Why Faith and Science?

In the run-up to this year's Faith and Science panel at the 2010 World Science Festival, there was some concern expressed (here and here) about our sponsors' influence on programming. In light of such criticism, we thought it would be a good time to reiterate the Festival's absolute editorial independence, as addressed last year by World Science Festival co-founders, Brian Greene and Tracy Day, in response to similar concerns:

The World Science Festival produces programs according to the strictest standards of editorial integrity. It goes without saying—but for clarity’s sake we shall say it anyway—that in keeping with standard journalistic practices, the World Science Festival does not accept financial contributions that come with any expectation or stipulation for participation in editorial decision-making. And just so it’s clear that this is not a platitude, we’ll note that the Festival has turned down sponsorship opportunities, some quite substantial, because the sponsor sought to blur the Festival’s requirement of a sharp and inviolable distinction between financial support and editorial control. All of the Festival’s sponsors respect this distinction fully.

We feel strongly that it is thoroughly and completely appropriate for the World Science Festival to have a program focusing on Science, Faith, and Religion. We conceived the World Science Festival as an annual gathering that would take science out of the classroom—where for far too long it has been consigned—and allow the general public to immerse itself in this most wondrous and insightful of human undertakings.

As such, the Festival has programs that not only focus on the content of science traditionally defined, but programs that seek to illuminate how science interfaces with other disciplines and outlooks. We’ve had dance programs interpreting unified theories through choreography and music, plays seeking the human saga paralleling great scientific discoveries, debates focused on policy implications of scientific developments and breakthroughs, readings and discussions of literature influenced by science, among many other forays into ‘non-scientific’ disciplines. For the Festival to have programs exploring the art-science relationship, the government-science relationship, the business-science relationship, the literature-science relationship, and yet to willfully ignore the prominent and tumultuous religion-science relationship would be a strange and, dare we say, cowardly omission.

If there is an opportunity for compelling discourse with the capacity to yield a deeper understanding of scientific thinking, its role in exposing the nature of reality and humankind’s place within it, then there’s room for such a program in our Festival.

The bottom line is that we're resolute in our belief that an honest discussion about faith and science is an important one, and that it should take place in an open, editorially independent manner. And where else to have such a conversation than at a function dedicated to the celebration of rationality and the power of science? We recognize and respect that there are differing views on this. And for that reason, we will continue to invite thinkers from all points of the spectrum—even those who disagree that the conversation should happen in the first place.

As for this year's Faith and Science panel—featuring Francisco Ayala, Paul Davies, Elaine Pagels, and Thupten Jinpa—see Kristopher Hite's comprehensive coverage of the discussion on his blog, Tom Paine's Ghost. Kristopher Hite is a biochemistry PhD candidate from Colorado State University, who volunteered at this year's Festival and was on the scene to cover Faith and Science at his own request. He lays out his motivations and thoughts going into the event:

This was my first time attending the World Science Festival as I signed up to volunteer months ago, otherwise I have no affiliation with WSF or any of the funding foundations. My thoughts are my own and I feel I am in a position to judge this event without bias. I have kept my finger on the pulse of the "new-atheist" vs. "religious apologist" debate for years and always come to the same conclusion. Talking about something controversial, whether it be cold fusion, God, or intrinsically disordered proteins, is better than not talking about it. I am a biochemist and not religious but I do see great value in discussion, even among those diametrically opposed. One of my favorite philosophers, Dr. Bernard Rollin said in thanking his colleagues at the front of his book Science and Ethics, "Plato is right; thought is dialogue, people in lively discussion, not Rodin's isolated Cartesian." Though I understand the criticism flung at this event, I feel an event whose mission is to bring science into the public sphere must include such a discussion, as religion plays such a prominent role in the lives of so many around the globe.

What follows is an almost play-by-play account of the entire program. In the end, Hite concludes:

The utility of this panel became clear to me after it was over. While waiting to talk to the panelists I overheard one audience member say to Dr. Davies "I'm a layman, so to me all I hear in the faith/science debates are the loudest most vocal of the two sides." This illustrates to me why calm discussion is necessary, it is through thoughtful and nuanced discussion that we move radicals away from the edge of zealotry, into a realm of moderation so discussion can continue. I disagree with many assumptions made in the discussion I just transcribed. I see no reason human beings can not derive "meaning and purpose" while maintaining a secular humanist world-view. I see no reason to invoke ancient traditions as necessary for maintaining cultural identity or having a rich understanding of significant historical events such as the bombing Guernica. I do however see a real need for more, and wider, OPEN discussions such as this! Thank you for reading and thinking with me.

But I urge you to have a look at his complete wrap-up of the panel to judge for yourself. And if you come to a different conclusion than he did, that's okay, too.

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@ Kris Hite -

Thanks for your insightful post, which was posted at your blog and at the World Science Festivalâs. However, as I have noted, I have concluded, with utmost reluctance, that both Jerry Coyne, and especially, Sean Carroll, are correct in condemning the World Science Festival for conceiving and hosting a session on science and faith. While I remain agnostic about the festivalâs sponsorship by the Templeton Foundation, it should be noted that the forthcoming USA Science and Engineering Festival has not received any financial assistance from those organizations which have any religious agendas period:


While I have the utmost respect and admiration for my fellow Stuyvesant High School alumnus Brian Greene and his wife Tracy Dayâs World Science Festival, it is a festival which shouldnât have any substantial considerations at all on the relationship between science and faith (And if it should continue to have such an interest, then Sean Carroll is absolutely right in insinuating that it should be known henceforth as the âWorld Science (and Faith) Festivalâ.). For their sake, I hope they are prepared for further substantial criticism of both their festival and its Templeton Foundation support from others, including, potentially, from three eminent New Atheists who are members of the World Science Festival advisory panel; physicist Lawrence Krauss, philosopher Daniel Dannett, and last, but not least, evolutionary biologist and writer Richard Dawkins.

By John Kwok (not verified) on 22 Jun 2010 #permalink

Brian and Tracy need to emphasize why the World Science Festival should have continued financial support from the Templeton Foundation, justifying it purely from its perspective of supporting scientific research and public outreach programs in science, without resorting â which Brian did unfortunately earlier this month when introducing this year â to a memoiresque account of his familyâs religious background as his primary justification. And they should remind the Templeton Foundation that it must remain consistent in its aim of funding sound scientific research, even if the results of that research run counter to its religious point of view

By John Kwok (not verified) on 22 Jun 2010 #permalink

Greg -

A "Science Faith" session was only useful when two religiously devout scientists, cell biologists Ken Miller and Vatican Astronomer (and Jesuit Brother) - Guy Consolmagno argued persuasively that, as scientists, their duties and obligations with respect to science greatly outweigh - indeed, to use their words - trump any religious considerations. It is only in private moments will they adhere to their religious convictions, as long as those convictions do not conflict with their scientific ones (Regrettably, have yet to read of similar distinctions voiced by such prominent religiously devout scientists as Francis Collins and Simon Conway Morris.). Moroever, a few weeks prior to last year's World Science Festival, during a private talk given before fellow college alumni in New York, NY, Ken Miller declared that those who belong to faiths hostile to science should discard their memberships in such faiths (Now that's a question which I would love to see Bill Blakemore ask of any Science Faith panelists, past, present, and future. BTW saw Blakemore briefly last night at the American Museum of Natural History, but wasn't able to pose this very question.).

If Science/Faith isn't trying "to equate empiricallly rigorous observations with religious/spiritual beliefs" then its mere existence is comparable to having a so-called "debate" between a "scientific creationist" and an "evolutionist". In neither case is it helpful to confer legitimacy on something that is definitey not science. Let's adhere instead to some form of Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA - which was strongly implied by Francisco J. Ayala's comments - and either have a discussion in which one could debate the merits of whether science can or should be compatible with religion (which is absolutely pointless because of the New Atheist "crusade" against accomodationism - unless you want WSF to be yet another "battleground" - which started with an early January 2009 online commentary by the likes of Jerry Coyne, Lisa Randall, Lawrence Krauss, Michael Shermer and Ken Miller, among others:


- or just drop it in light of likely opposition from WSF advisory board members Lawrence Krauss, Daniel Dennett, and especially, Richard Dawkins (The fact that Dawkins had Coyne and Carroll's blog posts critical of WSF posted at his foundation's website should be a wake up call to you and the rest of WSF's staff to tread lightly, and even opt to drop the idea of doing another Science Faith session.). It would be a pity if Brian and Tracy's message was drowned out by a substantial online backlash from the likes of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens.

By John Kwok (not verified) on 23 Jun 2010 #permalink

Greg -

I am reasonably certain WSF will be criticized in October and next year with respect to Templeton Foundation support, and for having programs which seek to find some kind of common ground between religion and science (While the latter is a laudable goal, I think New Atheists such as Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne and Lawrence Krauss are right in criticizing the existence of programs pertaining to science and faith at the World Science Festival.).

Comparisons will be made between WSF's major sources of funding and USA Science and Engineering Festival's in October, when the inaugural festival is held in DC:


Given Apple's long-term relationship with the Tribeca Film Festival, might it be more fruitful to cultivate such a relationship with it, than to emphasize again, WSF's ties to a foundation whose past experience with regards to funding both science research and promoting better scientific communication to the public has often been controversial, to say the least?

By John Kwok (not verified) on 26 Jun 2010 #permalink