Controversy of Fundamentalist Religious Right and Science

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

A Buddha statue in central Afghanistan, pictured in 1997, was ordered destroyed by the Taliban government in 2001.

When Sentiment and Fear Trump Reason and Reality


I have recently begun to wonder whether I am completely out of touch with the mainstream, and if so, what that implies.

When I was a young student it became clear to me that the remarkable success of the scientific method, which changed the world beyond belief in the four centuries since Galileo, made the power and efficacy of that method evident. Moreover, scientific ideas are not only powerful but so beautiful that they are on par with the most spectacular legacies of civilization in art, architecture, literature, music and philosophy.

This is what makes the current times so disconcerting. We like to think that spectacular intellectual developments bring progress, so that future generations may benefit from what has come before. But this is often an illusion.

I remember the shock wave generated four years ago when the Taliban government in Afghanistan destroyed thousands of statues, including two priceless and awe-inspiring archaeological artifacts, the world’s largest standing statues of Buddha, created almost 2,000 years ago. The Taliban claimed that Islamic law prohibited the creation of idolatrous images of human faces that might be used for worship.

I remember sharing the feeling of incredible sadness to know that the world had forever lost a precious part of its intellectual heritage. It was difficult to believe that in the 21st century such a return to the dark ages could happen anywhere.

Those images came to mind again as I followed recent news of incidents in the United States in which fundamentalist dogma and its fear of the intellectual progress that comes from understanding nature has trumped the scientific method. These actions attack intellectual pillars of our civilization that are every bit as real as monumental statues of Buddha.

The "reality-based community," as one White House insider so poetically referred to it recently, is losing the fight for hearts and minds throughout the country to a well-orchestrated marketing program that plays on sentiment and fear.

The open intrusion of religious dogma into the highest levels of government is stunning. Justice Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court speaks of "the fact that government derives its authority from God" (during oral arguments before the court about displays of the Ten Commandments) while the president of the United States has argued that evolution is a theory not a fact.

The effort to blur the huge distinction between faith and science, between empirically falsifiable facts and beliefs, was on display again this month in two very different contexts.

Congressional leaders ignored the conclusions of the doctors who have actually examined Terri Schiavo and judges who have listened to the evidence. Senator Bill Frist, previously a heart surgeon who must have once known better, shunned the conclusions of these doctors and, without ever having examined Ms. Schiavo himself, stated his "belief" that she was not in a vegetative state.

Meanwhile, on a much less emotionally tragic but no less intellectually puzzling front, the Templeton Foundation continued with its program to sponsor the notion that science can somehow ultimately reveal the existence of God by once again awarding its annual Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion not to a theologian, but to a physicist.

Dr. Charles Townes, the winner, is a Nobel laureate whose scientific work has been of impeccable distinction; his prime contribution to religion appears to be his proudly proclaiming his belief in God as revealed through the beauty of nature.

I confess that my immediate reaction was the same as it has been to all of Templeton’s recent awards to scientists. If this is the most significant progress in religious thought, beating out the work of distinguished theologians throughout the world, then it is a sad reflection on such progress. Of course, I rather believe that it reflects on the foundation’s misguided goals and methods.

Nature’s beauty inspires religious fervor in some scientists. For others, like the Nobel laureate Dr. Steven Weinberg, it merely reinforces their belief that God is irrelevant.

The point here, which should be obvious, is that science and religion are separate entities: science is a predictive discipline based on empirically falsifiable facts; religion is a hopeful discipline based on inner faith.

Theologians as ancient as St. Augustine and Moses Maimonides recognized that science, not religion, was the appropriate and reliable method to try to understand the physical world. Yet it is precisely this ancient wisdom that is now under attack.

Foes of evolution and the Big Bang in this country do not operate with the direct and brutal actions of the Taliban. They have marketing skills. Openly condemning evolution as blasphemous might play well to the fundamentalist true believers, but it wouldn’t play well in the heartland, which is the real target. Thus the spurious argument is created that evolution isn’t good science.

This "fact" is established by fiat. The Discovery Institute in Seattle supports the work of several Ph.D.’s who then write books (and op-ed articles) decrying the fallacy of evolution. They don’t write scientific articles, however, because the claims they make – either that cellular structures are too complex to have evolved or that evolution itself is improbable – have either failed to stand up to detailed scrutiny or involve no falsifiable predictions.

What is being obscured in this manufactured debate is that the underlying intent has little to do with evolution, or the age of the earth. The fundamentalist attack is on the basic premise that physical phenomena have physical causes that can be revealed by use of the scientific method.

Because science does not explicitly incorporate a deity in its considerations, some fundamentalists believe that it undermines our moral order, just as the Buddha statues presented a threat to the fundamentalist Islamic moral order.

The pillar of our humanity that is most under attack is our remarkable ability to understand nature. We claim that in places like Afghanistan the enemies of truth are the enemies of freedom and democracy. If the scientific method is out of the mainstream in our country it is time to take a stronger stand against the effort to undermine empirical reality in favor of dogma.

Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss is chairman of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University. His new book, "Hiding in the Mirror," will appear this fall.

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