On the theory that it is good to mention events before they happen, so that interested parties might actually choose to attend, check out the upcoming Skeptics Society conference: Origins: the Big Questions. It will be at Caltech, and will take just one day, Saturday October 4, with a pre-conference dinner the previous night, Friday the 3rd. The day’s events are divided into two parts. In the morning you get a bunch of talks on the origins of big things — I’ll be talking on the origin of time, Leonard Susskind on the origin of the laws of physics, Paul Davies on the origin of the universe, Donald Prothero on the origin of life, and Christof Koch on the origin of consciousness.
Then in the afternoon they change gears, and start talking about science and religion. Names involved include Stuart Kauffman, Kenneth Miller, Nancey Murphy, Michael Shermer, Philip Clayton, Vic Stenger, and Hugo Ross. It’s this part of the event that has stirred up a tiny bit of controversy, as it is co-sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation, famous appliers of lipstick to the pig that is the interface between science and religion. It’s legitimate to wonder why the Skeptics Society is getting mixed up with Templeton at all, and it’s been discussed a bit in our beloved blogosphere: see Bad Astronomy, Pharyngula, and Richard Dawkins.
I am on the record as saying that scientists should be extremely leery of accepting money from organizations with any sort of religious orientation, and Templeton in particular. (Happily, in this case the speakers aren’t getting any money at all, so at least that temptation wasn’t part of the calculation.) But it’s by no means a cut-and-dried issue, as we’ve seen in discussions of the Foundational Questions Institute.
Personally, I prefer not to have the chocolate of my science mixed up with the peanut butter of somebody else’s religion, and certainly not without clear labeling — peanut allergies can be pretty severe. But if someone wants to explicitly put on a peanut butter cup conference, that’s fine, and I don’t have any problem with participating. The problem with the Templeton Foundation is not that they coerce scientists into repudiating their beliefs through the promise of piles of cash; it’s that, by providing easy money to promote certain kinds of discussions, those discussions begin to seem more prominent and important than they really are. Perhaps, without any Templeton funding, the Origins conference would have devoted much less time to the science-and-religion questions, leaving much more time for interesting science discussions. This would have given outsiders a more accurate view of the role that religion plays in current scientific work on these foundational questions: to wit, none whatsoever.
The Templeton Foundation has every right to exist, and sponsor conferences. And there is undoubtedly a danger among atheists that they get caught up in a “holier than thou” competition — “I’m so atheist that I won’t even talk to people if they believe in God!” Which gets a little silly. I don’t think there’s anything explicitly wrong with the Origins conference; the Templeton-sponsored part is clearly labeled and set off from the rest, and it might end up being interesting. (Also, the conference concludes with Mr. Deity — how awesome is that?) Michael Shermer’s own take is here. But I look forward to a day when discussions of deep questions concerning the origin of the universe and of life can take place without the concept of God ever arising.