Should Science Speak to Faith?
Two prominent defenders of science exchange their views on how scientists ought to approach religion and its followers.
BY: Lawrence M. Krauss and Richard Dawkins
I like your clarification of what you mean by reaching out. But let me warn you of how easy it is to be misunderstood. I once wrote in a New York Times book review, "It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)." That sentence has been quoted again and again in support of the view that I am a bigoted, intolerant, closed-minded, intemperate ranter. But just look at my sentence. It may not be crafted to seduce, but you, Lawrence, know in your heart that it is a simple and sober statement of fact.
Ignorance is no crime. To call somebody ignorant is no insult. All of us are ignorant of most of what there is to know. I am completely ignorant of baseball, and I dare say that you are as completely ignorant of cricket. If I tell somebody who believes the world is 6,000 years old that he is ignorant, I am paying him the compliment of assuming that he is not stupid, insane or wicked.
I have to say that I agree completely with you about this. To me, ignorance is often the problem, and, happily, ignorance is most easily addressed. It is not pejorative to suggest that someone is ignorant if they misunderstand scientific issues.
In exchange, I am happy to agree with you that I could, and probably should, have put it more tactfully. I should have reached out more seductively. But there are limits. You would stop short of the following extreme: "Dear Young Earth Creationist, I deeply respect your belief that the world is 6,000 years old. Nevertheless, I humbly and gently suggest that if you were to read a book on geology, or radioisotope dating, or cosmology, or archaeology, or history, or zoology, you might find it fascinating (along with the Bible of course), and you might begin to see why almost all educated people, including theologians, think the world's age is measured in billions of years, not thousands."
Let me propose an alternative seduction strategy. Instead of pretending to respect dopey opinions, how about a little tough love? Dramatize to the Young Earth Creationist the sheer magnitude of the discrepancy between his beliefs and those of scientists: "6,000 years is not just a little bit different from 4.6 billion years. It is so different that, dear Young Earth Creationist, it is as though you were to claim that the distance from New York to San Francisco is not 3,400 miles but 7.8 yards. Of course, I respect your right to disagree with scientists, but perhaps it wouldn't hurt and offend you too much to be told—as a matter of deductive and indisputable arithmetic—the actual magnitude of the disagreement you've taken on."
In the 2006 Baylor Religion Survey of 1,721 U.S. adults:
69% thought prayer should be allowed in schools 25% thought some UFO sightings are probably spaceships from other worlds 88% rejected the idea that God favors any particular political party 69% rejected the idea that God favors the U.S. in worldly affairs
I don't think your suggestion is "tough love." In fact, it is precisely what I was advocating, namely, a creative and seductive way of driving home the magnitude and nature of such misconceptions. Some people will always remain deluded, in spite of facts, but surely those are not the ones we are trying to reach. Rather it is the vast bulk of the public who may have open minds about science but simply don't know much about it or have never been exposed to scientific evidence. In this regard, let me pose another question, about which you may feel even more strongly: Can science enrich faith, or must it always destroy it?
The question came to me because I was recently asked to speak at a Catholic college at a symposium on science and religion. I guess I was viewed as someone interested in reconciling the two. After agreeing to lecture, I discovered that I had been assigned the title Science Enriching Faith. In spite of my initial qualms, the more I thought about the title, the more rationale I could see for it. The need to believe in a divine intelligence without direct evidence is, for better or worse, a fundamental component of many people's psyches. I do not think we will rid humanity of religious faith any more than we will rid humanity of romantic love or many of the irrational irrational but fundamental aspects of human cognition. While orthogonal from the scientific rational components, they are no less real and perhaps no less worthy of some celebration when we consider our humanity.
As an aside, such pessimism about humanity is popular among rationalists to the point of outright masochism. It is almost as though you and others at the conference where this dialogue began positively relish the idea that humanity is perpetually doomed to unreason. But I think irrationality has nothing to do with romantic love or poetry or the emotions that lie so close to what makes life worth living. Those are not orthogonal to rationality. Perhaps they are tangential to it. In any case, I am all for them, as are you. Positively irrational beliefs and superstitions are a different matter entirely. To accept that we can never be rid of them—that they are an irrevocable part of human nature—is manifestly untrue of you and, I would guess, most of your colleagues and friends. Isn't it therefore rather condescending to assume that humans at large are constitutionally incapable of breaking free of them?
I am not so confident that I am rid of irrational beliefs, at least irrational beliefs about myself. But if religious faith is a central part of the life experience of many people, the question, it seems to me, is not how we can rid the world of God but to what extent can science at least moderate this belief and cut out the most irrational and harmful aspects of religious fundamentalism. That is certainly one way science might enrich faith.