This past November, a group of atheists -- who happen to work in the field of science -- got together for a conference entitled "Beyond Belief" in La Jolla, California. The conference was apparently sponsored by the Salk Institute, and featured atheists who work in various scientific disciplines. Details about the conference can be found on the website of a group called the Edge which seems to fashion itself as some type of gathering of the intellectual elite who really understands what's going on. The conference had to be cutting edge because they brought in such luminaries as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris to excite the crowd with their over-the-top viewpoints. But apparently, Mrrs. Harris and Dawkins weren't alone in sharing the view that religion is dangerous. According to the New York Times article about the event proudly displayed on the website:
Maybe the pivotal moment came when Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, warned that "the world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief," or when a Nobelist in chemistry, Sir Harold Kroto, called for the John Templeton Foundation to give its next $1.5 million prize for "progress in spiritual discoveries" to an atheist — Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist whose book "The God Delusion" is a national best-seller.
Or perhaps the turning point occurred at a more solemn moment, when Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and an adviser to the Bush administration on space exploration, hushed the audience with heartbreaking photographs of newborns misshapen by birth defects — testimony, he suggested, that blind nature, not an intelligent overseer, is in control.
Somewhere along the way, a forum this month at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., which might have been one more polite dialogue between science and religion, began to resemble the founding convention for a political party built on a single plank: in a world dangerously charged with ideology, science needs to take on an evangelical role, vying with religion as teller of the greatest story ever told.
Carolyn Porco, a senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., called, half in jest, for the establishment of an alternative church, with Dr. Tyson, whose powerful celebration of scientific discovery had the force and cadence of a good sermon, as its first minister.
She was not entirely kidding. "We should let the success of the religious formula guide us," Dr. Porco said. "Let's teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome — and even comforting — than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know."
She displayed a picture taken by the Cassini spacecraft of Saturn and its glowing rings eclipsing the Sun, revealing in the shadow a barely noticeable speck called Earth.
For those of you who want to witness what I'm sure must be tiresome talks for yourself, you can find four of the speeches available on the Beyone Belief webpage and others speeches from the talk available on the afore-mentioned webpage for the Edge. For those of you who are somehow inexplicably sorry you missed this intellectual misfire, you can make your plans to attend Beyond Belief II.
New Scientist magazine has published several letters to the editor from readers in response to an article it published about the gathering. The readers make several excellent points about the absurdity that these scientists should make such a claim.
The first letter notes that science is what it is because of religious belief. It notes . . .
. . . the scientific enterprise in the form we know it today, with journals, scientific societies, empiricism and specialised techniques, was started largely by people of deep religious faith in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the writings of Newton and Descartes, the very notion of scientific law was derived from the Christian idea of God's laws. Atheists might wish to reflect a bit more on the fact that their scientific disciplines wouldn't even exist without the impact of such ideas.
Reader Benjamin Beccari notes that science is a discipline and not a dogmatic assertion about the existence of God.
Creation science is nothing more than Christian belief dressed up as science. It is ironic, then, that a symposium entitled "Beyond belief" is atheistic belief dressed up as science.
Reader David ODell seems to be responding to the claims by Dr. Carolyn Porco when he notes that science cannot match religion when it comes to giving meaning. After all, when a scientist looks at the heavens and notes how small and insignificant the planet earth is in relation to those heavens (and hence, how very small and insignificant each human being is), the sceitnist really has no choice but to admit his own small and insignificant nature of her existence. But a religious person can look at those same heavens in awe and see the glory and love of God which gives true meaning to life. And then he adds:
Many scientific discoveries only make people more awed by their God. Why do scientists want to get rid of religion, when religion has driven scientists for hundreds of years?
But by far and away, my favorite letter comes from Maya King of Burntisland, Fife, UK, who says:
For scientists to declare unequivocally that God does not exist is to deny the possibility that, one day, technological advance may bring the capabilities to detect the presence of a spiritual being after all. If any kind of god were to exist, its presence would have to influence the Earth in a way that leaves some signature.
If that god - as religion suggests - regularly interacted with humans through answering prayers and giving guidance, then those effects should be both measurable and repeatable. How can scientists declare God does not exist without rigorous hypothesis testing?
Exactly. The last question is so entirely on point that I can't think of how to say it better. Scientists reach their conclusions based upon the scientific method. Exactly what test have these atheist/scientists developed that follows that method and which establishes that God doesn't exist? The best that they can do is try to develop naturalistic explanations for things (and even there, they haven't come close to covering the field). For a scientist to say that there is no God is simply proof that they are not speaking as scientists but as atheists in white lab coats. In that way, Dr. Porco is right: they really should declare themselves a religion and make Dr. Tyson the first minister. It would, at least, reveal the true nature of their pronounements.