Thursday, August 05, 2010

Rees, Dawkins and Gould: finely picking the cleft between science and religion

I first encountered Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, in the pages of New Scientist last year: a brief interview on occasion of the 350th anniversary of the Society. He talked science, but looked nothing less than an Establishment bastion (and he’s also Astronomer Royal, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and in the House of Lords).

Just recently, I heard him in a brief piece on the ABC Radio Science Show. He was talking on the divide between science and religion – and he rather surprised me with some non-establishment words. His conversation drilled into some finer points of this divide. Inter alia:
“I suspect my beliefs or lack of beliefs are rather similar to Richard Dawkins's…”
“I agree with Richard Dawkins that fundamentalism… is a real danger, and I think we therefore need all the allies we can muster against it, and I would see the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury, for instance, as on my side against fundamentalism. Therefore it seems to me counterproductive to rubbish people like that. I'd like to see them on my side, and as a Brit who grew up in that culture, I'm rather supportive of the Church of England.
And I think there's another reason where I think his attitude is also damaging. Suppose you were teaching a group of kids in a London school and a lot were Muslims and you told them that they couldn't have their god and have Darwin. They're going to stick with their god and be lost to science, and that, again, I think is counterproductive. So I believe wherever possible one should have peaceful coexistence with mainstream religions.”
The Templeton Prize was apparently a notable point of departure between Rees and Dawkins. The prize “honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works”.

Rees said Dawkins labelled him a quisling because Rees was “less hostile to the Templeton Foundation than he was.” But then: “I don't go all the way with the Templeton Foundation because they believe in constructive dialogue. I think there's limited scope for constructive dialogue, I think there can be peaceful coexistence, but I don't believe theologians can help with my physics”.

Per se, that’s not too far from the resolution attempted by another scientist, Stephen Jay Gould. He coined the term Non-Overlapping Magisteria (or NOMA): “Science tries to record and explain the factual characteristics of the natural world, whereas religion struggles with spiritual and ethical questions about the meaning and proper conduct of our lives. The facts of nature simply cannot explain correct moral behaviour or spiritual meaning”.*

Of course, that satisfied few who weren’t already satisfied.  And although the two are similar, I rather like Rees' turn of phrase.

Full text of the Rees conversation available here.

*Gould, SJ (2003): The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox (p87). Jonathan Cape, London.


bazza said...

I think this is really difficult Stephen. On one hand, Dawkins is technically right in his assertions but it could be said that what he lacks is tact or diplomacy.
On the other hand, if Rees is right, that if we make people choose between god and Darwin they could be lost to any chance of enlightenment, where do we go from there?
There are states in the USA where teaching Darwin is illegal or not without equal time given to creationism.
Some fundamentalism is rooted in the west too.

Stephen Simmonds said...

Richard Dawkins' weakness has been clearly demonstrated: whether he's right or wrong, he has no tolerance for other viewpoints.

The debate in serious circles is around drawing into the fold those who might feel obliged to choose between scientific and religous belief - that's where Gould's NOMA is positioned: trying to illustrate that it's not an either-or choice.

In that context, I guess Rees is characterising fundamentalism as religion which makes an incontrovertible claim to the domain of physical facts. Those beliefs, he says, are to be resisted. Like Dawkins and Gould, he sees no overlap between the two 'magisteria' ("limited scope for constructive dialogue"), but Rees is less likely to go out of his way to tell someone their religious views are wrong.

All this is struggle at the margins: better defining the point where engagement can be fruitful.

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