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Friday, September 19, 2008

The Royal Society's Zeal—and its Aftermath

FROM V.V. RAMAN, EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS AND HUMANITIES AT THE ROCHESTER INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY: This week, the Royal Society, the United Kingdom's national academy of science, forced Michael Reiss to resign from his position as director of education because of a speech he made in which he reportedly said that “creationism is best seen by science teachers not as a misconception but as a worldview,” and therefore students must be allowed to discuss it in class. He also stated that a “student who believes in creationism has a nonscientific way of seeing the world, and one very rarely changes one's worldview as a result of a 50-minute lesson.”
In the eyes of the prestigious Royal Society these are blasphemous utterances. According to a statement released by the venerable society, “Professor Michael Reiss' recent comments ... were open to misinterpretation ... .While it was not his intention, this has led to damage to the society's reputation. As a result, Professor Reiss and the Royal Society have agreed that, in the best interests of the society, he will step down immediately.” Whoever wrote this lofty condemnation of Reiss, a biologist and ordained Church of England minister, obviously does not realize that this move has probably led to even greater damage to the society’s reputation. One would have expected the society to clarify Reiss’ comments and avert any misinterpretation of them instead of summarily relieving him of his position.
If this reminds some of us of the treatment that Galileo received at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church, it should. In the one case, it was a fear of scientific knowledge, and in the other case, it is a fear of respect for religious visions.
An unexpected long-range effect of the Enlightenment has been to develop in rationalist thinkers and movements a veritable phobia for anything smacking of religion. After all, Voltaire’s injunction “Ecrasez l’infâme”—Wipe out religion!—has still not been fulfilled after more than two centuries.
This is quite irritating to many. In their enthusiasm to eradicate God from the hearts and religions from the minds of millions of people, those addicted to ratioaltry (the worship of reason alone), like all who are constrained by mono-visions, can’t brook any expression of a different view. When a devotee of Darwin (like Reiss) so much as suggests that we should allow other perspectives to be expressed in a classroom, he is pounced upon as a dangerous supporter of the forces of superstition and anti-science.
What such rationalist zeal fails to see is that by its intolerance it is not only stifling free thought—stooping to a level that science is supposed to condemn—but is also engendering sympathy and support for the forces that regard science as a dangerous element in society. It alienates millions by creating the impression that science is out to destroy everything that they hold to be uplifting, fulfilling, and meaningful.
Those who fear an idea usually silence those who express it. If you are not against my enemy, say people who are insecure, then you are not my friend. You don’t have to be a religious fanatic to behave this way.