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Sunday, September 14, 2008

How Should Scientific Societies Treat Religion?

 
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) describes itself as ...
The American Association for the Advancement of Science,
"Triple A-S" (AAAS), is an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science around the world by serving as an educator, leader, spokesperson and professional association. In addition to organizing membership activities, AAAS publishes the journal Science, as well as many scientific newsletters, books and reports, and spearheads programs that raise the bar of understanding for science worldwide.
AAAS has taken a position on religion. It's position is that science and religion are compatible and it has no qualms about promoting religious scientists as spokepersons for their position. As far as I know, they do not have any publications representing the view of the majority of their members who are non-believers. The idea that science and religion may not be compatible isn't presented.

Should the AAAS, and other scientific societies take a stance on religion? And, if so, what position should they take? Should they try to raise the level of understanding of science by pointing out all those instances where religion attacks science or should they emphasize that, as science experts, they see no conflict with religion? I think that scientific societies should concentrate on those controversies where science is under attack and avoid taking a stance on the overall compatibility, or lack of compatibility, with religion [see Are Science and Religion Compatible? AAAS Says Yes].

The Royal Society is a similar organization in the UK and the Commonwealth.
The Royal Society, the national academy of science of the UK and the Commonwealth, is at the cutting edge of scientific progress.

We support many top young scientists, engineers and technologists, influence science policy, debate scientific issues with the public and much more. We are an independent, charitable body which derives our authoritative status from over 1400 Fellows and Foreign Members.
In Great Britain, unlike in America, there is at least debate on the issue of whether The Royal Society should take a position on religion. The latest round is an article posted on The Observer website, Our scientists must nail the creationists.

Robin McKie writes,
It is the duty of scientists to fight such onslaughts and be examples of rationality in a darkening world, it is argued. Hence the anger at the Royal Society for failing to firmly nail its colours to its mast. The organisation has a motto: 'Nullius in verba' (roughly, 'Take nobody's word for it'). In other words, verify everything by experiment and think for yourself. Both are noble aspirations. It is therefore baffling how an ordained minister - a man committed to believing the word of God without question - could have been asked to play a senior role in the society. Equally, the society's acceptance of money from the Templeton Foundation raises further concerns.

The Royal Society - which should set the fiercest of examples in its commitment to rationality - has shown worrying signs of spiritual sloppiness. (Its current president, Lord Rees, is a cosmologist who attends church 'as an unbelieving Anglican', it should be noted.) Those of a religious persuasion might welcome this softening. I would sound a note of caution, however. Britain is still a broadly secular society which guarantees freedoms not just to atheists but to all religions, no matter how few its adherents. If we follow the example of America then all are threatened by the rise of a powerful Christian right.

We badly need our premier scientific society to stand firm and present a clear vision of how our planet, our species, and the cosmos came into existence. It needs to be unequivocal about the wonders of nature as revealed through rational, scientific investigation. As Douglas Adams put it: 'Isn't enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe there are fairies at the bottom of it too?'
Hear, hear.


[Hat Tip: RichardDawkins.net]

5 comments :

  1. Clearly the AAAS is trying to avoid offending some of its own members, or offending the (vast majority of, alas) the American people. But in a strict sense they may be correct. Science is incompatible with almost all religions, including all the fundamentalist varieties of every major religion. But it's not necessarily incompatible with religion in the abstract. The Deist idea, for instance, that a creator kicked off the whole thing and is now sitting back and watching - or has left the scene - has probably not yet been completely falsified. Why anyone would think that is another matter.

    The AAAS is in a difficult political position. They've chosen the obvious cop-out. You shouldn't be surprised. But what would happen if the AAAS were asked whether science was compatible with the Bible? The only wiggle room there is to weasel about metaphorical interpretation, etc. which pretty much puts the Bible in the same position as, say, Moby Dick.

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  2. Science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. Both make claims about the world/universe/stuff. One side tests their ideas. Both sometimes have ideas about the same concept/bit of reality (be it about the start of life or the age of the universe, take your pick on anything). One side is consistently right.
    Science has no beef with spirituality, the universe is a big place and lots of stuff is interconnected. It does however have a problem with the supernatural.
    I think that this scientific society has fundamentally misplaced its intellectual integrity. Examine all ideas equally. Treat religion as another hypothesis, see how far it gets.

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  3. Actually, the idea that science and religion are in conflict didn't show up until the late 1800s with the Draper-White thesis...which is now almost completely rejected by historians of science. Sadly, the 'Conflict Thesis' was, and is, widely accepted by the public, which has made it a kind of 'self-fulfilling' prophecy: people think there's a conflict, so they choose sides. The AAAS is right to reject this idea, because historically it is clearly false with only a few exceptions, and with fewer people believing it, it will become less of a problem.
    To posit an inherent conflict between science and religion runs into problems with such greats as Newton, Kepler, Descartes, Euler, Kelvin, Babbage, Pasteur, etc.

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  4. Awoody says,

    Actually, the idea that science and religion are in conflict didn't show up until the late 1800s with the Draper-White thesis...which is now almost completely rejected by historians of science. Sadly, the 'Conflict Thesis' was, and is, widely accepted by the public, which has made it a kind of 'self-fulfilling' prophecy: people think there's a conflict, so they choose sides. The AAAS is right to reject this idea, because historically it is clearly false with only a few exceptions, and with fewer people believing it, it will become less of a problem.

    Excuse me?

    What planet are you living on?

    Those who believe there's no conflict between science and religion can't be living on the same planet as I am.

    To posit an inherent conflict between science and religion runs into problems with such greats as Newton, Kepler, Descartes, Euler, Kelvin, Babbage, Pasteur, etc.

    This is a nonsense argument. If that's the best you can do them you need to go back to your history books.

    People believe in all kinds of contradictory things. Newton was a scientist who believed in alchemy. That does not mean that science and alchemy are compatible.

    You can't just point to a religious scientist as evidence that science and religion are not in conflict. In order for that to be evidence you have to make the assumption that no person can ever hold contradictory viewpoints. Is that what you believe?

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  5. I'm not suggesting that nobody can hold contradictory ideas, I'm just pointing out that science and religion were intimately connected, at least from the time of Francis Bacon (1500s) until the 20th century, a time when great progress was made in all fields. Please feel free to study for yourself and make your own call, but don't blindly accept the widespread 'Conflict Thesis' simply because it fits conveniently with your perspective.

    If a commonly held belief requires believing that so many great thinkers were wrong on ideas that they studied extensively, we ought to look carefully before we follow the crowd.

    Yes, the Galileo affair was bad, but it's been greatly exaggerated. The Monkey trials were held after the 'Conflict thesis' rumor was widespread. Concrete, examples of science/religion conflict before the Draper-White thesis are few and far between.

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