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Short Sighted Science

There is this sudden rash of books by famous scientists suggesting we extirpate religion from society, starting with Daniel Dennett ‘s “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon,” which I mentioned a few months ago, and moving on to “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins. This past Tuesday’s New York Times Science Section has an article by George Johnson about Science and Religion. (Johnson wrote a terrific biography of Murray Gell-Mann called ‘Strange Beauty’.)

“The world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious beliefs,” Johnson quotes Steve Weinberg, who continues that “Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.” I suppose this is a call to arms.

Why do scientists think that they have some greater wisdom about what’s good for the world, or that people should pay more attention to them than to rock singers? The Beatles were better scientists and observers with their remark that “we’re more famous than Jesus now.” In fact, being a good scientist means you’re a good scientist – period. It doesn’t mean you have any greater wisdom in other spheres. That’s why they don’t put James Watson on the board of the International Tchaikovsky Competition’s violin prize or Burton Richter on the board that determines the Booker prize.

One of the fallacies with this viewpoint, pushed more evangelistically (yes) by Dawkins, is that it regards religion as some alien virus that has infected humanity, something that came from outside and needs/can be surgically removed.

The most naive remark in the article was by one Carolyn Porco, “a senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder Colorado.” “Let’s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome — and even comforting — than anything offered by any scripture or God Concept I know.” Only someone who has been lucky or unimaginative enough to live a very cosseted life can imagine that the history of the universe will provide solace for life’s little and large tragedies. And someone who thinks the “richness of the universe” means the physical richness of the universe.

Two less famous scientists in the article did show a much greater knowledge of life as it is rather than as we’d like to believe it is.

Francisco J. Ayala: There are six billion people in the world. If we think that we are going to persuade them to live a rational life based on scientific knowledge, we are not only dreaming — it is like people believing in the fairy godmother.

Lawrence Krauss, a professed nonbeliever, nevertheless: Science does not make it impossible to believe in God. We should recognize that face and live with it and stop being so pompous about it.

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