Tone evolves in science and religion debates

November 12, 2007

Amid the hullabaloo in the “science vs. religion” debate, one conference produces more thought-provoking arguments than the usual fare. It’s called “Beyond Belief” and it’s been held these past two years at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. The first reports of this year’s session (Oct 31-Nov 2) are just coming out — the latest edition of New Scientist has a full-page story and an editorial (registration required) — and there was an interesting new tone to the debate.

Churchgoers at prayerScientists at workThe 2006 session was called Beyond Belief – Science, Religion, Reason and Survival and New Scientist’s report read: “It had all the fervour of a revivalist meeting. True, there were no hallelujahs, gospel songs or swooning, but there was plenty of preaching, mostly to the converted, and much spontaneous applause for exhortations to follow the path of righteousness. And right there at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts was God. Yet this was no religious gathering – quite the opposite. Some of the leading practitioners of modern science, many of them vocal atheists, were gathered last week …” For a fuller account, see George Johnson’s very readable report in the New York Times.

This time around, the meeting was entitled Beyond Belief – Enlightenment 2.0 . The New Scientist report observed: “Last year’s meeting resounded with rallying calls from atheists determined to replace faith wherever they found it with a scientific world view. This year things were more conciliatory, with speakers recognising that we need many tools to make sense of the world besides the strictly rational…”

We’ve noted before that the neo-atheist wave that hit the best-seller lists a while back seems to be waning. The mood at the “Beyond Belief” symposium seems to be another sign that the discussion among scientists may be going beyond the polemical stage. As the New Scientist editorial observed: “To borrow from a popular biblical saying, humankind cannot live by rational thought alone. To want to cleanse society of religion before understanding its evolutionary roots and purpose seems strangely unscientific”

Not everybody was converted, of course. University of Toronto biochemist Larry Moran, in one of the first blogs on the meeting, poured cold water on some of the arguments as reported by New Scientist. The Science Network promises to post videotapes of the debate soon.

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