Monday, January 26, 2009


Courting Danger

Another scientist has entered the fraught waters of the relationship between science and religion: Adam Frank, professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester. His new book, The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate has a companion blog and he will be joining Discover magazine's Reality Base blog to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion. Here's an inkling of his take on the issue:

... I consider myself something of an evangelist of science's methods and worldview. I have always been in love with science and, for the record, do not hold a belief in a supernatural deity. But, in a cosmic twist of fate, it was science that gave me a profound respect for the character of experience people have always called "sacred." Through my scientific practice, I have gained respect not for religion as a means of social organization and control, but for what happens beneath the institutions where individuals encounter the world through their own, inmost experience.

And this:

I have been rereading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion again and it makes me sad. First off, I have enormous respect for the guy. ... [A]s a science writer he is one of best. His eloquence and specificity in descriptions of biological processes as well as the process of science are a joy to read. Much of my (limited) understanding of evolutionary science has come from reading his books. But when it comes to religion as a broad human phenomenon Dawkins is, unfortunately myopic. ... Dawkin's mistake is one many scientists make when they address issues relating to human spirituality – they can't see past God. As a committed scientist I share the Dawkins' (and Einstein's) difficulty with a personal God who intervenes when asked (sometimes) ... I am no fan of supernatural explanations for the structure of the world. But to define away all that happens in people's experience of religion as being defined solely and completely by theological definitions of a supernatural creator is to miss something so vast and so vital as to blind oneself to both its power and its potential.

Dawkins has this way of defining away anything or anyone which does fit his straw man definition of religion. Ursula Goodenough is a good example. Goodenough is a well respected biologist whose father was one of the pre-eminent scholars of religion of the last century. After years of "playing it straight" as a tenured scientist she describes her self as returning to her father's questions about religion and the human sense of the sacred. In the years that followed she has written eloquently about how the narratives of science can act as gateways to this experience of a life's' sacred character. Her work is one example of a sensitive, sophisticated and nuanced attempt to place science and religious experience into a broader context. In Dawkins' book Goodenough gets a couple paragraphs which dismiss her efforts as being fundamentally irrelevant. I could only shake my head that such a smart guy could have such thick blinders on.

Welcome to the lion's den!

Adam Frank wrote,

Dawkins has this way of defining away anything or anyone which does [not] fit his straw man definition of religion.

Could let me know the non-straw man definition of religion that Adam Frank uses in his book?

I'm willing to bet that it's something like "whatever make you feel good inside."
Ah, the first lion shows up. ;-)

I gather it is something rather like Einstein's experience of awe at the mysterious cited in Jerry Coyne's article you liked so much. That is, he's in favor the individual's religious experience, as opposed to the social organization of religion.
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