"Beyond Belief Conference" was Really Beyond Belief

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.


Jason Pratt said…
Dang, someone beat me to it... {lol!} {bowing!}
Tenax said…

a couple things: for one, it is a bit funny so many in our culure assume scientists are the authority we must turn to when it comes to the God-question; this seems the gist of the Times article you cite. Why should I care more about a physicist's view of God than say a Classicist's view of God? In my experience academics are in fact notoriously narrow in their focus. They, if I may stretch and say we, specialize in one area; the more famous one is the more one generally specializes! An expert in cosmological physics or biological process may feel the same methods used in her field can be applied to plenty of fields she knows nothing about, including theology. And the fact remains: some will look at the stars and see a Creator (with or without scientific reflection); some will not.

How many scientists are willing to say that empirical observation and testing is the only sure way to know? Plenty. But no one actually lives this way. How useful is empirical method in ethics, for example? Using only empirical observation, show me why I must resist bias when I grade student papers. And if God is by definition Other, external to the universe, then science can at best study a small piece of his creation in its grossly human-limited way; it cannot study him. That famous 'you are here' poster with the arrow pointing to our sun as a dot in the milky way is championed by atheists at times; it should in fact be championed by theists. 'You are here'...what the hell do we really know?

I haven't read Dawkin's book, but I did read his interview in Time, the one he did with Collins (whom I haven't read either; science is not my area). Dawkins is willing to admit briefly that something enormously and unimaginably grand may exist, that this might be God or gods in some form, but surely no human religion has interacted with him. They are all parochial, he says. If God expressed himself to humans, assuming he did, wouldn't the result look parochial, human, incomplete! Dawkins refuses to believe God may have spoken through history and culture; those things are so taintedly human, but he's quite sure his own individual opinion on the universe is correct. This last point is not strong; D would argue it I know based on the methods he used to reach his conclusion. But for me, still, 'you are here.'

As someone who struggles with his own faith and is constantly constructing it, I agree that deformed children are a tragic, tragic, reality. They give every appearance of biological randomness; this in fact seems to be the human predicament, we live, suffer, and die, sometimes before our lives even begin. But as you say also, the universe, and human experience, is at the same time remarkably grand and sublime. We have both leukemia and Haydn. Why? Even Christianity has not provided me a satisfactory answer, but it tells me that the injustice and suffering of the world will in fact be brought to an end by the Creator who himself came to share both suffering and death. That is a provocative answer. Enough to beg wish-fulfillment, I know, but a powerful answer nonetheless. And what of Jesus' own words regarding children...I know that he was not romantacizing children as say Wordsworth, but he clearly had a heart for the oppressed, the unfortunate, the suffering. And he healed many! Any slideshow of disabled children should consider what Jesus is reputed to have said and done in the gospels before writing off the God concept wholesale.
Anonymous said…
Why is it that the God you believe in will not allow a scientific test that will show he exists, or that Jesus arose, or that prayer works, or that miracles can occur, or that there is a heaven, or that there is a hell? Why? I can conceive of such tests. Science has shown so many beliefs to be false that it's fair to say theologians have always been wrong. Why should it be any different in the future? The beliefs of a Catholic Christian in th 15th century would have his faith blown out of the water if he immediately stepped into today's world. So many of his beliefs would be shown wrong by science.

It's very interesting that Christian must downplay science. They always have. They always will. Sad, really.
BK said…
Why do you think Christians downplay science? I don't see them doing so.

Oh, and I find your earlier questions to be rather interesting from someone who was once a Christian. Why do you ask them?
Zeteo Eurisko said…
Please, folks on both sides, watch the videos of the conference before passing judgment based on hearsay and 2nd-hand articles! Better yet, read the books these folks have written! If we are to be rigorous in a search for truth or if we wish to maintain a semblance of independence in our thinking, we must go to the source! The videos are all available on video.google.com. Just search for Beyond Belief sessions 1 through 10. I have found points of agreement and disagreement with the various speakers, but overall (I'm watching session 5 now, and I'm in the middle of several of the speakers' books), the speakers all impress with their ability to give, take, rebut, and withstand criticism from a highly-trained audience. Please, just watch it with an open mind and feel free to disagree. Just don't judge without really knowing what the other side says. (This is especially intended for BK. Trained in the law, do you judge without examining the evidence?)
BK said…
I don't have to read every book by every expert on UFOs to decide that belief in UFOs is misguided. In the same way, I don't have to listen to every speaker's opinions on these subject if I have an idea of what they have said from their own website. In other words, I have examined the evidence many times. I may not have watched these particular videos, but I have read some of the material on the Beyond Belief site and this strikes me as nothing new.

Tell you what -- you tell me what is particularly compelling about what they say, and if I find it compelling to I will watch. Until that time, I see no strong reason to put in the time.
Zeteo Eurisko said…
The best so far have been (in order of session):

Session 2: Neil deGrasse Tyson and his history of scientific thought vs. religious oppression

Session 4: V.S. Ramachandran - good talk with an especially interesting example of a person with a severed corpus collosum, leaving half his brain an atheist and half a theist. Does half his soul go to hell?

Session 5: Paul Davies - Excellent discussion of the axioms of first cause (also a good discussion in his book "God and the New Physics")

Some of the others -- Weinberg, Harris, Shermer, Dawkins -- say what might be expected if you've read their books, though I found it worth watching for the summary. Also interesting is Joan Roughgarden, a Christian who defends the moral argument for the existence of God in Session 3 against Dawkins and in session 5 against Steven Nadler. This was not the topic of her talk, but that is what she ended up defending. (Though, in my opinion, unsuccessfully.) What often does not come out is that Christians were invited to this conference as speakers, but few accepted. Those few that did were given their time a the microphone. In addition to Roughgarden, several Christians attended as audience members. They even invited some pseudoscientists like Stuart Hameroff, who talked about his quantum consciousness models and their reflection on religious ideas (not worth listening to). Articles that claim this was the first meeting of some new atheistic coven are misinformed.

The best links to the videos are here:
Zeteo Eurisko said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said…
This is my first time visiting this site, but from what I have read, I won't be back any time soon.

The religious people on this site are so far off the mark, that you really need to get your heads on straight. First off, yes religion did fuel science, when science was in its infancy. Science has come to a point where we can finally say that there is no god, because the natural order of the universe has been explained. When early scientist reached the limit of their knowledge, they had to attribute what they did not understand to god. Now that we know more, we do not have to attribute what we don't know to god. We can do this because we know at some point in the future that it will be explained.

And now, on to your favorite quote from Maya King:
"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?"

This paragraph supports science (I could not have said it better myself). It is precisely because there are no measurable repeatable effects, that can be attributed to a god, that we can say there is no higher power. There have been scientific studies conducted to determine if there is a god. There was a very well known case of testing to see if prayer helped people with heart conditions (please see link provided above by jcsahnwaldt). One group had people pray for them, but they didn't know it. Another group did not have anyone (other than those that knew them) pray for them. A third group had people pray for them, and they did know about it. There was no difference in heath of the first 2 groups. The funny thing was, that the people who knew they were being prayed for, actually did worse!!!

The reason that science can declare unequivocally that God does not exist is because there is so much evidence showing that the universe, the earth, and all its creatures, came into being without the assistance of a god.

If someone has a hypothesis, that a god does exist, the owness is on them to prove their hypothesis correct. You can’t go into the world and say “I believe there are leprechauns with a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, now you have to prove me wrong!” That is not the way things work. The owness is on the believers of god to prove to atheists that god does exist, not for atheists to prove that god does not.

So I say to you prove to me that god does exist!!
BK said…
Since you won't be back anytime soon, why should I prove to you that god does exist? You won't be here to read what I write, will you?
Stephanie said…
You have made a semantic error. Athiests do not "believe that there is no God." Athiests do not hold beliefs, religous people hold beliefs. Beliefs are passionate convictions without the burden of supporting knowledge, which athiests recognize as both dangerous and sad. Instead, athiests and scientists acknowledge the terrifically small possibility of God's existence, but responsibly refrain from, for example, passing abortion legislation based on His Slightly Possible Will.

Similarly, scientists do not state unequivicolly, "there is no God." Scientists acknowledge that God cannot be proven or disproven, but that does not limit them from assessing his probability. This probability -is- assessed by scientific studies (there have been many! http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/health/31pray.html?ex=1179806400&en=b4624dd42e43a47d&ei=5070) like this one, that examines the effects of prayer. It is the way of good science to say, "this premise is technically unfalsafiable, but it is extremely unlikely and I would not recommend action based upon it." Science says this about gods.

I hope soon there will be great tracts of literature to refer you to for clarification of this very common error you have made, but in the meantime I hope this was helpful and I must refer you to Dawkins' The God Delusion for a lengthy discussion of the "impossible to disprove = 50% likely!" logical abomination.
Anonymous said…
This is a general comment to the operator of this blog: I hope you watched the segments of Beyond Belief I that Zeteo Eurisko offered. I doubt your mind will have been changed, however. The only thing you would have to fear from the presenters is that your mind might be presented with evidence that your beliefs about the way the world actually works are mistaken--in which case you would be forced to consider whether you had wasted your time for so many years believing them. This is no small concern. A worldview is a powerful thing, and a person will go to great lengths to defend it when attacked. Please do not dismiss these people as misguided at best, and evil at worst. They are neither. They see the world as it is. And when you argued that "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", it doesn't follow that a scientist thinks of herself as worthless because she isn't as big as a galaxy. As human beings we have evolved to the point of consciousness of ourselves and our place in the cosmos. Our ancestors were the survivors. They beat the odds of survival in a hostile world that was hell-bent on their destruction--all the way back. We and our ancestors for the past 3 billion years or so are the lucky ones--the ones lucky enough to be born out of all the possible beings. I think that's pretty good company to be in.

What does the "glory and love of god" mean, anyway? You would probably say I'm going to hell because I don't feel this love, or perhaps pity me, or both. But why should I pretend to feel something that I don't? God's existence can neither be proved or disproved. It's not up to the atheist to disprove god. Do you feel obliged to disprove Bertrand Russell's orbiting teapot someplace out in the asteroid belt? I think not. Go ahead and believe that you personally are saved by Jesus' love and will meet up with him after you die, if it makes you feel good. But don't imagine that I and others like me are worse off than you because we don't believe your myth.
BK said…
Zeteo Eurisko,

No, I didn't watch your segment, but I will. I am very busy right now, but I will try to get to it in the next three weeks.

But I have to say, at the outset, that I find your attitude amusing. My complaint with the people that put on this show is that they are not so much conducting science as conducting science within an a-religious worldview. Now you come along and say, "But don't imagine that I and others like me are worse off than you because we don't believe your myth." Hmmmm. No objectivism there, is there?

And let me add: you make several comments that show a bit of ignorance about the topic of Christianity. For example, you say, "You would probably say I'm going to hell because I don't feel this love, or perhaps pity me, or both. But why should I pretend to feel something that I don't?" No, I'm not saying (nor does Christianity say) that you are "going to hell because [you] don't feel this love". Nor do I [or anyone who understands Christian theology] pity you. No one in Christianity is asking you to "pretend to feel something [you] don't." You have apparently come to some wrong ideas about Christianity and it is reflected in what you have written.

I could go on, but I am out of time. I only want to add this: You say, "The only thing you would have to fear from the presenters is that your mind might be presented with evidence that your beliefs about the way the world actually works are mistaken--in which case you would be forced to consider whether you had wasted your time for so many years believing them. This is no small concern." I personally do not fear that I might be presented with eveidence that my beliefs about the world are wrong. I have seen enough of these so-called scientific discussions which are naturalism in disguise to know that it is highly unlikely that you will say anything that will shake me. Like it or not, I am fairly well versed in what you and others like you have to say. I will certainly watch your video and see what, if anything, worthwhile it contains. But be warned, if I see it as typical atheist philosophy disguised in a white lab coat, I will say so right here on this blog.
Anonymous said…

Thank you for responding. I want to reply to your statements suggesting that I am ignorant of aspects of Christianity. It is true that I am not a theologian and have not studied apologetics. But it seems to me that God expressed his great love for humans by the promise of salvation through belief in Jesus Christ as the way, and repenting of our sins. So if I can't accept the conditions of His love, which implies that I don't feel his love, I should, according to some interpretations of the faith, be sent to Hell. If you personally don't believe that, then perhaps you can tell me why you are right and other Christians are wrong, because there are certainly a lot of Christians who do believe just that. The megachurches are full of them.

I accept your statement that no Christian is going to insist that I pretend to believe. How could they, given God's omniscience? That is the sense of my question "why should I pretend". It wouldn't do any good. But shouldn't you be trying to save me, out of compassion?

I also take issue with your implication that "scientific discussions" should be something other than "naturalism". One of the definitions of naturalism is the view that all phenomena can be explained on scientific principles--nothing supernatural required. So there's no need for a disguise.

A final question: what could someone show or tell you that would "shake" your faith? Or what, if proven incontrovertibly true, would cause you to change your core beliefs?

BK said…

Sorry for the delay. Apparently, I wasn't told about your posting.

With all due respect, you are voicing a version of Christianity that some people may believe, but it is not one that is shared by most people who have studied the Gospels. It starts with the assumption that a person who doesn't believe in Jesus is sent to hell for that reason. It's like there is a cosmic pop quiz that you are presented at the time you die and if you don't get the answer right you are condemned.

That's not it at all.

In the Christian view, man was created to be able to spend eternity with God. Man, however, sinned. Sin separates us from God. If we die in this state of sin, we will spend eternity separated from God. That is what we call hell. Jesus came to save us from this fate by offering his own life so that anyone who simply accepts the gift dies in a state that they can spend eternity with God. So, it isn't that we go to hell for not believing in Jesus -- we go to hell (eternal separation from the source of all love, happiness, justice, etc.) for eternity because we have spent a life sinning and rejecting God. It is much more complex than that, but that summary should suffice to give you some idea of what the Bible actually teaches.

I am right because I read the Bible. You can check out whether I am accurate by reading the New Testament from cover to cover and trying hard to understand how it all works together. You will see verses that make it very clear that we were dead in our sin before Jesus, that the wages of sin is death, that Jesus came to restore a right relationship with God, and that God does love us above all else. Anyone who teaches the contrary is misrepresenting the central message of the Bible.

Yes, I do have compassion for you. Compassion is different from pity (which is the word you used). Do I hope that you will come to believe? Of course. Would I like to help along that path? Of course. But if you really don't believe it, I'm sure that God wouldn't accept any claims to believe anyway.

Naturalism is the belief in a closed system universe. It takes out of the discussion any possibility that things outside the natural realm could have any influence on things within the natural sphere a priori. That approach can serve well to eliminate unnecessary leaps to God as the answer of every single event or phenonmena, but it does incredibly poorly if an appeal to a designer is the best answer based on the evidence.

What would shake my beliefs? Hard to say. I am quite convinced in the existence of God and the truth of the Bible. I have looked into the possibility that I'm wrong philosophically, religiously, scientifically, and historically. So far, I have not found the arguments presented using these other tools to be stronger than the arguments in favor of Christianity using these same tools. Obviously, if it could be proven that Jesus didn't really rise from the dead, that would have an effect. But that hasn't happened and I don't expect it to be proven at any time in the near future -- especially since I think that the case for the historicity of the resurrection is actually strengthened as time passes, not the other way around.

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