Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Krauss and Dawkins Discuss Science and Religion

The July issue of Scientific American runs a dialog between Oxford biologist and uber-Atheist Richard Dawkins and physicist Lawrence Krauss from Cleveland's Case Western about how science should respond to religion. The online edition has an extended version of the conversation. Given the two scientists' contrasting temperaments, the conversation is surprisingly low-key.

On the other hand, it is unsurprisingly frustrating. Dawkin's response to the question -- how science should respond to religion -- is to call religion "bad science" and argue against it at every turn as he would any other bad science. Dawkins' method of persuasion consiste of reminding people he is smarter than they are and calling those who disagree with him ignorant. While his argument is popular among fellow nonbelievers, he has unsurprisingly failed to inspire mass exodus from houses of worship.

Krauss's approach is better, though it would hard to get much worse. Krauss is more an evangelist for science than against religion. He will argue against religious beliefs that conflict with scientific evidence but not against faith itself. And when he does argue against such beliefs he tries to do so in a less-dickish way than Dawkins.

While I liked Krauss's passages much better than Dawkins's I have two quarrels. First, Krauss unfortunately describes his method of persuasion as "seduction," which he should stop doing pretty much now unless it is his ambition to be quoted in every Answers in Genesis fundraising letter for the next ten years.

More fundamentally, Krauss's approach at best might get people interested in studying science. What he does not offer is an effective strategy for persuading people to find constructive means of resolving disagreements between religion and science.

Just as the press "doesn't get religion," neither do an awful lot of scientists. However much contemporary theologians put a rational gloss on faith or however much outfits like the Discovery Institute try to put build an empirical case for God, fact is religion is a non-rational enterprise. I don't try to justify my faith with much more than the belief at the core of my being that God exists. Whatever people do to rationalize spiritual beliefs, I suspect most if not all start in a similarly nonrational place.

Krauss acknowledges this:

    As long as the tenets of faith go beyond reason, i.e. go beyond issues that can be settled by evidence or lack of evidence, faith lies in the realm of human activity that has little to do with reason. Going back to my earlier point, if this realm was restricted to religion alone one might have a good argument for trying to squelch religion. But, like it or not, it is a central facet of much of what it means to be a human. All of us share some characteristics with Lewis Carroll’s Queen, who believed six impossible things before breakfast each day. For most people religion is one way of making sense of an irrational world, a world that is not fair, in which human justice is an afterthought.
Which is fine as far as it goes, but Krauss doesn't come to grips with the implications for his project. If believers in scientific method want to win converts, they need to begin by acknowledging that people of faith need their faith. To evangelize or seduce or, hell, persuade people to respect scientific rationalism, they need to work help people reconcile that rationalism with their faith rather than force them into a choice between the two.

As for Dawkins, he will have no truck with the non-rational side of human nature. At first blush, one might ascribe this to the hyper-rational Vulcan like personality Dawkins tries to cultivate. But in fact, when he moves from arguing for scientifc fact to arguing that religion is evil, Dawkins begins to sound as emotional and post-rational as Rod Parsley.

Personally, I've journeyed from Christian to atheist to theistic Unitarian and at every step of the way, I've had a strong emotional reaction to people with different beliefs. I don't know why this is so, but suspect that it drives much of the vitriol the current crop of atheist writers have toward religion. In any event, with over ninety percent of Americans professing a belief in God, Dawkins is unlikely to make much headway simply by telling such an overwhelming bulk of the population that they are deluded.


Michael G. said...

I posted an article on Dawkins at Digital Journal that you might be interested in. The article can be found at:

If you haven't heard of Digital Journal... I was accepted as a writer there a few days ago and if your writing is good, you can get paid for submitting articles.

Paul said...


This debate is so tiresome, but I don't see it coming to an end. It is unfortunate that people become so polarized (ie if you don't agree 100% with my position, it's because you're stupid).

I'd just like someone to tell me who or what initiated the Big Bang, and what is outside the limits of our universe. Until I get that answer, I'll hang on to my faith.