Spent midnight last night (or should I say this morning) viewing the first session of the Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason, and Survival conference held at the Salk Institute some three weeks ago. The topic of discussion for the first round of panelists was the conflict between science and religion. The first speaker was distinguished physicist and Nobel Prize laureate Steven Weinberg who made no bones about where he stood on the issue. He noted how for him the conflict is paramount, more important than science education or environmental issues, even as he believed that the public was largely not antiscience. Weinberg was explicit and succinct about respect of religious beliefs--they don't deserve it. And I gather that this is so because, among other things, "so much of religious thought seems to be nothing else than wishful thinking." He ended with the following words:
I think the world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief. And anything we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in fact in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.That must be music to Dawkins. (And it certainly got the adrenalin going for me)
Sam Harris was another speaker in that session and as we know Harris is a staunch atheist (some may say extremist) who sees religion today as a very probable cause for what could be the downfall of civilization, or at the very least secularism and the scientific enterprise. I don't share Harris' paranoia, and I'm with Weinberg who sees Islam (rather than the world's religions as a collective) as the one to keep an eye on. In fairness, Harris is pretty clear that it would be a freezing day in hell before we see Buddhist suicide bombers, and that if there is such a thing as fanaticism in Jainism then the more fanatic a Jain is the more nonviolent he becomes (imagine one standing catatonically still for fear of stepping on tiny insects and hardly breathing for fear of inadvertently swallowing and killing airborne microbes). There is much in what Harris says about religion that we can only assent to. Any worldview that remains intractably anchored in Bronze and Iron Age mythologies must certainly be, at the very least, intellectually debilitating. I'm with Harris in underscoring the patently crazy beliefs that religionists have in their jam packed baggage. During the session Harris gave the example of someone waking up in the morning fully convinced that after chanting some Latin words over his breakfast cereal he was now about to dine on the body of Julius Caesar. Plain ludicrous, of course. Such a person would be rightly diagnosed even by a non-psychiatrist as suffering from a delusion. On the other hand, everyone who professes that a cracker similarly chanted over is the body of Jesus are deemed sane simply because these are Catholic beliefs. Yet both are delusions, only that the other has been institutionalized (won't we be relieved if it were in the other sense of that word). The problem Harris points out is that religious beliefs have been sheltered from criticism. It has been taboo to speak out and criticize religion openly. Needless to say, there is a difference between the free world and the Islamic nations where criticism and questioning of religion has pretty fatal consequences.
Physicist Lawrence Krauss also gave his opinion on the conflict. While being a person without faith, his stance on the conflict is closer to a proactive solution wherein he wants to teach and educate the public about what science is and share the discoveries of science. Ignorance of science for him is what needs to be addressed. Doubtless, education is crucial in waking people up. On the other hand, as Harris points out being scientifically savvy is sometimes just not enough. He gives the example of Francis Collins, the leader of the human genome project. I dare say Collins knows more molecular biology than Harris does. But Collins is completely head over heels over Christ and salvation. In his latest book Collins reveals he finally accepted Christ during one of his hikes up the mountain. When he saw this frozen waterfall he was completely awed by it and he then fell on his knees, broke down, and gave himself to Jesus (and he perhaps broke down because part of his grey matter accidentally fell out). Clearly, as Michael Shermer points out in Why People Believe Weird Things even very smart people (Mensans and those with PhDs) can fall for and adopt pretty strange beliefs (James Randi would split hairs here and say being highly educated is not the same as being smart). In Collins' case, his critical faculties vis-a-vis religion were swamped in part by the welter of emotions.
The nine Beyond Belief video files are huge--some 150 to 250 megabytes each. If you've got a broadband connection you can watch them via streaming video (the sessions last from 1 to 2 hours). If not, you can download the files as I did. In my case each file took 10 to 15 hours. I just love these types of lectures/talks.