Science and/or Faith

Research Blogging / by Dave Munger /

Should a "scientific" meeting attempt to address questions of faith? If so, what's the best way to do it?

Credit: Flickr user jhritz

Scientists were asking three big questions about the Faith and Science panel at the World Science Festival last month. Should the panel be funded by the Templeton Foundation, which some accuse of harboring a pro-religion agenda? Should the panel include a “New Atheist” like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett? And should a festival devoted to “science” discuss matters of faith at all?

The last question might be the easiest to answer. While many scientists believe that science and faith are completely separate, others argue that science shows that faith and religion are unnecessary. Ironically, if this latter argument is true, then it follows that a session on faith and science is essential for proper understanding of science. As Razib Khan, a blogger for Discover magazine, observed last year, over 50 percent of scientists believe in God or some higher power. And as medical writer Tom Rees noted, the phenomenon isn’t going away: younger scientists are more likely to hold religious beliefs than older scientists. While the finding could suggest that religious people are more likely to leave science as they get older, it could also mean that religious beliefs are growing among scientists. If the New Atheists are right and science really does invalidate religion, then it’s essential that these increasingly religious scientists discuss the issue at scientific meetings. If the New Atheists are wrong, then scientists should still be discussing the issue to address this apparent deficiency in the atheists’ scientific reasoning.

As to whether the World Science Festival should be accepting money from Templeton, the festival’s cofounders say that donors have no influence on their programming. Many science conferences accept donations from industry, trade groups, foundations, and private individuals, all with their own agendas. If we were to remove all such funding sources from all scientific meetings, there’s little doubt in my mind that those meetings would be less frequent, and less worthwhile.

So the crux of the issue is really the second question: Would the panel have been more interesting and informative if an outspoken atheist had been present to make the argument that faith and science can’t be reconciled?

Before the event, bloggers bantered back and forth about whether the session would be useful with no hardliner atheists like Dawkins or Dennett on the panel. Physicist Sean Carroll argued that the panel should have included a prominent atheist, but Chad Orzel and Josh Rosenau responded that the panel would have devolved into a playground-style argument if “extremists” were invited to participate. Rosenau, who works for the National Center for Science Education debunking creationist arguments, says he’s seen many debates between extremists on science and faith, and they nearly always don’t work. Mathematician Jason Rosenhaus replied that this is because the wrong extremists were invited, and argued that plenty of atheists are capable of civil discussion on the matter of science and religion.

But perhaps whether or not an atheist participates is the wrong question; what we’re really interested in is how well the panel addressed the question at hand. I wasn’t able to attend the session, but the World Science Festival provided me with raw video of the event for this column. Kristopher Hite, a blogger and biochemistry graduate student, was at the session and wrote an excellent, detailed summary. How did the panelists do? Not very well, I’m afraid. The biologist Francisco Ayala said that faith and science are two different windows on the world, each with a different purpose. He argued that science could accurately describe a painting, but couldn’t tell us what it is really about—therefore science and faith are separate. But is faith the only way to understand the meaning of a painting? What if an algorithm could be devised to interpret art? Would this mean faith is unnecessary? No one asked Ayala.

Theoretical physicist Paul Davies said that conducting science itself is in some ways an act of faith. Scientists believe that as they work to understand the universe, they will find underlying principles and order, he said. But whether an underlying order is or is not found, does that say anything about whether belief is justified? And why attribute the belief in “order” to something akin to religious faith? Science has consistently found order in the past; isn’t it reasonable to expect to find it in the future? No one asked Davies.

Christian theologian Elaine Pagels and Buddhist scholar Thuptin Jinpa both were convinced there were parts of the world and human experience that science could never explain, but again, they weren’t asked to explain why they believed this was true, or whether the only alternative to science was faith.

In the final section of follow-up questions to the group, there were hints that we might get to some of these issues. The session came tantalizingly close, when moderator Bill Blakemore, a reporter for ABC News, asked whether science can speak to moral or ethical values. Davies answered that “some argue” that laws of ethics can emerge from science, but the other panelists either claimed ignorance or said it could not. Blakemore didn’t ask the obvious follow-up: Why not? Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio makes an excellent argument (on the Templeton website!) that human morals are a product of evolution and reason (PDF Link), and not dependent on any kind of faith or supernatural belief. How would the panelists respond? We don’t know, because they weren’t asked.

I’m not sure including a strong atheist viewpoint on the panel would have helped matters much, though. To me the key problem with the panel was its format and moderation. The panelists each presented a work of music and visual art illustrating their viewpoint on faith and science, which was then made into a slick video presentation preceding their interview with Blakemore. This meant that the case for faith was starting with a stacked deck: Why weren’t they asked to present a scientific principle, or some data to support their claims? This is, after all, a science festival, right? To follow this up, Blakemore asked the panelists primarily softball questions, only rarely pressing them, and never on the most fundamental questions about the relationship between faith and science.

I tend to agree with Orzel and Rosenau that out-and-out debates on contentious issues are often counterproductive. In these settings, advocates often revert to talking points at best and ad hominem attacks at worst. So assembling a panel that was sympathetic to reconciling faith and science wasn’t necessarily a bad call on the part of the World Science Festival. Once they did that, however, it was their obligation to choose a moderator and a format that would challenge the panelists. Terry Gross, for example, has moderated shows about contentious issues such as abortion, interviewing advocates from each side of the issue on separate days. Rather than shying away from difficult questions, she asks them directly, but in an environment where the interviewee knows he or she won’t be attacked.

I don’t think it’s wrong to assemble a panel that believes it’s possible to reconcile faith and science, but I do think that when a public conference devoted to science presents an issue on which the scientific community is fairly evenly divided, it’s the conference organizers’ responsibility to ensure that the primary points of contention are addressed.

Dave Munger is editor of, where you can find thousands of blog posts on this and myriad other topics. Each week, he writes about recent posts on peer-reviewed research from across the blogosphere. See previous Research Blogging columns »


Originally published July 6, 2010

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