The organizers of the World Science Festival in New York invited me to participate on a panel that would discuss the relationship between faith and science. It was an honor to get the invitation, because this is a high-profile festival, with lots of good people and publicity, that is organized by the physicist Brian Greene in New York. The “conversation” in which I was invited to participate included a religious evolutionist, a philosopher, and a priest/astronomer (a similar discussion was held at the Festival in 2008). Reading last year’s description didn’t give me a very good feeling, as it smacked of accommodationism.
Prominent clashes — both historical and contemporary — have led to the widely held conclusion that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. Yet, many scientists practice a traditional faith, having found a way to accommodate both scientific inquiry and religious teaching in their belief system. Other scientists are bringing science to bear on the phenomenon of religion and spiritual belief — neuroscientists are studying what happens in the brain during religious experiences, while anthropologists are investigating how religion is linked to cooperation and community. This program provided an intimate look at what scientists have to say about their religious beliefs and what might be revealed by scientific studies of spirituality.
What was more distressing was that one of the Festival’s sponsors was The Templeton Foundation, whose implicit mission is to reconcile science and religion (and in doing so, I think, blur the boundaries between them). I discussed this issue with some of my colleagues, and they were of mixed opinion: some thought that I should go and denounce the Templeton Foundation, or religion/science accommodationism in general (and thereby “enlighten” the public); others thought that I would be tainted by participating in a Templeton-funded conference. In the end, I agreed with the latter group, although this wasn’t an easy decision. I sent the following letter of regret to the organizers.
After much discussion with my colleagues, and some soul-searching, I am going to have to decline with great regret your kind invitation to speak at the World Science Festival. I regard it as a distinct honor to have been invited, and under normal circumstances would not have hesitated to accept. But two things have forced me to my decision in this circumstance.
The first is that you consider faith as a topic appropriate for discussion in your Festival. You mention that you feature programs that integrate science with dance, with public policy, with literature, and so on. But these are quite different from religion. Neither dance, public policy, nor literature are based on ways of looking at the world that are completely inimical to scientific investigation. Science and religion are truly incompatible disciplines; science and literature are not. That is, one can appreciate great literature and science without embracing any philosophical contradictions, but one cannot do this with religion (unless that religion is a watered down-deism that precludes any direct involvement of a deity in the world). This incompatibility was the topic of my article in The New Republic. Similarly, homeopathy and modern medicine are philosophically and materially contradictory. It would be just as inappropriate to offer a discussion of homeopathy versus modern medicne.
You go on to say that,
“If there is an opportunity for compelling discourse with the capacity to yield a deeper understanding of scientific thinking, its role in exposing the nature of reality and humankind’s place within it, then there’s room for such a program in our Festival.”
But there is no such possibility in the program you propose. How could a dialogue with science possibly yield a deeper understanding of scientific thinking? Such discourse would only confuse people about what scientific thinking is. The Templeton Foundation, for example, has always sought to blur those lines! And science’s role in “exposing the nature of reality and humankind’s place in it” has nothing to do with religion or theology. It is a purely scientific role: to find out how the Universe works and how humans came to be. It is telling, here, that the editorial by Brian Greene to which I was pointed–an editorial explaining to the public why science is important and exciting–said not a single word about religion.
The second consideration is that the festival is being supported by The Templeton Foundation. I absolutely believe you when you say that there are no strings attached, and that the Foundation is not exercising any editorial judgement. But this is not the issue. The issue is that, by saying it sponsors the Festival, the Templeton Foundation will use its sponsorship to prove that it is engaging in serious discussion with scientists. Like many of my colleagues, I regard Templeton as an organization whose purpose is to fuse science with religion: to show how science illuminates “the big questions” and how religion can contribute to science. I regard this as not only fatuous, but dangerous. Templeton likes nothing better than to corral real working scientists into its conciliatory pen. I don’t want to be one of these. That’s just a matter of principle. But the “no strings” argument doesn’t wash for me, for precisely the same reason that congressmen are not supposed to take gifts from people whose legislation they could influence. It is the appearance of conflict that is at issue.
To avoid this appearance in the future, I would strongly suggest that the Festival discontinue taking money from Templeton. That foundation is widely regarded in the scientific community as one whose mission, deliberate or not, is to corrupt science. It doesn’t belong as a sponsor of your festival.
I am sorry to go on for so long, but I thought you deserved an explanation for my waffling, and for my decision. I certainly support the goals of the festival and hope that it goes very well this year.
So, I ain’t going, which would have been fun, especially because E. O. Wilson will be there for an 80th birthday fete. But I just couldn’t see myself taking money from an organization that is devoted to promulgating a futile —indeed, dangerous — dialogue between science and religion. I can never understand what religion has to say to scientists that would improve our work or our understanding of the universe, and all we can contribute to religion are empirical discoveries that force the faithful to regroup and fine-tune their theology to accommodate the new findings.