07 April 2011

Two different activities? Really?

British astronomer Sir Martin Rees is this year’s winner of the lucrative Templeton Prize. Basically, what this means is that an eminent scientist (and an atheist to boot) got co-opted by a religious outfit desperate for credibility in the eyes of the scientific community and the general public. Biologist Jerry Coyne has written a scathing article in The Guardian exposing the duplicity of the Templeton Foundation and the perniciousness of accommodationism.

Professor Rees is a disappointment to many science lovers and rational thinkers. Not only did he gladly accept the Templeton Prize, he also used the ensuing spotlight as an opportunity to wax lyrical about how science and religion need not be in conflict. In an interview with The Guardian’s Ian Sample, Rees had this to say about science and religion:

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.

He has expressed a similar accommodationist position in a BBC radio interview, saying that “there can be a peaceful co-existence between science and theology if not very much in the way of constructive dialogue.”

Rees appears to subscribe to the concept of ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ (NOMA), first propounded by the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. The idea of NOMA is intended to quell the fighting between science and religion by effectively telling them both to go to their separate rooms and stay there. Science will concern itself purely with the material universe, while religion takes care of the spiritual and ethical stuff.

What bollocks.

Leaving aside the impotence of religion and faith in discovering empirical facts and verifiable truths about reality, the NOMA ‘rule’ is continually broken not by science, but by religion. NOMA may have sent them both to their own rooms, but religion keeps leaving its room and barging into science’s. In his interview with Rees, Ian Sample asks:

The suggestion is that science deals with the “material world” and religion deals with something “extra-material”. Where does one end and the other start? There are aspects of religion that comment on the creation of Earth, the creation of the universe, the creation of humanity and the spread of HIV around Africa. Religion appears in those contexts, but are those not material issues?

Bloody good question. If science and religion supposedly inhabit distinct realms of authority, why indeed does religion keep asserting jurisdiction over matters that clearly do not fall under its purview? Why do Evangelical Christians butt their heads into evolutionary biology and geology? Why do Muslims pronounce fatwas on human sexuality (which is a synthesis of biology, psychology and anthropology, therefore a science)? Why do Catholics meddle in medical issues dealing with epidemiology, microbiology and reproduction?

NOMA is an empty concept. It fails on two levels: epistemically, since it lends credence to the idea that blind faith and belief without evidence can be effective on their own terms, and morally, since it indulges in a harmful naivety that assumes religion will acquiesce to science’s growing influence. To a significant extent, religion is about the acquisition of power through coercion and force. It can hardly be expected to meekly stand aside while science grows in prestige. It’s certainly not in religion’s interest to let its major competitor gain an ever larger market share. Hence religion’s continuous interference in a ‘magisteria’ that is supposed to be out of bounds to it.

Scientists like Martin Rees only help to perpetuate religion’s impertinence when they soft-pedal the blatant absurdity of NOMA.


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