Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Why Do Scientists Give God a Free Pass?

Marina Grace emailed me this article by Pulitzer Prize winning science journalist Natalie Angier.

Angier explains why most scientists are quiet on the subject of God:

No, most scientists are not interested in taking on any of the mighty cornerstones of Christianity. They complain about irrational thinking, they despise creationist "science," they roll their eyes over America's infatuation with astrology, telekinesis, spoon bending, reincarnation, and UFOs, but toward the bulk of the magic acts that have won the imprimatur of inclusion in the Bible, they are tolerant, respectful, big of tent. Indeed, many are quick to point out that the Catholic Church has endorsed the theory of evolution and that it sees no conflict between a belief in God and the divinity of Jesus and the notion of evolution by natural selection. If the pope is buying it, the reason for most Americans' resistance to evolution must have less to do with religion than with a lousy advertising campaign.

So, on the issue of mainstream monotheistic religions and the irrationality behind many of religion's core tenets, scientists often set aside their skewers, their snark, and their impatient demand for proof, and instead don the calming cardigan of a a kiddie-show host on public television. They reassure the public that religion and science are not at odds with one another, but rather that they represent separate "magisteria," in the words of the formerly alive and even more formerly scrappy Stephen Jay Gould.

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So why is it that most scientists avoid criticizing religion even as they decry the supernatural mind-set? For starters, some researchers are themselves traditionally devout, keeping a kosher kitchen or taking Communion each Sunday...

Scientists, however, are a far less religious lot than the American population, and, the higher you go on the cerebro-magisterium, the greater the proportion of atheists, agnostics, and assorted other paganites. According to a 1998 survey published in Nature, only 7 percent of members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences professed a belief in a "personal God." (Interestingly, a slightly higher number, 7.9 percent, claimed to believe in "personal immortality," which may say as much about the robustness of the scientific ego as about anything else.) In other words, more than 90 percent of our elite scientists are unlikely to pray for divine favoritism, no matter how badly they want to beat a competitor to publication. Yet only a flaskful of the faithless have put their nonbelief on record or publicly criticized religion, the notable and voluble exceptions being Richard Dawkins of Oxford University and Daniel Dennett of Tufts University...

So, what keeps most scientists quiet about religion? It's probably something close to that trusty old limbic reflex called "an instinct for self-preservation." For centuries, science has survived quite nicely by cultivating an image of reserve and objectivity, of being above religion, politics, business, table manners. Scientists want to be left alone to do their work, dazzle their peers, and hire grad students to wash the glassware. When it comes to extramural combat, scientists choose their crusades cautiously...

Scientists have ample cause to feel they must avoid being viewed as irreligious, a prionic life-form bent on destroying the most sacred heifer in America. After all, academic researchers graze on taxpayer pastures. If they pay the slightest attention to the news, they've surely noticed the escalating readiness of conservative politicians and an array of highly motivated religious organizations to interfere with the nation's scientific enterprise—altering the consumer information Web site at the National Cancer Institute to make abortion look like a cause of breast cancer, which it is not, or stuffing scientific advisory panels with anti-abortion "faith healers."

Recently, an obscure little club called the Traditional Values Coalition began combing through descriptions of projects supported by the National Institutes of Health and complaining to sympathetic congressmen about those they deemed morally "rotten," most of them studies of sexual behavior and AIDS prevention. The congressmen in turn launched a series of hearings, calling in institute officials to inquire who in the Cotton-pickin' name of Mather cares about the perversions of Native American homosexuals, to which the researchers replied, um, the studies were approved by a panel of scientific experts, and, gee, the Native American community has been underserved and is having a real problem with AIDS these days. Thus far, the projects have escaped being nullified, but the raw display of pious dentition must surely give fright to even the most rakishly freethinking and comfortably tenured professor. It's one thing to monkey with descriptions of Darwinism in a high-school textbook. But to threaten to take away a peer-reviewed grant!

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I don't believe in life after death, but I'd like to believe in life before death. I'd like to think that one of these days we'll leave superstition and delusional thinking and Jerry Falwell behind. Scientists would like that, too. But for now, they like their grants even more.

12 comments:

skcorefil said...

I think that for the most part, trying to wreck other people's beliefs is kinda impolite and most scientists would realize that other people's beliefs are none of their business.

Also, as a scientist, you are used to knowing more about things than the general populace and you learn to keep your mouth shut most of the time if it doesn't matter because you end up looking like a boring know it all and not being invited to parties if you say everything you know about a topic.

beepbeepitsme said...

The possibility that this life is all any of us have, makes my life and yours, more precious not less.

I can't see the overtly religious coming to grips with this concept soon. But I wish they would.

asher said...

The idea that this life is all we have makes life itself pretty meaningless. It means we have the same value as tree bark and drops of water. If that doesn't make you nothing...ultimately.

beepbeepitsme said...

RE asher:

I disagree. We will always be important to those we love and to those who love us.

CyberKitten said...

Actually the idea that this is our only shot at life makes things far *more* meaningful, not less... as Beep said.

As to scientists giving religion a 'free ride' that's probably for multiple reasons. I'm guessing that in most scientific spheres the subject, never mind the 'conflict' never comes up.

Those scientists who do not speak up about religion (and especially those who do not speak out against it) are either religious themselves or have no real interest in the subject - its not compulsorary after all!

I'm also guessing that as most scientists find it increasingly difficult to keep up with their own area of expertise it is hardly surprising that many would not have the time (or inclination) to delve into areas outside their expertise.

jewish philosopher said...

I think another problem may be that if scientists begin preaching against religion, someone may ask them embarrassing questions about what exactly THEY believe in. Then they'll start getting into issues like social Darwinism, no morality, no free will, no value to human life, nihilism in general. It's probably best to just avoid the issue, unless you're a maniac like Madelyn Murray O'Hare or live in Europe like Richard Dawkins.

CyberKitten said...

JP said: It's probably best to just avoid the issue, unless you're a maniac like Madelyn Murray O'Hare or live in Europe like Richard Dawkins.

Unless you're mad or European... [rotflmao].

Well, I guess that the Enlightenment *did* start over here... [chuckle].

I think that 'the issue' has been avoided for *far* too long...

JP said: Then they'll start getting into issues like social Darwinism, no morality, no free will, no value to human life, nihilism in general.

That's a rather interesting (if warped) view of science...

jewish philosopher said...

"That's a rather interesting (if warped) view of science..."

None of that has anything to do with science. I am big supporter of science. But is has everything to do with atheism, which is what most scientists believe.

CyberKitten said...

JP said: But is has everything to do with atheism, which is what most scientists believe.

I wonder why?

Is it that they know more than the average citizen? Have they thought about the issue more? Have they encounted facts that cannot co-exist with a Universe with God in it? Why does there seem to be such a strong link between science & atheism?

jewish philosopher said...

Actually, scientists know no more about theology and philosophy than the average shopkeeper. I don't think that Professor Dawkins' study of animal behavior, which is what he is actually expert in, revealed to him any secrets of the universe.

Rather, atheism preaches that nature is all there is. People who believe this naturally are drawn to a career in science. It's like asking why are so many Talmudic scholars Orthodox Jews.

beepbeepitsme said...

If such a thing as freewill exists,I think it would exist because there isn't a god. If there is a god, it is all god's will.

Freewill isn't love me or be tortured for ever. That is consent garnered through fear and intimidation.

CyberKitten said...

Funny how people ignore that eh, Beep?

Here's a choice where you can exercise your free will.

But remember - if you chose wrongly (using that free will) I'll torture you forever.

Not much of a choice is it? How 'free' is that?