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science, faith, and the marginalization of non-belief

Sean Carroll critiques the Faith and Science program at this year’s World Science Festival:

I have to agree with Jerry Coyne here: the program on Faith and Science at this year’s World Science Festival is a mistake. I went to last year’s Festival, and I have great respect for Brian Greene and Tracy Day for bringing together such a massive undertaking. It would be better if they didn’t take money from the Templeton Foundation, but money has to come from somewhere, and I’m not the one paying the bills. I don’t even mind having a panel that talks about religion — it’s a big part of many people’s lives, and there are plenty of issues to be discussed at the intersection of science and religion.

But it would be a lot more intellectually respectable to present a balanced discussion of those issues, rather than the one that is actually lined up. The panelists include two scientists who are Templeton Prize winners — Francisco Ayala and Paul Davies — as well as two scholars of religion — Elaine Pagels and Thupten Jinpa. Nothing in principle wrong with any of those people, but there is a somewhat obvious omission of a certain viewpoint: those of us who think that science and religion are not compatible. And there are a lot of us! Also, we’re right. A panel like this does a true disservice to people who are curious about these questions and could benefit from a rigorous airing of the issues, rather than a whitewash where everyone mumbles pleasantly about how we should all just get along.

Four hundred years after Galileo turned his telescope on the heavens, it’s incredibly frustrating that we still have debates over whether the world can be described in purely naturalistic terms, rather than accepting that insight as an amazing accomplishment and moving on to the hard work of articulating its consequences.

It’s unsettling how the growing trend in science towards working with religious groups on scientific understanding (which, at its core, is of course a good thing) tends to contribute to the marginalization of atheism in public discourse.


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