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
In my lecture to the Catholic group, for instance, I took guidance from your latest book and described how scientific principles, including the requirement not to be selective in choosing data, dictate that one cannot pick and choose in one's fundamentalism. If one believes that homosexuality is an abomination because it says so in the Bible, one has to accept the other things that are said in the Bible, including the allowance to kill your children if they are disobedient or validation of the right to sleep with your father if you need to have a child and there are no other men around, and so forth.
Moreover, science can directly debunk many such destructive literal interpretations of scripture, including, for example, the notion that women are simple chattels, which stands counter to what biology tells us about the generic biological roles of females and the intellectual capabilities of women and men in particular. In the same sense that Galileo argued, when he suggested that God would not have given hu¬mans brains if "he" did not intend people to use them to study nature, science definitely can thus enrich faith.
Still another benefit science has to offer was presented most cogently by Carl Sagan, who, like you and me, was not a person of faith. Nevertheless, in a posthumous compilation of his 1985 Gifford Lectures in Scotland on science and religion, he makes the point that standard religious wonder is in fact too myopic, too limited. A single world is too puny for a real God. The vast scope of our universe, revealed to us by science, is far grander. Moreover, one might now add, in light of the current vogue in theoretical physics, that a single universe may be too puny and that one might want to start thinking in terms of a host of universes. I hasten to add, however, that enriching faith is far different than providing supporting evidence for faith, which is something that I believe science certainly does not do.
Yes, I love that sentiment of Sagan's, and I'm so glad you picked it out. I summed it up for the publishers of those lectures on the book jacket: "Was Carl Sagan a religious man? He was so much more. He left behind the petty, parochial, medieval world of the conventionally religious; left the theologians, priests and mullahs wallowing in their small-minded spiritual poverty. He left them behind, because he had so much more to be religious about. They have their Bronze Age myths, medieval superstitions and childish wishful thinking. He had the universe." I don't think there is anything I can add in answering your question about whether science can enrich faith. It can, in the sense you and Sagan mean. But I'd hate to be misunderstood as endorsing faith.
I want to close with an issue that I think is central to much of the current debate going on among scientists regarding religion: Is religion inherently bad? I confess here that my own views have evolved over the years, although you might argue that I have simply gone soft. There is certainly ample evidence that religion has been responsible for many atrocities, and I have often said, as have you, that no one would fly planes into tall buildings on purpose if it were not for a belief that God was on their side.
In a 2007 Newsweek poll of 1,004 U.S. adults::
48% thought that God created humans in their present form in the past 10,000 years 30% thought that humans evolved from simpler life-forms, with God guiding the process 48% thought the theory of evolution is well supported by evidence, but 39% thought the theory is not well supported.
As a scientist, I feel that my role is to object when religious belief causes people to teach lies about the world. In this regard, I would argue that one should respect religious sensibilities no more or less than any other metaphysical inclinations, but in particular they should not be respected when they are wrong. By wrong, I mean beliefs that are manifestly in disagreement with empirical evidence. The earth is not 6,000 years old. The sun did not stand still in the sky. The Kennewick Man was not a Umatilla Indian. What we need to try to eradicate is not religious belief, or faith, it is ignorance. Only when faith is threatened by knowledge does it become the enemy.
I think we pretty much agree here. And although "lie" is too strong a word because it implies intention to deceive, I am not one of those who elevate moral arguments above the question of whether religious beliefs are true. I recently had a televised encounter with the veteran British politician Tony Benn, a former minister of technology who calls himself a Christian. It became very clear in the course of our discussion that he had not the slightest interest in whether Christian beliefs are true or not; his only concern was whether they are moral. He objected to science on the grounds that it gave no moral guidance. When I protested that moral guidance is not what science is about, he came close to asking what, then, was the use of science. A classic example of a syndrome the philosopher Daniel Dennett has called "belief in belief."
Other examples include those people who think that whether religious beliefs are true or false is less important than the power of religion to comfort and to give a purpose to life. I imagine you would agree with me that we have no objection to people drawing comfort from wherever they choose and no objection to strong moral compasses. But the question of the moral or consolation value of religion—one way or the other—must be kept separate in our minds from the truth value of religion. I regularly encounter difficulties in persuading religious people of this distinction, which suggests to me that we scientific seducers have an uphill struggle on our hands.
The conversation between Lawrence M. Krauss and Richard Dawkins continues in an extended version at http://www.sciam.com/.