Jerry Coyne or Ophelia Benson say if the World Science Festival created a panel on an academic topic in which a consensus existed within the discipline, and then pulled someone in from outside that discipline who rejects that consensus outright? I imagine that if they put a creationist on a panel about evolution, they’d be in an uproar. If a climate change denier were wedged into a global warming panel, there’d be similar outrage. And no one would let a similar panel off the hook for including someone who thinks Shakespeare was really the Earl of Oxford on a panel about modern Shakespearian scholarship. But if WSF did the same thing for the discipline of science/religion studies, the same folks would cheer. I find that problematic.
I imagine that the response to this argument will be:
a) To take offense at the analogy. How dare I compare Dawkins to a creationist or a global warming denier?
b) To take offense at the notion of science/religion studies as a legitimate endeavor.
As far as I’m concerned, the first objection is only logically valid from someone who rejects the second objection. This is because the comparison between potential panelists is only as strong as the isomorphism between the disciplines. If a topic is illegitimate, then no panel about it should exclude legitimate experts on relevant topics who can rebut the craziness of the pseudoscientists/pseudoacademics.
This might generate another objection: c) whether or not this is a legitimate academic discipline, it isn’t a scientific discipline and therefore doesn’t belong in a World Science Festival.
This objection is only valid if one is also prepared to object to the half-dozen panels on the intersection of science and art or science and science fiction at the same festival. If the premiere of choreography inspired by Brian Greene’s writings belongs at this festival, I’m not sure why a discussion of academic theology’s approach to science wouldn’t be appropriate. The festival is engaging both the practice of science and science’s broader cultural context.
Eventually, someone who actually attended the damnable thing will actually describe the events, and we can stop speculating about what the panel was meant to be, and discuss what was actually said there. Until then, I thank Ophelia (and Jason) for catching some faults in my earlier arguments, but I think my original conclusions are still valid.