Thursday, 7 April 2011

Arrogance and ignorance

Martin Rees, theoretical astrophysicist and Master of Trinity College Cambridge, has been awarded this year’s Templeton Prize. The award has caused something of a stir in certain sections of the scientific community because the Templeton Prize describes itself in these terms:
rees_The Templeton Prize honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works. Established in 1972 by the late Sir John Templeton, the Prize aims, in his words, to identify “entrepreneurs of the spirit”—outstanding individuals who have devoted their talents to expanding our vision of human purpose and ultimate reality. The Prize celebrates no particular faith tradition or notion of God, but rather the quest for progress in humanity’s efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine.
In other words, in the eyes of some, the prize is tainted by faith and religion. Martin Rees is clear that he holds no religious beliefs and yet he has been happy to accept the prize and is quoted in The Independent as saying:
‘I would see no reason to be concerned because they (Templeton Prize) support a variety of interesting and worthwhile research projects in Cambridge University and many other places,". "The fact they have given this award to me, someone who has no religious beliefs at all, shows they are not too narrow in their sympathies. I feel very surprised because I really thought that I didn't have the credentials, but obviously I'm extremely pleased because I'm joining a roll call of distinguished previous winners, including six members of the Royal Society."
Others do not share Rees’s view and the usual suspects have lined up to express their dismay at his willingness to receive the award. Richard Dawkins declared:
‘That will look great on Templeton's CV. Not so good on Martin's’.
Others have been even more scathing. Harry Kroto, a British Nobel laureate at Florida State University in Tallahassee, is quoted as saying:
‘There's a distinct feeling in the research community that Templeton just gives the award to the most senior scientists they can find who's willing to say something nice about religion.’
Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, said the Templeton Foundation is "sneakier than the creationists" by introducing the idea of faith into a discipline where faith is anathema.
‘Religion is based on dogma and belief, whereas science is based on doubt and questioning. In religion, faith is a virtue. In science, faith is a vice.’
I never cease to be amazed at the arrogance and ignorance displayed by some supposedly intelligent people. Coyne is clearly ignorant if he thinks that doubt and questioning do not play a part in religion. Does he know anything about Theology? If I dismissed the work of these men and the disciplines they study with the same banal generalities that they bandy around about faith and religion I would rightly be criticised or probably ignored.

There is something else I’ve noticed about these men, I say men because the people quoted are usually men; they seem to have a very narrow view of who makes up the scientific community. For them there is no place for the scientist who has a religious faith and so they dismiss a great tradition of scientists who were not only people of faith but inspired in their scientific endeavours by their faith. Even more damning is their dismissal of contemporaries around the world who are scientists and hold religious beliefs.

Maggi Dawn has mentioned a meeting with Martin Rees on her blog and it is well worth a look. There was one thing that made me uneasy and reinforced my concern about the blinkered views expressed by some scientists. Maggi quotes from an interview given by Rees in The Guardian today where he says this:
IS: Do you see an importance in trying to diffuse some of the conflict that sometimes gets stoked up between science and religion?
MR: I think they can co-exist. They are very different activities. Obviously one opposes Creationism and such-like, but it’s fairly clear that there are some scientists for whom religion is important and most of us for whom it isn’t, but again I think they can be co-existent.
‘Most of us for whom it isn’t’. Who is the most of us? The world wide scientific community? Is Rees saying that when one looks around the world the large majority of scientists do not regard religion as being important? I would like to see the evidence for this, but I suspect that Rees falls into the all too common trap of generalising from his own particular experience. I would be interested to know what the proportion of scientists with religious convictions is in, for example, Asia or the Middle East.

It is predictable and depressing to see the bitchiness of some of the comments that have greeted the news of Rees’s award. I have no problem with people who do not believe in God expressing their views. When the views expressed are founded on arrogance and ignorance then they deserve to be challenged as robustly as they would challenge the views of those who believe in God.


Alastair said...

Phil, spot on as always - my experience of being Chaplain at Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine was that there were many world class scientists who were dedicated members of a number of Faith traditions. The interesting and moving part of that experience to me was to meet those to whom the rigorous standards of enquiry that they held to in their professional and academic life was equally applied to their faith life. They were not fundamentalist towards their faith or science.

Of course, alongside that there were some who held to a very literalistic view of Christian faith by compartmentalising their faith and keeping it away from their academic thinking - that was the saddest approach really: world class intellects with Sunday School faith!

Anyway, your post was of the usual thought provoking high standards we bloggy types appreciate, hence such a long and waffly comment! Thanks again Phil :-)

obreption said...

Interesting post which I picked up on twitter. There has been quite a lot of ranting and shooting from the hip about this award to Martin Rees. Radio 4 today had a rather clumsy interview with Lewis Wolpert and Peter Atkins, and as it came just before the Chief Rabbi it was short of time.

What we are perhaps witnessing is a lack of understanding between those who shout, i.e. Dawkins, on atheism and some clueless people such as tbe book burner from Florida who can't be congenial. I think many scientists have felt that their observations have been stolen by the inumerate and possibly illiterate writers who talk such nonsense as the history of science or the philosophy of science.

I'm quite happy to go along with the science of religion and the science of politics. It's just a question of a different lens. I don't think bitchiness is an exclusive feature of scientists. I've taken delight over the years about the bitchiness between Professors Ratzinger and Kung. It's probably a question of language. Theologians tend to use a lot of subjunctives. Scientists were trained to use the third person passive, past tenses. To paraphrase from Lewis Wolpert, 'I could use the money to fund a anti-Templeton award.' That's creative accounting or theonomy in your book, isn't it?

Gurdur said...

1) Phil, you're largely right. THere are a couple of quibbles, and also, a couple of I think wrong angles, but hey. You're largely right. Yet you have not built a good case for Rees accapting the Templeton without qualms, and such a case must be built well and presented to the public at all times; this is something a bit more pressing and important than you may imagine.

The rest in a following comment.

Gurdur said...

2) "Coyne is clearly ignorant .... Does he know anything about Theology? .... "

a) I guess you have not read his blog. He ....... argues in bad faith. Oh, and he is .... ignorant. And happily so.

b) The standard atheist answer -- and an answer I often feel like giving myself when provoked by patronization or nastiness -- is why the hell should we bother knowing?

You see, I could as easily retort I know very little of Mormon theology, and I see no reason to do so (actually, I know more than I let on, but you get my point).

To make this argument work for you, you need to stick more on -- to point out the ethics etc. And then be prepared for the predictable comebacks. What I see is unpreparedness.

The rest in the next comment.

Gurdur said...

3) " ... I would rightly be criticised or probably ignored. ..."

Except you're not seeing what they want to accomplish. To be very blunt, pardon me, you have your problems even gettng on my wavelength, and I am not hostile to you.

These people, they're ... focused. And persistant. Ignoring them won't work. Interacting with them won't work. Different approaches are needed.

4) "There is something else I’ve noticed about these men, I say men because the people quoted are usually men"

Oh dear. Oh dear. Jerry Coyne is basically one of a group of four, a group including Ophelia Benson.

Take plenty of omeprazol (good against stomach ulcers) before you read her blog, or Coyne's.

I wouldn't go on too much about the lack of women in that one; it .... isn't true for that one small group.