Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Whatever you do, don’t call them militant

Blimey, it’s a lot worse than I thought. I had worried somewhat that I had unfairly prejudged the Reason Project in my Nature Muse, suggesting (mildly, I thought) that this might be the same old line of seeking out the worst in religion to expose the urgent need for its destruction and then imagining that this can be done by simply telling people the facts, so far as we currently know them, about the origins of humanity and the universe. But on current showing, that is precisely what it seems to be.

As a firm atheist, I don’t particularly object to that. I just find it a bit over-optimistic, and a tad intellectually lame. It reminds me of the old deficit model that used to motivate the Public Understanding of Science movement: just give people the right facts, and then they’ll agree with us. I am in favour of any movement that campaigns to kick out of schools the invidious misinformation of creationism, intelligent design and the rest of the shoddy fundamentalist agenda. I am very much in favour of a movement that aims to denounce religious intolerance and that attacks the kind of harmful and ignorant nonsense that seems increasingly to be coming from the Vatican. And I believe I said that in my article.

But what depresses me is that the Reason Project and many of its supporters are so sure of the battle-lines that they have lost the ability of basic English comprehension. It is this that has earned me the delightful honour of a place in the Reason Project’s Hall of Shame, no less – because it has decided that I am placing the irenic BioLogos Foundation, the Templeton Foundation, and other apologists, on a pedestal, making them the nice, friendly good guys who only want us all to get along. Does my article say that? No, it simply quotes from the BioLogos mission statement (just as it quotes from the Reason Project mission statement). That this is taken as registering approval is a bit disturbing. The fact that I suggest the Reason Project in some respects ‘should be applauded’, and say no such thing about the BioLogos Foundation, doesn’t seem to be noticed. (The fact is that I’m utterly indifferent to the BioLogos Foundation. I find its aims uninspiring and its current statements about the relation of science and religion somewhat shallow.)

Did I say (as most of the comments on the Reason Project page imply) that science and religion are compatible? No. They are systems of thought that seem to me to stem from quite different axioms, and are bound to run into logical contradictions. But humans seem remarkably good at living with contradictions. We all do it. It is not a particularly laudable attribute, but it is what we are like (most of us). Many people (not me) are apparently able to reconcile religious belief with a deep trust in science. I’m not sure how, but they do. I suspect they just take the bits they like and ignore the bits that clash. On current evidence, this seems to offend a lot of people associated with the Reason Project.

There doesn’t seem to be much to be gained from responding to the various comments on the Reason Project site, since they are so lamentable. (A sample: ‘It is sad to see that, in their desperation to recapitalize, a journal with the prestige of Nature is whoring around looking for some of that Tempelton prize money. Go write and editorialize for a religious newspaper or magazine if you want to espouse religious viewpoints.’ ‘Dr Ball essentially states that while religion, admittedly, wrongly picks on certain aspects of science, religion and science can coexist, and thus we should not eliminate religion.’ ‘I find it particularly disturbing that this article [sic] was in a science magazine. Once again we have a document declairing [sic] ignorance as a right of passage.’ ‘I found this part objectionable, “atheistic absolutism works as long as it ignores what people are like.” I feel it misses the point that people are not like anything. It is the memes that make people believe in sky fairies and all the other wishful thinking crap.’ ‘Philip Ball says it himself—“religion is a social construct.” Science is not. In defending faith without evidence, does he really not see the irony in this statement?!’ [Oh yes, the irony!] ‘Philip Ball presents Francis Collins as a happy peacemaker vs the “militant atheists.”’ Stop now, it’s too depressing.)

But hey, that’s the blogosphere for you. If I was Sam Harris, however, I’d be worried. And what truly depresses me is that this may actually reflect the level of comprehension and reflection found ‘at the top’ of the Reason Project. I think we haven’t heard the last of this yet.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Do we need another reason?

[This is the pre-edited version of my latest piece for Nature's online news. Do we really need more about science and religion? Probably not, although my excuse for this piece is the recent launch of two fairly high-profile projects pertaining to that topic. Richard Holmes puts the case much more succinctly in his splendid book The Age of Wonder: “The old, rigid debates and boundaries – science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics – are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective.”]

The ‘war’ between science and religion is stuck in a rut. Can we change the record now?

The 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s famous ‘Two Cultures’ lecture has elicited mixed views. Some feel that the divide between the sciences and the humanities is as broad and uncomfortable as it was in 1959; others say the world has moved on. But perhaps we need instead to acknowledge that today’s divisions exist between two quite different cultures.

To my mind, the most problematic of these is the distinction between those who believe in the value of knowledge and learning, whether artists, scientists, historians or politicians, and those who reject, even denigrate, intellectualism in world affairs. Some have suggested that these poles are personified by the present and previous incumbents of the White House.

But others feel that the most serious disparity is now between those who trust in science and Enlightenment rationalism, and those guided by religious scripture. This feeling has apparently motivated the recent launch of the Reason Project, an initiative organized by neuroscientist and writer Sam Harris, which boasts a stellar advisory board that includes Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Steven Weinberg, Harry Kroto, Craig Venter and Steven Pinker, along with Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ian McEwan.

The project aims ‘to spread scientific knowledge and secular values in society’ and ‘to encourage critical thinking and erode the influence of dogmatism, superstition, and bigotry in our world.’ It is not hard, given the list of backers, to see what that means: doing battle with religion.

There are plenty of reasons why this may be necessary. They are well rehearsed, pertaining mostly to the conflict between scientific and fundamentalist ways of understanding human origins. And it’s perilously easy, to the east of the Atlantic, to get complacent about this: when a wealthy, treacle-voiced American said proudly to me recently ‘I’m a creationist’, I was reminded that there are places where this isn’t deemed tantamount to announcing ‘I’m impressionable and ignorant’.

Important though such issues are, the Reason Project’s supporters would probably agree that they pale in comparison with the use (or generally, abuse) of religious dogma to justify suppression of human rights, maltreatment and murder. To the extent that those are in the project’s sights, it should be applauded. But with Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) on board, one can’t help suspecting that the Almighty Himself is the prime target.

This debate now tends to cluster into two camps. One, exemplified by the Reason Project, insists that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible, and that the world ain’t big enough for the both of them.

The other side is exemplified by another recently launched project, the BioLogos Foundation, established by the former leader of the Human Genome Project Francis Collins. In this view, science and religion can and should make their peace: there is no reason why they cannot coexist. The mission statement of BioLogos speaks of ‘America’s escalating culture war between science and faith’, and explains that the Foundation ‘emphasizes the compatibility of Christian faith with what science has discovered about the origins of the universe and life.’
(There is, incidentally, a third camp too, which insists that religion must expunge heretical science such as Darwinism. Without denying that this is a dangerously widespread view, its vacuity disqualifies it from discussion here.)

BioLogos is funded by the Templeton Foundation, which likewise seeks to identify common ground between science and religion. To the militant atheists, this is sheer appeasement, if not indeed capitulation, in an insidious war of stealth where religion insinuates itself into the heartlands of science.

That is what evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, a board member of the Reason Project, laments in an essay called ‘Truckling to the Faithful: A Spoonful of Jesus Helps Darwin Go Down.’ Coyne accuses the US National Academy of Sciences, and especially its National Center for Science Education, of irenic pandering to the religious masses.

What the Reason Project has in its favour is philosophical rigour. That may also be its failing, because it looks unlikely to venture beyond those walls. Like most utopian ideas, atheistic absolutism works so long as it ignores what people are like and remains in a cultural and historical vacuum. Logical neatness and self-consistency is, unfortunately, not enough.

Sadly, when that is pointed out – as for example when the Royal Society’s former director of education Michael Reiss suggested that it was best to understand religiously motivated delusions such as creationism as world views rather than as mere ignorance that the right information would set right – scientists tend to react badly. Reiss, a biologist and an ordained Christian clergyman, was forced to resign, I suspect because some scientists found a whiff of relativism in his remarks.

I’m glad people make it their business to expose bigotry and oppression. If some choose to focus on instances where those things are religiously motivated – well, why not? But it seems important to acknowledge that the supposed conflict between science and faith is actually not that big a deal. What is a big deal is the relatively recent strength of fundamentalist opposition to selected aspects of scientific thought, which has made the USA and Turkey the two Western countries with the lowest proportion of population who believe in evolution. Were it not for such developments, science and religion could continue their wary truce, with no compulsion to iron out the differences.

In other words, this is not a matter of science versus faith, but of the rejection of aspects of science that challenge power structures. (After all, fundamentalism rarely objects to technology per se, and indeed is often disturbingly keen to acquire it.) That’s not to minimize the problem, but recognizing it for what it is will avoid false dichotomies, and perhaps make it easier to find solutions. The over-exposed example of Galileo’s trial can still serve here to illustrate the point. If we choose to believe that the Catholic Church condemned Galileo’s heliocentrism because it conflicted with scripture, we have an unassailable case against superstitious dogma. If we recognize that the issue was at least as much about maintaining the Church’s authority, we have to concede some rationality in the papal position, however repugnant the motives.

So there is little to be gained from trying to topple the temple – it’s the false priests who are the menace. If we can recognize that religion, like any ideology, is a social construct – with benefits, dangers, arbitrary inventions and, most of all, roots in human nature – then we might forgo a lot of empty argument and get back to the worldly wonders of the lab bench. Given the ‘usual suspects’ feeling that attends both the Reason Project and most Templeton initiatives, I suspect many have come to that conclusion already.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

What I’m reading

I have come across a diverting blog called Writers Read, which posts short pieces about, well, what writers are reading. Some might regard that as solipsistic, but personally I’m always intrigued by what other writers think about books. I was asked to contribute my own list, which right now makes me sound like a voluminous reader. The fact is, it takes me forever to finish a book when I’m not reading for professional purposes. I would add, hopefully without giving anything away, that I’m currently working through Richard Holmes’ much-praised The Age of Wonder, and it is truly spectacular. I feel dwarfed by his achievement. But in a good way.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Not so fantastic

I have reviewed Eugenie Samuel Reich’s new book Plastic Fantastic in the Sunday Times (here). The book tells the story of the fraud perpetrated by physicist Jan Hendrik Schön between around 1997 and 2002, during which time he fabricated data in a string of papers about organic microelectronics and nanoelectronics. It was something of an eye-opener to discover the details behind the affair, even though I thought I was fairly well aware of the basic facts. I missed, by the skin of my teeth, being implicated in the matter as a Nature editor, since I quit that job shortly around the time that Schön’s papers started to roll in.

For understandable reasons of space, the Sunday Times lopped off the final sentence in my review, which cited a quote from Cambridge physicist Peter Littlewood that, to my mind, captures the essence of what went on, as Reich makes clear: ‘For a long time I didn’t believe it could have been fraud, because I didn’t believe one person could make all that up. Then I realized, we all made it up.’