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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Can't Turn Science Into Religion, Says Physicist

It is possible to build a religion based on science and nature rather than on God and sacred texts? And if so, would this new scientific religion be better than our current religions? These are the questions Karl Giberson, a physics professor at Eastern Nazarene College (and a regular contributor to this blog), asks in a piece posted today on Salon.com. We need to recognize that science is also a belief system, says Giberson, and its loudest, brashest advocates— namely, biologist PZ Myers, chemist Peter Atkins, and other leaders of the "new atheism" movement—are our "new preachers," trying to turn science into a replacement for religion.
Giberson doesn't really think science can or will be turned into a religion, but he worries that attempts to turn it into the one true belief system will drive a bigger wedge between science and religion. He worries, he says, "about dogmatism and the kind of zealotry that motivates the faithful to blow themselves up, shoot abortion doctors and persecute homosexuals. But I also worry about narrow exclusiveness that champions the scientific way of knowing to the exclusion of all else. I don't like to see science turned into a club to bash religious believers."
Myers has already responded, and the piece continues to elicit comments, many of them hostile and many of them saying that Giberson lacks a fundamental understanding of science—which, by its very nature, could never and will never be made into a religion. We asked the author for his own comment, and here's what he had to say:

"This has been an eye-opener for me. The public atheists—Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Weinberg, etc.—are very civilized. In debates they are polite and restrained, and their writings, while critical, have a certain sophistication to them. They have always seemed like good citizens of the worldwide intellectual community. When I was on some NPR show with Dennett, he was most diplomatic, listened carefully, referred to me in flattering terms. I might disagree with him, but he doesn't seem dangerous or hostile. And, for all his bluster, Dawkins is really fine. In his debates with McGrath, he is most polite and restrained.
In contrast to these guys, the public religious leaders don't come off so well. Think of John Hagee, the horrible Fred Phelps, Ken Ham, James Dobson, etc.
But, I knew the comparison was not fair. Dawkins is a world class intellectual, as is Dennett and Weinberg. We can't compare them to people like Dembski and certainly not to John Hagee or Ken Ham.
The people assaulting me on Salon.com seem uninformed, mean-spirited, and closed-minded. I would worry if they were in charge of the country, just as I would worry if the Christian fundamentalists were in charge."

Thanks, Karl, as always, for your candor. —Heather Wax


Anonymous said...

It seems like a lot of those letters have misread the original article. Many of them seem to think that Gilberson argues that scientists in general view science as something similar to religion. I think someone should make it clear that he is referring to a very recent trend among atheist writers, and that these people see science and atheism as inseperable.