Sunday, September 14, 2008

Our scientists must nail the creationists

The Royal Society should take a much stronger stance in opposing religion in the school lab

Robin McKie | The Observer, Sunday September 14 2008

There are two ways of reacting to the Royal Society’s claim that its education director Michael Reiss was misrepresented in reports alleging he thought creationism should be taught in science classrooms. Either journalists got it wrong or Reiss - an ordained Church of England clergyman - did indeed suggest religious dogma be mixed with science teaching. I tend very much to the latter view.

As Sir Harry Kroto, a society fellow, and a Nobel prize winner, pointed out in a letter to the Royal Society, Reiss was an accident waiting to happen: ‘I warned the president … that his was a dangerous appointment. I did not realise just how dangerous it would turn out to be.’

Now the society has been caught out, though in the short term it may ride out the current controversy. In the wake of Reiss’s remarks, most commentaries have focused, quite reasonably, on the issue of how science and religion should be taught at school. At the same time, the Royal Society has rushed to assure scientists that it still believes creationism has no place in school laboratories.

There is a second, more important issue at stake, however. How should the Royal Society, the world’s oldest and most prestigious scientific organisation, treat religion within the confines of its own headquarters?

Science and religion do mix, though the combination is often volatile - the reaction often depending, intriguingly, on the discipline studied by a particular researcher, according to Sir Tim Hunt, winner of the 2001 Nobel prize for medicine. ‘Cosmologists and physicists dwell on cosmic forces which - if altered only slightly - would prevent many chemical reactions, and life, from occurring. The sheer improbability of our universe makes them all a bit spiritual and soft on religion. By contrast, biologists see evolution constantly at work in their research and are more hard-nosed about God.’

The idea is not without exceptions, of course. Hunt, a biologist, is scarcely hardline about Reiss’s creationism call, for example. ‘I am not worried about this one, though I am definitely anti-religious.’

But if he is unworried about God getting a foot in the Royal Society’s door, many other fellows find recent developments troubling. Scientists such as Kroto, Sir Richard Roberts (another UK Nobel winner), and Richard Dawkins look with horror upon the spread of faith schools; the growing influence of bodies such as the Templeton Foundation, a conservative US organisation which constantly seeks to establish links between science and religion; and the prospect of creationism being taught in Britain’s science classrooms. They expect the Royal Society to take a tough stand on these issues.

Many of their fears are based on their American experiences, it should be noted. Kroto and Richards now work there while Dawkins is a frequent visitor on the US lecture circuit. And what they see in America unnerves them: school science teachers who firmly believe the world and humanity are the 6,000-year-old handiwork of God and who cannot accept what DNA tells us about our close relationships with the animal world, what isotope research reveals about the deep antiquity of our planet, what astronomical studies tell us about the size and age of the universe; and what fossils reveal about our own species’ multimillion-year lineage. The prospect of such ignorance spreading to Britain quite rightly appals them.

‘I don’t know if it is too late to stop the slide in Britain but I think it is in the US where they [the religious right] have now almost complete control over politics, the judiciary, education, business, journalism and television,’ says Kroto. ‘And it will only take a presidential victory by McCain, followed by him having a heart attack weeks later, and Sarah Palin, a creationist supporter, will become head of the world’s most powerful country.’

It is the duty of scientists to fight such onslaughts and be examples of rationality in a darkening world, it is argued. Hence the anger at the Royal Society for failing to firmly nail its colours to its mast. The organisation has a motto: ‘Nullius in verba’ (roughly, ‘Take nobody’s word for it’). In other words, verify everything by experiment and think for yourself. Both are noble aspirations. It is therefore baffling how an ordained minister - a man committed to believing the word of God without question - could have been asked to play a senior role in the society. Equally, the society’s acceptance of money from the Templeton Foundation raises further concerns.

The Royal Society - which should set the fiercest of examples in its commitment to rationality - has shown worrying signs of spiritual sloppiness. (Its current president, Lord Rees, is a cosmologist who attends church ‘as an unbelieving Anglican’, it should be noted.) Those of a religious persuasion might welcome this softening. I would sound a note of caution, however. Britain is still a broadly secular society which guarantees freedoms not just to atheists but to all religions, no matter how few its adherents. If we follow the example of America then all are threatened by the rise of a powerful Christian right.

We badly need our premier scientific society to stand firm and present a clear vision of how our planet, our species, and the cosmos came into existence. It needs to be unequivocal about the wonders of nature as revealed through rational, scientific investigation. As Douglas Adams put it: ‘Isn’t enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe there are fairies at the bottom of it too?’

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3 comments:

Robin Edgar said...

"We badly need our premier scientific society to stand firm and present a clear vision of how our planet, our species, and the cosmos came into existence.'

So just how did our planet, our species, and the cosmos came into existence Dr. Khan? Do you have viable explanations for those three things that completely eliminate the "God hypothesis" as it were? Do you know of any scientist who is capable of explaining just why it is that our sun and moon have virtually identical apparent sizes when viewed from the surface of the Earth and why the totally eclipsed sun so distinctly resembles the pupil and iris of an eye? At least one scientist, American astronomer Jack Zirker, has been moved to call the totally eclipsed sun "the Eye of God" as a result of perceiving it's eerie similarity in appearance to an eye during the 1980n total solar eclipse.

Dr Nasir Khan said...

Thank you Robin Edgar for a beautiful picture of the solar eclipse!

If I am right to assume that you are interested in cosmology (and not in theology as a Christian believer?), then you may start with some simple books. Cosmology is an immensely interesting area, and the state of knowledge we have at present in this rather extremely complex area is due to efforts of cosmologists and physicists. However, such scientific knowledge should be seen only as a process in search and research in an effort to find answers to some scientific questions as distinct from speculative questions or religious beliefs. Karl Sagan and Stephen Hawking can be useful for a non-specialist inquirer to begin with. For a searching mind the goal is not to find the 'final' answer, but to be an active participant in the quest to extend our horizons. But this is not an easy thing to do because most of us are shackled in traditional belief-systems.

The question relating to gods, a god, or One God, means different things to different people. Again it is a vast area, and it can be approached from different angles.

I had found Ludwig Feuerbach's book The Essence of Christianity useful. Profesor Richard Dawkins' recent book The God Delusion has got much attention around the world. Have you read it?

Finally, to present God as an explanation to all that exists from the cosmos to the living beings is no explanation at all for an inquisitive mind. But if we can get the whole truth in some theological formula or belief, then why should we bother to look beyond that?

Robin Edgar said...

You're welcome for the beautiful picture of the total solar eclipse "Eye of God" Dr. Khan. Indeed it is Wendy Carlos, Jonathan Kern, and any other photographers who contributed to creating that composite image of the 2001 total solar eclipse who are most deserving of your thanks. Can I interest you in a beautiful photograph of the mythical phoenix bird*, as seen during the 1991 total solar eclipse?

I am interested in both cosmology and theology but I am not a Christian. I believe that scientific knowledge of all kinds, not just cosmology, can and should inform religious beliefs. I consider all scientific discoveries to be small 'r' "revelations" of God.

:Karl Sagan and Stephen Hawking can be useful for a non-specialist inquirer to begin with. For a searching mind the goal is not to find the 'final' answer, but to be an active participant in the quest to extend our horizons. But this is not an easy thing to do because most of us are shackled in traditional belief-systems.

Is it possible that you are confusing Karl Marx with Carl Sagan? ;-) I believe that by responsibly incorporating established scientific knowledge into its religious belief-systems humanity can extend its religious horizons. Of course that may be difficult to do with the existing "traditional belief-systems".

:The question relating to gods, a god, or One God, means different things to different people.

The same might be said about various scientific questions. . .

:Again it is a vast area, and it can be approached from different angles.

Indeed it can.

:I had found Ludwig Feuerbach's book The Essence of Christianity useful. Profesor Richard Dawkins' recent book The God Delusion has got much attention around the world. Have you read it?

I was not aware of Ludwig Feuerbach's book and I have not read 'The God Delusion' yet. I do not want to financially support Richard Dawkins or the cause of any other Atheist Supremacist. I am open to reading it and critiquing it when I can borrow a copy from a library or something. I have however already critiqued Richard Dawkins and other Atheist Supremacists on the basis of their words found in other sources such as interviews, videos, web sites and blogs etc.

:Finally, to present God as an explanation to all that exists from the cosmos to the living beings is no explanation at all for an inquisitive mind.

If God created all that exists then God is the ultimate explanation of pretty much everything that exists. All the more reason for an inquisitive mind to study all that exists in order to try to arrive at an "explanation" of God. I could be mistaken but I do believe that the inquisitive minds of early scientists such as Copernicus, Galileo and Newton etc. were trying to learn more about the mind of God via their scientific research. I see no reason why modern scientists should totally exclude the "God hypothesis" from their scientific research. I agree with what Albert Einstein said,

"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."

Religion can certainly reduce any blindness it may have by responsibly aligning modern religious beliefs with well established scientific knowledge. Science could very well benefit by being more open to certain religious beliefs and by responsibly investigating the question of God.

:But if we can get the whole truth in some theological formula or belief, then why should we bother to look beyond that?

The very fact that science presents many well established truths that are not contained in any theological formula or belief, and even shows that some theological formulas or religious beliefs are unrealistic or just plain wrong, gives human beings plenty of reason to look beyond ancient theological formulas and traditional religious beliefs. On the other hand some ancient theological formulas and traditional religious beliefs that are not contradicted by modern scientific knowledge still have considerable value and should not be ignored by scientists. Until such a time as scientists can adequately explain the origin of life, the universe and everything in a way that totally excludes God they should not disregard and deny the God hypothesis or indeed Intelligent Design. The Universe may well yet prove to be the creation of a very intelligent Supreme Being. Until scientists can completely disprove the existence of a Creator of the Universe inquisitive minds have good reason to consider that "Intelligent Design" is a reasonable hypothesis. Indeed God, albeit an understanding of God that is informed by modern scientific knowledge, is still a reasonable hypothesis for the origin of life, the universe and everything.



* The mythical phoenix bird and a good number of other mythical "sun birds", various bird gods and bird avatars of the sun god, or winged anthropomorphic sun gods etc. were inspired by the bird-like form that is displayed within the sun's corona during some total solar eclipses.