World Science Festival: "Science and Religion" Panelists Agree on Science, If Not Religion

By Megan Talkington | June 15, 2009 12:11 pm

The PanelAn assemblage of thinkers sat down on Saturday afternoon at The New School to talk science, faith, and religion. Befitting an event of New York City’s World Science Festival, science was decidedly not on trial. Instead, the group—three practicing scientists and a philosopher, along with one journalist—took turns defining and professing their ideas about a supernatural force and the relationship of religious faith to science.

Early on, moderator Bill Blakemore came understandably close to stumbling off the session’s lofty stated aim (a “nuanced conversation that transcends simplistic assertions”) as he introduced the panelists and tabulated how many fell into several categories on the “scientist v. religious leader” spectrum. A list of statements handed out to the audience and beamed onto a screen before the presentation (“Religion is a social reflex,” “Faith is what science and religion have in common,” etc.) also proved to be a bit unwieldy when Blakemore asked each panelist to identify problematic items from the list.

Colin McGinn dove right in, taking issue with the statement: “Atheism is a position of faith…as is religious belief,” by deploying the analogy that no one would say it’s irrational to deny the existence of Santa Claus. But the list spurred panelist Guy Consolmagno to comment that unlike the one- or two-liners on the list, “great truths don’t fit on a bumper sticker,” quipping, “I read that once on a bumper sticker.”

The panelists quickly dug deeper. Consolmagno, a Jesuit brother and astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, exhorted listeners not to foster preconceptions of what a scientific or religious person is. Fellow Roman Catholic Ken Miller burst at least a few preconceptions when he suggested that the virgin birth of Christ could be a metaphor, written to make people take notice of the importance of that birth.

Lawrence Krauss (known for his writings on physics, especially via Star Trek) said that he doesn’t label himself an atheist—because like most scientists, he doesn’t think about God enough to even talk about the issue. Krauss never sat very deeply in this chair, as if to remind the audience of his discomfort and frustration over sitting on a panel on science and religion. “I’m frustrated that there’s a panel” on the topic, Krauss said, wringing his hands at the thought that such an event “unduly elevates religion.”

“If it weren’t for people like the Templeton Foundation that fund these things,” he said, “we wouldn’t be here.”

Krauss distinguished his lack of interest in religion from the more strident position of Richard Dawkins. The question of whether God exists doesn’t matter, Krauss said—he just wants people to learn science and use it to make the world better.

Miller readily agreed with Krauss about the importance of teaching evolution in schools, and said he had no qualms with joining forces with Krauss. After the presentation, Miller told DISCOVER, “Lawrence and I have fought together” to support the teaching of evolution, citing especially their efforts in Ohio in 2002.

Discoblog’s Full Coverage of the 2009 World Science Festival

Image: Flickr / Courtesy of the World Science Festival

  • Santa Claus

    It may interest your readers to note that my legal name is Santa Claus. I’m a Christian Monk, as St. Nicholas was many centuries ago, and full-time volunteer advocate for the 2 million children in the U.S. annually who are abused, neglected, exploited, abandoned, homeless, and institutionalized through no fault of their own. Perhaps, one might want to correct Colin McGinn’s analogy regarding Santa Claus. Blessings to all, Santa Claus

  • Uruk Nomad

    While Santa Claus may really exist as a real, living Christian Monk, we still cannot call someone irrational or far fetched when he or she voices disbelief in the commercialized version of Santa Clause– the one that rides around on a magic sled that is pulled by flying reindeer.

    I think the idea of a real person named Santa Claus only furthers Colin McGinn’s analogy.

    Think of it this way: perhaps God exists, but not in the way that any particular ancient scripture text may claim. God may exist without ever living up to the “classical” image held by most religious fundamentalists — omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.

    Also, what if all ancient scripture text has failed to correctly or adequately described God? More people are aware of the commercialized Santa Clause as oppose to the real, living Monk who has this same name. This may be true with God– most people believe God exists according to ancient descriptions from various texts of choice. Maybe God is nothing like any of those ancient descriptions at all and could never live up to the image of the “classical” God.

    Then again, maybe God doesn’t exist at all. Who can prove this either way?

    We are fortunate to have someone come forward and inform us that Santa Clause does indeed exist. But we are not so fortunate that God should come forward, I’m afraid.

    Only faith can answer that question of God’s existence. And just like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is faith.

  • Joseph A.

    But Uruk, no ancient scripture – certainly not Judaism, Christianity, or Islam – claims to have “correctly or adequately described God”. In fact, at least among orthodox Christianity, the very idea of “adequately” describing God would be considered preposterous. He is infinite – and that entails no description we can give will be adequate. At most, we can figure out some things through logic and reason – and even then, what’s engaged is bare and only a start on the journey.

  • Chazzazz

    Can anyone o that panel offer an explanation of the evolution of an afterlife? That is, did it start with, say, Homo Habilis? or further back? Do other species have an attenuated afterlife? Or are we the only species with one?

  • Uruk

    Joseph A.

    Perhaps it’s unfair to reply after so much time has elapsed. But I had no idea anyone responded to what I posted at the time.

    Perhaps saying that scripture doesn’t adequately describe an intangible, transcendent, infinite being is poor wording. But the proponents of faith quiet often (not always) turn their faith into an absolute truth that everyone must follow. Orthodox Christianity, for example, may say that the notion of giving a full description of God is preposterous. But many members of Orthodox Christianity will also think it preposterous that one doesn’t agree and follow in their faith. So faith ends up being, in my opinion, in the eye of the believer.

    As for whether science and religion can mix– science is about evidence. Science looks for what can be measured and described. Since God cannot be measured or properly described, science cannot be used to study God directly. This is why religion and science have trouble mixing. Science says, “show me”. Faith says, “only believe”.

    I’m not saying that a religious person cannot be a good scientist. But, such a person must understand that their religious feelings must remain apart from scientific discovery. Unless, of course, the scientific method somehow has confirmed through collected evidence that those religious feelings are valid.


    Your question fascinates me! What a neat thought! (In my opinion, at least).

    Material from Joseph Campbell may have some interesting insight. I would like to know what members of the panel would offer, too, as an explanation.

  • Burton Hayes

    I went last year, really looking forward to this years lineup.


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