Scientists divided over alliance with religion

Scientists should form a closer alliance with mainstream religion in order to better fight extremism, the president of the Royal Society said yesterday.

Speaking at a debate at the Guardian Hay festival, Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal who heads the Royal Society, said that science needed as many allies as it could find in the current climate. “If we give the impression that science is hostile to even mainstream religion, it will be more difficult to combat the kinds of anti-science sentiments that are really important,” he said. “We need people like that as allies in dealing with extreme fundamentalism.”

His fellow panellists, evolutionists Richard Dawkins and Steve Jones, disagreed. Prof Dawkins said that, though he had cooperated with the recently-retired Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, to complain about allowing creationists to set up schools, he urged a limit. “If we are too friendly to nice, decent bishops, we run the risk of buying into the fiction that there’s something virtuous about believing things because of fate rather than because of evidence. We run the risk of betraying scientific enlightenment.”

Bishops themselves never killed anybody, but possibly made the world safer for “people who do kill people by extolling the virtues of faith as opposed to reason and evidence”.

Prof Jones discussed the problems he comes across when teaching students with Islamic backgrounds. “To a man and to a woman, there are parts of science they will not accept.

“That means that, in their early lives, they have been told deliberate lies by people who, I’m sure, know they are deliberate lies. I don’t care how charming they are, I don’t care how pleasant they are, these people are evil.

“What’s true for imams is, more or less, true for bishops.”

Lord Rees went on to point out potential threats to science. “There are new kinds of extreme views that are separate from religion – there are many strange cults that I find potentially terrifying.” He cited the Raelian cult as an example, members of which believe that their leader came from outer space and are attempting to clone humans, saying: “They would say they are on the side of science. People like the Raelians show that we’re kidding ourselves if we think that a scientific education makes people rational.”

Cults allied to technology in this way could be dangerous. “You can imagine eco-groups who imagine the world would be better off without human beings. We need to combat these new irrationalities and, in doing this we should seek allies wherever we can, and I think allies do include people who call themselves religious. We should strive for peaceful co-existence with the mainstream religions.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday May 29, 2007.
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