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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?

Biochemist Stuart Kauffman, biologist Ken Miller, theologian Nancey Murphy, and Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer will try to answer this question in a panel discussion moderated by Philip Clayton—part of a science and religion conference at the California Institute of Technology on October 3 and 4. (Readers will remember that earlier in the year, 13 thinkers responded to the same question in a booklet of short essays published by the Templeton Foundation.)
Much of the conference, which is sponsored in part by the foundation and presented by the Skeptics Society, will be focused on topics related to origins and those familiar with the field of science and religion will recognize a number of the speakers: Leonard Susskind on the origin of the universe, Paul Davies on the origins of the "fine-tuned" laws of nature, Sean Carroll on the origin of time and time's arrow, Donald Prothero on the origin of life and Cambrian explosion, and Christof Koch on the origins of brains, minds, and consciousness. Later on the conference's second day, Hugh Ross and Vic Stenger will have the "Great God Debate," discussing whether science supports belief in a deity.
Over on Richard Dawkins' Web site, Shermer, who's also the co-founder of the Skeptics Society, explains—and responds to those who have spoken out against—the society's association with the Templeton Foundation in hosting the conference:

"There seems to be much hand-wringing and angst over the Skeptics Society annual conference this year at Caltech because of the association with the Templeton Foundation (TF). I find this rather amusing. It seems that it is perfectly okay for us (the Skeptics Society) to host conferences and debates about science and religion, God's existence, origins, etc. (we've done several of these since we began in 1992, and many issues of Skeptic magazine have been devoted to the topic), but the association with the Templeton Foundation calls everything into suspect. Why? No one seems able to articulate that. Do you think people at the TF call me up to command 'thou shalt not take the Lord's name in scientific vain.'? Even if they did, don't you realize by now that I'm my own man and call my own shots?
Nevertheless, here is how the association with the TF came about: For this year's 'Big Question' that the TF sponsored, they invited me to gather and edit a dozen essays answering the question: 'Does science make belief in God obsolete?' That's right. The Templeton Foundation invited a person who Dinesh D'Souza and others call one of the world's most prominent atheists to edit a series on science and religion for them. I had free rein to invite whomever I wished to contribute, and together we put together a list of people who would offer us a wide range of answers (you can read them all at the TF web page (http://www.templeton.org/belief/).
I managed to get Steven Pinker, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, and others who I'm sure would receive the atheists' stamp of approval. At no point did anyone at the TF attempt to manipulate how the essays would turn out, how they were edited, and how they appeared in the final print versions (in ads in major publications and in a booklet, which you can get for free at the TF web page). I was well paid for the work I did (and it was a fair amount of work), all the authors were paid (including the atheist authors), I was well treated by the TF staff, and my overall impression was that these are exceptionally professional people running the foundation.
In searching for a topic for this year's Caltech conference, I thought that I would build a conference around this thematic idea (it is a huge amount of work to put on an international conference, so it helps to organize it around a familiar topic with speakers who are friends), plus add more science to the day with an entire morning session on origins (origins of the universe, origins of life, origins of complexity, and origins of consciousness), since these are the biggest 'god of the gaps' areas, and for these we have some of the top scientists in the world speaking. Check it out here: http://origins.skeptic.com/.
Then I thought it would be fun to have a head-to-head god debate between hard-core atheist/scientist Victor Stenger and someone comparable on the other side. Here in So. California is Reasons to Believe, headed up by the Ph.D. cosmologist Hugh Ross, who has debated Stenger on the radio before, so I invited the two of them to debate, and they agreed.
So, the entire conference theme and all its elements were my idea. I simply asked the TF if they could help me out with the travel expenses for the afternoon colloquium speakers on the Big Question topic, and that is all they are doing. In fact, the TF made it clear that they are not sponsoring the Stenger-Ross debate or the morning lectures, as they did not want my event to become their event.
So that's it, but if you want to see for yourself (atheists are good empiricists, right?), then come to the conference. See you all the first weekend in October. It's going to be a great weekend, and the conference price includes all meals."

Michael Shermer


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Now THAT IS WHAT I CALL FREETHOUGHT.! It would be so nice if religious cultures were just as open toward other viewpoints!