Science and religion. O-O-O-o-o-oy! 
Some of the leading practitioners of modern science, many of them vocal atheists, were gathered in La Jolla, California, in November 2006, for a symposium entitled “Beyond belief: Science, religion, reason and survival”, hosted by the Science Network, a science-promoting coalition of scientists and media professionals convening at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. They were there to address three questions. Should science do away with religion? What would science put in religion’s place? And can we be good without God?
The first salvo came from University of Texas, Austin, cosmologist Steven Weinberg, to enthusiastic applause: “The world needs to wake up from the long nightmare of religion. Anything we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done, and may in fact be our greatest contribution to civilisation.”
Yet Weinberg admitted he would miss religion once it was gone. Religion was, Weinberg had said, like “a crazy old aunt” who tells lies and stirs up mischief. “She was beautiful once,” he suggested. “She’s been with us a long time. When she’s gone we may miss her.”
Richard Dawkins would have none of it. Weinberg, he said, was being inexplicably conciliatory and “scraping the barrel” to have something nice to say about religion. “I am utterly fed up with the respect we have been brainwashed into bestowing upon religion,” he told the assembly.
Kant once famously remarked that philosophy addresses three fundamental questions: “what can I know?”, “what shall I do?”; “what may I hope for?”
David van Biema posits the issue succinctly when he introduces a debate between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins: Can religion stand up to the increasing ability of science to map, quantify and change the nature of human experience?
Is there place for both science and religion? I have long been critical of Stephen Jay Gould’s “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA) – putting the quarreling kids nicely to bed so Mom can watch Desperate Housewives in peace. (Readers will forgive the obvious anachronism.)
Gould’s NOMA is a rather vacuous idea. I concur with Dawkins that Gould’s separate compartments was a purely political ploy to win middle-of-the-road religious people to the science camp.
Shall one apply to theology for insight into Kant’s challenge? I think not. Religion is diametrically opposed to the pioneering spirit of scientific exploration. Believers are generally characterized by a zealous certitude and a readiness to adjust facts to sustain a conviction, while the scientific process, with deference to Karl Popper, dictates that progress in science is only ever made when a hypothesis is collapsed, not when it is confirmed.
Said physicist Heinz Pagels, “… The capacity to tolerate complexity and welcome contradiction, not the need for simplicity and certainty, is the attribute of an explorer. Centuries ago, when some people suspended their search for absolute truth and began instead to ask how things worked, modern science was born. Curiously, it was by abandoning the search for absolute truth that science began to make progress, opening the material universe to human exploration.”
The explorer spirit is conspicuously absent in the theist approach. Theists invoke a cosmic legislator/regulator, a magician, to fill any present void and to explain the mysteries about nature that may have scientists stumped at any particular time. The good doctor Hippocrates warned against this mindset, “Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end of divine things.”
There is enormous danger in a meandering into metaphysics, in covering the challenge of evolving understanding with the theist tarpaulin of faith, for as science advances, so the magician retreats, eventually to be pushed off the edge of space and time altogether, and into redundancy.
To presume for lack of sufficient understanding is an egregious manifestation of cognitive knavery – it is adiaphoristic and connotative of intellectual acedia.
What can one reasonably hope to learn from (Christian) theology? Nothing, but that one should apply elsewhere. Founded in ancient oracles, loosely organised in the 1st century, entrenched in the 4th, adjusted in the 16th, refined in the 18th and propped in the 20th, theology is dead in the 21st. All that remains is the sorry sight of the believer pulling the dead body of Christ behind her after the way of a mother baboon…
Science does not have all the answers. But this fact does not indicate that religion has any answers at all. In deference to Darwin, it has often and confidently been asserted that man’s origin, for instance, can never be known… but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge. It is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.
There is an expanding universe between science and religion. I choose science. Not for answers, but for progressive explanation, in pursuit of the voussoir of evolving insight…
 Rosten. L. 1970. The Joys of Yiddish. Pocket Books. New York. 277-279. According to Rosten “oy” is not a word; it is a vocabulary. It is uttered in as many ways as the utterer’s histrionic ability permits. It is a lament, a protest, a cry of dismay… “O-O-O-o-o-oy”, the 29th and final variant listed by Rosten, means “at-the-end-of-one’s-wittedness”, or “I-can’t-stand-anymore”, as in “Get out! Leave me alone! O-O-O-o-o-oy!” Rosten. L. 1970. The Joys of Yiddish. Pocket Books. New York. 277-279. Michael Brooks and Helen Phillips. 18 November 2006. Beyond belief: In place of God. New Scientist. 2578: 8-11. David van Biema. November 5, 2006. God vs. Science. TIME. November 5, 2006. Heinz Pagels. 1985. Perfect Symmetry: The Search for the Beginning of Time, Simon and Schuster, New York. Paul Davies. 1995. Physics and the Mind of God, The Templeton Prize Address.
 Charles Darwin. 1871. The Descent of Man (2nd edition)