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Apr 17

Science, religion & a dispassionate search for knowledge

Martin Rees

Martin Rees

The tone of the recent attacks (see here and here) on Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal for having accepted the Templeton Prize might seem to indicate a certain lack of detachment on the part of those who are disparaging the eminent theoretical astrophysicist.

In comments made last year, Richard Dawkins referred to Lord Rees, an atheist, as “a compliant Quisling” because, according to Dawkins, he is “a fervent ‘believer in belief’”. This is, to say the least of it, intemperate language.

Lord Rees said in an interview in The Guardian newspaper that he was “not allergic to religion”. In fact, as Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, he attends chapel as part of what he refers to as “as traditional ritual”.

Rees demonstrates a refreshing modesty about  claims to understand reality. As he told The Guardian:

Doing science made me realise that even the simplest things are hard to understand and that makes me suspicious of people who believe they’ve got anything more than an incomplete and metaphorical understanding of any deep aspect of reality.

What I find troubling about all this – apart from the intemperance of the language used by Rees’s critics – is that some scientists seem to believe that Lord Rees’s acceptance of the Templeton Prize somehow risks undermining the entire enterprise of science.

Really? If we accept that science is, as Dawkins et al assert, the ultimate rational activity and the only route to reliable knowledge, it would be very strange if it were so vulnerable as to be undermined by one scientist’s action in accepting a prize from a foundation that seeks to reconcile science and religion.

The “new atheist” critics of religion caricature religion as comprising unprovable beliefs, ridiculous rituals, and destructive conduct. Having set up this straw man,  they adduce fallacious arguments to demonstrate that the totality of religion is necessarily in conflict with science: science is the right way – indeed the only way – to establish reliable knowledge; ergo religion is anti-scientific and a block to the development of knowledge.

It seems to me that the new atheists’ reaction to Lord Rees’s acceptance of the Templeton Prize undermines their claims to be dispassionate investigators of reality. As a Bahá’í I find it very strange that scientists, who should surely be committed to open-minded investigation of the physical realities of the universe, are in fact resolutely committed to denying, a priori, the possibility that religion could also contribute to our understanding of non-material aspects of the universe.

The Bahá’í position is that science and religion are both essential systems of knowledge, each with its own proper sphere of activity and each complementing the other. Both are committed to promoting an unprejudiced and open-minded investigation of reality.  Religion is nothing like the straw man so vigorously attacked by Dawkins and others, and there are limits to what rationalism can tell us about ourselves.

In his blog, Everybody Means Something, Pete Hulme, points out that some concepts are beyond the reach of rationality:

In fact, the concept [of God] is inherently beyond proof or disproof in rational terms. It is a question of faith, and disbelief is as much an act of faith as theism. That’s a trap in reality from which there’s no escape, no matter how desperate reductionists of all kinds are to have us believe otherwise. We must choose what we believe: there is nothing there outside our minds that will compel us to believe one thing rather than the other on this issue. It is, though, imperative that we make this choice wisely. I have to leave it to you to decide what wisdom is in this case.


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About the author

Barney Leith

2 comments

  1. Theo H. Miller

    Religion must be considered from the stand that the continueing source of revelation that explained difficult passages after the Prophet ascended was through a process called meditation”and Job went out and meditated, As each new Profet founding Faith, Law and Revelation appeared the proceeding religion was demolished, revelation ceased (see Hebrew dictionary, ‘The Proclamation of Bahaullah” p.103, Quran `3.41B, and divine guidance ceased. Governments were never touched ‘Render unto Caeser’ and so forth. The proof of the existence of God “before your senses’ Abdul-Baha will not take place without first passing through Bahaullah. Science is already definable and one of its functions is to warn people of impending diasters like a tidal wave, the responsibility of religion under the all-embracing influence of Bahaullah is to put the affairs of all classes of men before material In other words by not warning costal tourists of impending diaster and have them leave, material things were placed first.;

    1. Maya Bohnhoff

      I think you make a good point about what happens when we make “exclusions” to the principles of faith. I often have had business people tell me that such and such practice may be against the teachings of God (Golden Rule, turning the other cheek etc) but THIS is BUSINESS and those “rules” only apply to personal behavior. The excuse given is that those principles wouldn’t work in a capitalist society. We see this tension between the commandments of faith and the “real” world all the time, especially in politics where professing believers promote laws that that are the antithesis of the teachings of their Prophet.

      We are sad little mammals in many ways. You’d think after thousands of years of seeing how much ruin and pain our lame half-obedience to ethical principles have caused we’d be willing to bite the bullet and try harder to put them into practice.

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