Just Six Zeros: £1 million prize fails to encourage clear thinking

April 24th, 2011

Martin Rees has cobbled together, largely from previously published material, an article for the New Statesman.

The NS are selling it with headlines like this:

Science and religion don’t have to be enemies

Richard Dawkins called him a “compliant quisling” for accepting the Templeton Prize. Here, Martin Rees explains his decision.

Dawkins did nothing of the kind, in fact.  He called him a “compliant quisling” in March 2010 for his friendly attitude towards the Templeton Foundation.  No wonder some people think the £1 million prize is a reward for previous efforts by Rees on behalf of Templeton.  Rees, on accepting the award, has given the impression that he didn’t know much about the organisation.  But that cannot be true, given his history of dealings with them.

Now, I don’t see the prize as a bribe, because Rees’ message re: religion and science is not in fact very much in line with Templeton orthodoxy.   He does hold that science and religion don’t have to be enemies. But that doesn’t mean he thinks they should be friends.  But I am baffled as to why he won.  As is Rees himself.

This is what he now says:

It was a surprise to me to be awarded the Templeton Prize, joining an eclectic roll-call of scientists, philosophers, theologians and public figures among the previous winners. I feel I tick only one of the relevant boxes: like other scientists who have won it in recent years, I focus on “big questions” (in my case, cosmology) and have made efforts to communicate the essence of my work to a wide public.

The prize, lest we forget, is for spiritual progress.  Rees has nothing whatsoever to say on that subject at all.  What’s going on?  Is Templeton now just handing out millions of pounds for popularising cosmology?

I don’t do this well, but that skilled expositors such as the physicists Brian Cox and Jim al-Khalili attract such large television audiences indicates the broad fascination with questions about our origins, life in space, our long-range destiny and the laws of nature.

If you don’t think you qualify for the prize in the first place, and don’t think you deserve it anyway, then just don’t accept it.

Most practising scientists focus on “bite-sized” problems that are timely and tractable. The occupational risk is then to lose sight of the big picture. The words of A N Whitehead are as true today as ever: “Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.”

These appear to be unconnected thoughts.   What is the “big picture”?  If you’re a cosmologist, then I guess I understand what “big picture” might be.  But plenty of scientists seem to be full of wonder about very small and specialised areas. Is that wrong, somehow?

It is astonishing that human brains, which evolved to cope with the everyday world, have been able to grasp the counterintuitive mysteries of the cosmos and the quantum. But there seems no reason why they should be matched to every intellectual quest – we could easily be as unaware of crucial aspects of reality as a monkey is of the theory of relativity.

Agreed: it is pretty cool that we (or some of us!) have made such amazing progress  in some areas. It’s also true that we may not be up to the task in other areas.   But do we know what those areas are?

This seems to have been Charles Darwin’s attitude to religion, at least at some stage in his life. In a letter to the Swiss-American biologist Louis Agassiz, he said: “The whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe as he can.”

“At least at some stage of his life” is a bit vague.

Rees here misattributes Darwin’s comment about dogs and Newton.  The comment actually comes from a letter from Darwin to Asa Gray, dated 22 May 1860.   In other words, about 6 months after the publication of On the origin of species, and two decades before Darwin’s death.   Here is the comment in broader context:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.—

Sadly, according to the Darwin Correspondence Project, Gray’s letter does not appear to have been preserved. Perhaps Gray was pressing Darwin on the God question, and this is Darwin’s way of letting him down gently.  But if we take the letter at face value, clearly Darwin is troubled by the notion of design given the cruelty of nature.

I’m not sure the recipient of a £1 million prize for “spiritual progress” ought to be putting forward Darwin’s bewilderment as a good model for attitudes towards religion!

This is a glaringly different stance from that adopted by some of Darwinism’s high-profile proponents today.

Not that Darwin was taking a “stance” in the first place, he was just saying how confused he was.  And today we need to worry less about our status as gentlemen in a highly religious society than Darwin did.  Most of us also don’t need to worry about the sensitivities of our deeply religious wives.

We should all oppose – as Darwin did – views manifestly in conflict with the evidence, such as creationism. (Last year’s Templeton winner, Francisco Ayala, has been in the forefront of that campaign in the US.)

Agreed.  But this means opposing religious ideas.

But we shouldn’t set up this debate as “religion v science”; instead, we should strive for peaceful coexistence with at least the less dogmatic strands of mainstream religions, which number many excellent scientists among their adherents.

This is confusing.

I guess we should take “peaceful coexistence” as Rees’ model for the “relationship” between science and religion in general.   It’s not at all obvious what “peaceful coexistence” actually means, since none of the “new atheists” are advocating violence.

Curious that Rees seems to suggest that “peaceful coexistence” is not possible with the more “dogmatic strands” of religion.  So what does that mean?

Curious also that “peaceful coexistence” is constructed as incompatible with debating “religion v science”.

This, at least, is my view – a pallid and boring one, both for those who wish to promote constructive engagement between science and religion, and for those who prefer antagonistic debate.

So it seems we should think of “peaceful coexistence” as different from both “constructive engagement” and “antagonistic debate”.  So science and religion shouldn’t attack each other, but nor should they work together.   They should just both exist at the same time.

Which means, doesn’t it?, that “peaceful coexistence” is akin to neighbours who never speak.

I am, I suppose, an “accommodationist” – a disparaging epithet used by anti-religion campaigners to describe those who don’t share their fervour. Richard Dawkins described me as a “compliant quisling”.

Well, I think “accommodationist” is used more widely than just by “anti religion campaigners. It also means rather more than just “not sharing our fervour”.

But I am a sceptic. If we learn anything from the pursuit of science, it is that even something as basic as an atom is quite hard to understand. We should be unsurprised that many phenomena remain unexplained, and dubious of any claim to have achieved more than a very incomplete and metaphorical insight into any profound aspect of our existence – and, especially, we should be sceptical of dogma. This is certainly why I have no religious belief.

Well, I guess we can’t put Rees in the same camp as Karen Armstrong: he thinks of religion primarily in terms of doctrine.

But again, there’s a contradiction here.  On the one hand, Rees says that science and religion coexist but do not engage (positively or negatively).  On the other hand, he says that science has taught him to be sceptical of dogma and that’s why he’s an unbeliever.   That looks to me very much as though science does have relevant things to say about religion!

Despite this, I continue to be nourished by the music and liturgy of the Church in which I was brought up. Just as there are many Jews who keep the Friday ritual in their home despite describing themselves as atheists, I am a “tribal Christian”, happy to attend church services.

We should give this kind of thing a name, it’s not uncommon.  I think Philip Larkin was another who rejected belief but retained a fondness for the Church.  Mind you, Dawkins and Hitchens have both expressed a love for the language of the King James Version of the Bible, so there are degrees of “tribal Christianity”.

Reesianism, anyone?

If I were religious, I think I’d be a bit put out by this kind of thing: can’t be good if the church car parks are full of atheist cars.

Campaigning against religion can be socially counterproductive. If teachers take the uncompromising line that God and Darwinism are irreconcilable, many young people raised in a faith-based culture will stick with their religion and be lost to science.

Hang on a minute, Martin.  “Campaigning against religion” is not the same thing as “teaching science”.   What may be appropriate in one context may not be useful in another.   I agree that teachers shouldn’t behave like campaigners, but on the other hand not everyone has to behave like a teacher.

Nor should teachers be teaching that God and Darwinism are reconcilable (though they clearly have been reconciled by all semi-sensible believers).

But then how do we go about opposing…

views manifestly in conflict with the evidence

… without dealing, at some point, with theology?

The problem isn’t so much “God” in the abstract, as particular interpretations of the Bible and particular conceptions of a creator deity.  If you think that all living creatures were put on this earth by God in the form they currently take, then actually God and Darwinism are irreconcilable, and you are already “lost to science”.

The job of teachers can surely only be to reiterate what the evidence says… or does Martin think that theology is a suitable adjunct to biology lessons?

Moreover, we need all the allies we can muster against fundamentalism – a palpable, perhaps growing concern.

Does campaigning against religion prevent forming alliances with religious people on certain issues?  I haven’t noticed so.

Mainstream religions – such as the Anglican Church – should be welcomed as being on our side in any such confrontation. (Indeed, one reason I would like to see them stronger is that the archbishops who lead the Church of England, Rowan Williams and John Sentamu, two remarkable but utterly different personalities, both elevate the tone of our public life.)

What have Williams and Sentamu done in the “confrontation” with fundamentalism?

Sentamu has said:

I have no problem with the story of the creation found in the Bible being a part of mainstream education – it would be most odd for the RE syllabus not to include it as part of the Creation story common to the three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Islam and Christianity. My own view is that facts and values belong together, and one without the other is an incomplete education. Religion and Science are not polar opposites, they are the different sides of a godly coin.

This is music to the ears of fundamentalists.  And completely at odds with Rees.

Williams has done slightly better, but has not been particularly prominent in any “confrontations”.  His position is that God “shapes the process” of  evolution.  Which again is contrary to Rees’ model of how science and religion should interact (i.e. they shouldn’t).

And not even the most secular among us can fail to be uplifted by Christianity’s architectural legacy – the great cathedrals. These immense and glorious buildings were erected in an era of constricted horizons, both in time and in space. Even the most educated knew of essentially nothing beyond Europe; they thought the world was a few thousand years old, and that it might not last another thousand.

Perhaps there might be some people who are not so uplifted.  And what is the attitude of those religionists who reject “immense and glorious” buildings in favour of plain and simple chapels?  Presumably, since they have rejected such an architectural approach, they don’t think fancy buildings are particularly “uplifting”.

But: so what?   Let’s accept for the sake of argument that some cathedrals are astounding feats of engineering and architecture.  What follows?  So were the pyramids, and they’ve lasted a lot longer than any church.

Unlike the cathedral-builders, we know a great deal about our world – and, indeed, about what lies beyond. Technologies that our ancestors couldn’t have conceived of enrich our lives and our understanding. Many phenomena still make us fearful, but the advance of science spares us from irrational dread.

Sixth form boilerplate.  Sorry.

Next, a quick gear change…

Some might think that intellectual immersion in vast expanses of space and time would render cosmologists serene and uncaring about what happens next year, next week, or tomorrow. For me, however, the opposite is the case. We know we are stewards of a precious “pale blue dot”, a planet with a future measured in billions of years, whose fate depends on humanity’s collective actions this century.

This looks commendable, but is actually ridiculous.  The fate of the planet doesn’t depend on humanity at all!  Someone call John Gray!   Our quality of life, and the fate of ourselves and other living things is impacted by the choices we make, but ultimately the fate of the planet is not in our control at all.  The hubris is mind-blowing: we are not gods, Martin, we cannot stop the death of the sun.

In today’s fast-changing world, we can’t aspire to leave a monument lasting 1,000 years, but it would be shameful if our focus remained short term and parochial, and we thereby denied future generations a fair inheritance. Wise choices will require the effective efforts of natural scientists, environmentalists, social scientists and humanists. All must be guided by the knowledge that 21st-century science can offer – but inspired by an idealism, vision and commitment that science alone can’t provide.

The unstated implication being, perhaps, that religion can be a source of “idealism, vision and commitment”?  Well, it can be. But it can also be an obstacle.   Which is why atheists will continue to challenge it.

Dan @ Incredulity Services

 

Why did Martin Rees win the Templeton Prize?

April 7th, 2011

Martin Rees (AKA Baron Rees of Ludlow), the present “Astronomer Royal” and former President of the Royal Society,  has been awarded the 2011 Templeton Prize. This makes him £1 million better off, so he is very pleased.

Also very pleased is Mark Vernon, who admits to Templeton connections of his own in his piece for the Guardian’s Comment is Free site.  Vernon sees Rees’ humble acceptance of the enormous pot of Templeton loot as a sure sign that

the substantial resources of the Templeton Foundation have, in effect, been welcomed at the heart of the British scientific establishment.

According to Vernon, this means it is now

that little bit harder for Dawkins to sustain respect amongst his peers for his crusade against religion.

Last year, Vernon reminds us,  Richard Dawkins attacked Rees as a “compliant Quisling”. This is what Dawkins said, in context:

The US National Academy of Sciences has brought ignominy on itself by agreeing to host the announcement of the 2010 Templeton Prize (see below). This is exactly the kind of thing Templeton is ceaselessly angling for – recognition among real scientists – and they use their money shamelessly to satisfy their doomed craving for scientific respectability. They tried it on with the Royal Society of London, and they seem to have found a compliant Quisling in the current President, Martin Rees, who, though not religious himself, is a fervent ‘believer in belief’. Fortunately, enough Fellows made a stink about it to ensure that the Royal will not flirt with Templeton in future.

I haven’t seen a response from Dawkins to Rees’ award yet, but presumably he would see it as confirming Rees as a “Quisling”.

Jerry Coyne, on the other hand, regards the Templeton Foundation’s mission as “a serious corruption of science“.  As for Rees, he

may consider himself unsullied by belief in God, but by accepting Templeton’s largesse he lends support to John Templeton’s own vision that “scientific revelations may be a goldmine for revitalising religion in the 21st century.”

Meanwhile, over at Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson’s angle is that Vernon is playing the old “good atheist” vs “bad atheist” game.

Also at the Guardian, political commentator Michael White professes puzzlement at why “the atheists” are “so cross” at Rees’ acceptance of the award.

But the question I want to ask is: what has Rees done, exactly, to deserve a £1 million windfall? It’s a lot of money.  Notoriously, it’s more than Nobel prize winners get. Rees is unquestionably an excellent scientist, but you’d imagine there would be something pretty amazing on Rees’ CV for Templeton to throw a million quid at him.  Wouldn’t you?

Here’s how the Templeton Foundation explains the purpose of their prize:

The Templeton Prize honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works. Established in 1972 by the late Sir John Templeton, the Prize aims, in his words, to identify “entrepreneurs of the spirit”—outstanding individuals who have devoted their talents to expanding our vision of human purpose and ultimate reality. The Prize celebrates no particular faith tradition or notion of God, but rather the quest for progress in humanity’s efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine.

So why did Rees get the prize?

Templeton’s citation says:

[his] profound insights on the cosmos have provoked vital questions that speak to humanity’s highest hopes and worst fears

Golly.

They continue:

the “big questions” he raises – such as “How large is physical reality?” – are reshaping crucial philosophical and theological considerations that strike at the core of life, fostering the spiritual progress that the Templeton Prize has long sought to recognize.

Gosh.

John M. Templeton Jr is quoted:

“By peering into the farthest reaches of the galaxies, Martin Rees has opened a window on our very humanity, inviting everyone to wrestle with the most fundamental questions of our nature and existence.”

Wow.

And how interesting: Nobel science prizes reward discoveries, the finding of answers; Templeton rewards questions.  Rather vague questions, to which perhaps there are no answers. And this is apparently worth £1 million.

Surely there must be more to it than that?  Surely you don’t just make someone a millionaire for “inviting everyone to wrestle with the most fundamental questions of our nature and existence”?  Do you?

Perhaps Martin Rees’ acceptance speech contains some further clues as to his achievements in Templeton’s field?

Well, not really.   He writes well, does Martin, I suppose, but what it boils down to is this (I paraphrase):

Woah. Space is, like, big. Really big.  I wonder how big? And what about life? What’s that about?

Oh, and he’s worried about a whole bunch of political and economic issues. The same issues that worry quite a lot of people.  And he doesn’t have the answers to them either. Or any new angles or insights or ideas or proposals, let alone “profound insights”. He says,

we give too little thought to what kind of world we’ll leave for our grandchildren.

How true, Martin, how true. Well done.  Have a million pounds. Enjoy the cruise.

So far so banal.

And what about religion – sorry, “spirituality” – then?   Any “profound insights” on that topic?

I continue to be inspired by the music, liturgy and architectural tradition of the Anglican Church in which I was brought up. No one can fail to be uplifted by great cathedrals – such as that at Ely, near my home in Cambridge

Rees’ final point is that the people who built Ely Cathedral were scientifically ignorant and materially impoverished. Yet they built Ely Cathedral.  We are, says, Rees, now much more knowledgeable, and better off than we have ever been.   But –

In today’s runaway world, we can’t aspire to leave a monument lasting a thousand years, but it would surely be shameful if we persisted in policies that denied future generations a fair inheritance. Wise choices will require the effective efforts of natural scientists, environmentalists, social scientists and humanists. All must be guided by the knowledge that 21st century science can offer, but inspired by an idealism, vision and commitment that science alone can’t provide.

Who could disagree with that?  But is it a “profound insight” worth a million pounds?   No, it’s not.

And that’s all Rees has to say.  So if you were looking for some indication of what Rees has done to deserve being made a millionaire, you won’t find it in his acceptance speech.

Perhaps more insight can be found in Rees’ interview with Ian Sample?

IS: Why do you think you won?

MR: I was obviously rather surprised that I fitted the credentials, but as I see it, it is primarily because my work is on cosmology and astrophysics and they support work of that kind, because of its general interest. If you look at who has won it, I’m the 7th member of the Royal Society for instance. People like Freeman Dyson have won it, so I’m not out of line with the kind of people they have given it to in the past.

This is remarkable.

Not only is Rees unable to explain why he won, he affects surprise that he even fits Templeton’s criteria!

Did Templeton not explain to Rees why they were offering him a million pounds?   Didn’t he think to ask?  Well, he does say he was surprised: perhaps he fell into a dead swoon when he received the phone call offering him the jackpot and the question never subsequently came up. “Who, me, are you sure? Don’t you mean some other Establishment-science figure who has previously defended Templeton’s interests?”

So, if you can believe it, although Rees is not entirely sure why they’ve picked him, he thinks Templeton have a “general interest” in supporting astrophysics, which is his line of work, and since they’ve given the money to Freeman Dyson naturally he’s next in line. Buggin’s turn, I guess.

In fact, Rees affects a bemused modesty about the whole affair:

some of the winners have been more closely involved with philosophical issues in a more explicit way than I have.

Alright, so what about the spiritual angle?  Anything “profound” to offer us on that score?

IS: And what about theological issues?

MR: Well, I’ve got no religious beliefs at all. Of course some of the winners have, but I think not all of them.

That’s a no, then.

Well, alright, perhaps he has an interesting stance on the work of the Templeton Foundation, who have just stuffed a massive cheque in his pocket?

IS: What do you think the Templeton prize achieves? What is the value of it?

MR: That’s not for me to say to be honest.

IS: You must have a view?

MR: No.

IS: But you think it achieves something?

MR: Well, I mean as much as other prizes, certainly, but I wouldn’t want to be more specific than that.

Martin, they’ve just given you a million pounds.  A million pounds.  It’s not every day that happens, even when you’re a Baron.

The interviewer presses him on this, no doubt rather surprised at how unforthcoming the winner of a million pounds is on the value of his benefactor.  And Rees just says,

MR: They are very nice people who are doing things which are within their agenda, but their agenda is really very broad.

He recently read an article about Templeton in Nature, he says, which made him think it was all alright.

Turning to religion, the interviewer asks Rees about his unbelieving churchgoer stance:

IS: You have been described as a churchgoer who doesn’t believe in God. Is that an accurate description?

MR: I suppose so. What I’ve said is I’m happy to attend my college chapel and things like that, because I see this as part of my culture, just like many Jews light candles on Friday night even though they don’t believe anything, and my culture is the Church of England, as it were.

IS: Are you a regular churchgoer?

MR: Not very regular, no. In my college, I go once a week during term as the Master of the College. And in Trinity College, we’re lucky enough to have a wonderful choir rated number five in the world by Gramophone magazine, so it’s worth hearing.

So nothing of the nature of profundity here, either. He goes to church because the choir is quite good.  Well, fine.

What else?

IS: Why don’t you believe in God?

MR: Um. Which God?

IS: A God.

MR: I don’t think I can answer that.

IS: Really?

MR: Mm.

That’s extraordinary.

Wouldn’t you expect the recipient of a million pound award from an organisation committed to spiritual progress to have something rather more substantial to say?

The interviewer, obviously a bit nonplussed by this, persists:

IS: You must have thought about it.

MR: Yes. But there’s nothing very much I want to say about that.

This man has just accepted one whole million pounds for “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.”   And there’s nothing at all he “wants” to say about belief in God.

Notice the language. There’s nothing he “wants” to say. He doesn’t think he can answer the questions.  Is there not the implication that, as a self-confessed atheist, he certainly does have something to say about it, but he’s decided not to, for some reason.   Naturally that unwillingness has nothing to do with Templeton’s largesse, but it’s certainly puzzling.  It obviously puzzled the interviewer.

Rees does go on to deliver a very carefully and diplomatically phrased attack on “dogmatic” religion:

I think doing science makes me realise that even the simplest things are pretty 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. And also I see human beings as not the culmination, but only a stage in the marvellous unfolding of evolution, because the timeline ahead is as long as the time that has lapsed up to now. Those are respects in which my professional interests affect my response to dogmatic religion.

That’s one of the most unnecessarily cautious coded criticisms of fundamentalism I have ever read.

Alright, so what about the churchgoing?  Perhaps Rees has some interesting insights on what that is like for an unbeliever?

IS: What do you gain from churchgoing, considering you don’t subscribe to religious dogma or believe in God?

MR: Well, I think it’s a common traditional ritual which one participates in as part of one’s culture.

IS: Is it to do with aesthetic and belonging issues, of belonging to a group that has enjoyable rituals?

MR: I suppose so, yes.

This really isn’t million-pounds material, is it?

What about Richard Dawkins, asks the interviewer, obviously hoping for some headlines?

MR: I won’t comment on him…

Oh.

MR …but I’m not allergic to religion. I would say two things. One is that I think all of us are concerned about fanaticism and fundamentalism and we need all the allies we can muster against it. And I would see Rowan Williams et al as being on our side.

Has Rowan Williams been particularly prominent in the struggle against religious fanaticism and fundamentalism?

Another point is if you are teaching Muslim sixth formers in a school and you tell them they can’t have their God and Darwin, there is a risk they will choose their God and be lost to science. So those are two respects where I would disagree with the emphasis of the professional atheists, as it were.

This, at least, is a genuine dilemma. It is perfectly possible to hold to a theology of evolution which is compatible with certain concepts of God. Dawkins knows this, of course.  However, if a sixth former thinks their God originally created all creatures in the form we see them today, then they are lost to science already.

But we’re still waiting for the promised profundities.   The next question Ian Sample asked Rees was about science/religious conflict/reconciliation:

IS: Do you see an importance in trying to diffuse some of the conflict that sometimes gets stoked up between science and religion?

MR: I think they can co-exist. They are very different activities. Obviously one opposes Creationism and such-like, but it’s fairly clear that there are some scientists for whom religion is important and most of us for whom it isn’t, but again I think they can be co-existent.

Depends on the religion, doesn’t it, as to whether they are “very different” activities?  But otherwise, Rees is right: religion is not important to most scientists, and religion and science can co-exist.  Right, but not profoundly right.

One of the things Templeton is keen on is science/religion “dialogue”.  What does Rees think about that?

IS: Do you think science and religion can have a constructive dialogue?

MR: I’m sceptical about that. I tend to avoid getting into these sorts of debates, because I’m not sure how much productive interaction there can be between them.

He thinks this, of course, because they are “very different activities”. Like science and music, which he gives as an example. Although science and music probably have a very productive dialogue indeed.

A couple of questions later, Rees observes:

I don’t think they [science and religion] have much scope for constructive interaction, but they have in common perhaps an awareness of mystery.

Is that it then? Is it the promotion of “an awareness of mystery” that nets a man a million pounds?

There’s an interlude in which the interviewer asks about creationism and intelligent design, among other things.

Rees has “no unconventional views on this at all”, he says, which is  disappointing in an award-winning profound thinker. As to whether they should be taught, he says teachers have to address them “if they are brought up”.  But how, given religion and science are “very different activities”, without forcing the pupils to choose between their religion and science?  Do you just say, “science and religion are different activities, shut up”?  What if they don’t agree?.

Oh, and it turns out Rees is against faith schools “in general”.

And then we return to the religion/science question.

And again, Rees stonewalls.

IS: If there is a clear and obvious boundary between science and religion, how does religion come to be used in these contexts?

MR: I try to avoid getting into these science and religion debates.

IS: Will you be able to stay out of them now you have the Templeton prize?

MR: It’s my choice.

IS: There was an extraordinary fuss last year over Stephen Hawking’s pronouncement that the creation of the universe did not require a God. What did you make of that?

MR: What I said at the time is that I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read little philosophy and less theology, so I don’t think his views should be taken with any special weight.

IS: You have read on those subjects. What’s your view?

MR: What’s my view? Well, I’m not prepared to pronounce on these things. I think it’s rather foolish when scientists do so.

So you shouldn’t talk about philosophy and theology unless you’ve read up on those subjects.   But you shouldn’t talk about them if you have read up on them, either.

So does that really mean scientists should never talk about philosophy and theology, in any circumstances?

Can philosophers and theologians ever talk about science?

The next question gets the funniest answer yet:

IS: Do you want to share any thoughts on your work?

MR: I am sorry you focused on science and religion rather than what I think are the interesting things I do.

I guess that proves that the Templeton Prize really doesn’t act as any kind of bribe.    They can’t even bribe Martin Rees to say he’s interested in the science/religion relationship, which after all is the whole raison d’etre of Templeton!  He doesn’t even think there is any point to the science/religion dialogue!

But isn’t it a bit bizarre to accept a huge monetary award from an organisation with the stated aims of the Templeton Foundation, and then be surprised when people want to talk about science and religion?

The interview discussion then moves on to multiverses and whatnot, where Rees is quite obviously on more comfortable ground.

So there we have it.

To summarise, then:

It seems Rees is quite happy to receive a million pounds just for being an astrophysicist and next in line after Freeman Dyson. He doesn’t really know what he’s done to deserve it and hasn’t asked.

He’s not got much to say about philosophy, and nothing to say about religion, not even specifically about the relationship between science and religion. And he’s definitely got nothing to say about the very generous Templeton Foundation, other than that they’re very friendly.

Most scientists don’t even think religion is important, and he doesn’t think science/religion dialogue is productive. Scientists shouldn’t ever talk about philosophy or theology anyway, even if they know something about it. He doesn’t even think the relationship between science and religion is interesting.

He doesn’t know what he’s going to do with the money.

Oh, but he is worried about the future on behalf of his grandchildren, and he’s quite keen to talk about that.

A million pounds.

Think about that.  It’s a lot of money.

A million pounds, for what?

Posted by Dan @ Incredulity Services

British Chiropractic Association drops case against Simon Singh

April 15th, 2010

Good news: the BCA has, in the light of Simon Singh’s successful appeal on the question of the meaning of the words he used, dropped its libel case.   The BCA statement  is online here (PDF).  They say, in full:

Having carefully considered its position in the light of the judgment of the Court of Appeal (1st April 2010), the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has decided to discontinue its libel action against Simon Singh.

As previously made clear, the BCA brought the claim because it considered that Simon Singh had made a serious allegation against its reputation, namely, that the BCA promoted treatments that it knew to be “bogus”. The Honourable Mr Justice Eady, the UK’s most experienced defamation judge, agreed with the BCA’s interpretation of the article and ruled that it made a serious factual allegation of dishonesty.

The Court of Appeal, in its recent judgment, has taken a very different view of the article. On its interpretation, the article did not make any factual allegation against the BCA at all; it was no more than an expression of ‘honest opinion’ by Simon Singh. While it still considers that the article was defamatory of the BCA, the decision provides Dr Singh with a defence such that the BCA has taken the view that it should withdraw to avoid further legal costs being incurred by either side.

As those who have followed the publicity surrounding this case will know, Simon Singh has said publicly that he had never intended to suggest that the BCA had been dishonest. The BCA accepts this statement, which goes some way to vindicating its position.

.The BCA takes seriously its duty and responsibilities to members and to chiropractic patients. The BCA has considered seeking leave to take this matter to the Supreme Court and has been advised there are strong grounds for appeal against the Court of Appeal judgment. However, while it was right to bring this claim at the outset, the BCA now feels that the time is right for the matter to draw to a close.

Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science Blog has this to say:

Chiropractors are now a profession under siege. The message is clear: if you are surviving quietly in the shadows between real clinical evidence and vague superficial plausibility, then drawing attention to yourself with a big fight over evidence and some fairly moderate criticisms cannot ever be a good idea.

But most damnable is that this case should have taken place in the arena of medicine, where reasonable criticism of each others practises should never be stifled, for one very simple reason: it’s possible, in medicine, to do enormous harm, even when you set out with the best of intentions.

Support Libel Reform!

Posted by: Dan @ Incredulity Services

An arresting idea

April 13th, 2010

Is there any possibility of the Pope being prosecuted on his forthcoming trip to Britain?  It seems highly unlikely, but just the fact that people are even talking about it helps raise the profile of those who want to protest at Vatican crimes and misdemeanors.

This particular story started with an article by Richard Dawkins in the Washington Post of 28 March: Ratzinger is the perfect Pope.  In that article, Dawkins said:

This former head of the Inquisition should be arrested the moment he dares to set foot outside his tinpot fiefdom of the Vatican, and he should be tried in an appropriate civil – not ecclesiastical – court. That’s what should happen. Sadly, we all know our faith-befuddled governments will be too craven to do it.

On 11 April, the Sunday Times published a story with the silly headline, “Richard Dawkins: I will arrest Pope Benedict XVI.”  (the headline was subsequently altered after representations from Dawkins).  Dawkins had to issue a correction in a comment on the article when reposted to his own website:

Needless to say, I did NOT say “I will arrest Pope Benedict XVI” or anything so personally grandiloquent. You have to remember that The Sunday Times is a Murdoch newspaper, and that all newspapers follow the odd custom of entrusting headlines to a sub-editor, not the author of the article itself.

What I DID say to Marc Horne when he telephoned me out of the blue, and I repeat it here, is that I am whole-heartedly behind the initiative by Geoffrey Robertson and Mark Stephens to mount a legal challenge to the Pope’s proposed visit to Britain. Beyond that, I declined to comment to Marc Horme, other than to refer him to my ‘Ratzinger is the Perfect Pope’ article…

Here is what really happened. Christopher Hitchens first proposed the legal challenge idea to me on March 14th. I responded enthusiastically, and suggested the name of a high profile human rights lawyer whom I know. I had lost her address, however, and set about tracking her down. Meanwhile, Christopher made the brilliant suggestion of Geoffrey Robertson. He approached him, and Mr Robertson’s subsequent ‘Put the Pope in the Dock’ article in The Guardian shows him to be ideal:
http://richarddawkins.net/articles/5366
The case is obviously in good hands, with him and Mark Stephens. I am especially intrigued by the proposed challenge to the legality of the Vatican as a sovereign state whose head can claim diplomatic immunity.

Even if the Pope doesn’t end up in the dock, and even if the Vatican doesn’t cancel the visit, I am optimistic that we shall raise public consciousness to the point where the British government will find it very awkward indeed to go ahead with the Pope’s visit, let alone pay for it.

Geoffrey Robertson’s article is here: Put the Pope in the dock (2 April).  Others who have written supportively (though from different angles) about the idea are George Monbiot (The pope on trial would show what equality before the law means, 12 April), and Libby Purves (Arrest the Pope? I rather think we should, 12 April).  Christopher Hitchens has written about the issues as well: The Great Catholic Cover-Up  (15 March),  The Pope Is Not Above the Law  (29 March), We Can’t Let the Pope Decide Who’s a Criminal (12 April).

Richard Dawkins returned to the theme in a piece for the Guardian/Comment is Free, published today: The pope should stand trial.  He starts out with the key point:

Sexual abuse of children is not unique to the Roman Catholic church, and Joseph Ratzinger is not one of those priests who raped altar boys while in a position of dominance and trust. But as so often it is the subsequent cover-ups, even more than the original crimes, that do most to discredit an institution, and here the pope is in real trouble.

A lot of people still seem to have trouble understanding what the problem is.  That puts it succinctly.

Posted by: Dan @ Incredulity Services

Raj Patel is not a messiah

April 13th, 2010

Raj Patel is the best-selling author of Stuffed and starved: markets, power and the hidden battle for the world food system (originally published in 2007), and The value of nothing: how to reshape market society and redefine democracy (2009).   Some people think he is some kind of messiah: he denies it.

In an article in the Guardian on Monday, Patel took the opportunity to write about his situation:

In part, I suspect the reason the story isn’t going away – the New York Times just ran a followup – is because it fits a narrative in which we’re steeped from birth. From the Bible to Knight Rider to The Matrix, the story’s the same: in crappy times, a single person will emerge to make all the difference and turn everything around. Although it makes for great viewing, it makes for a bad society. Ultimately, tales about messiahs are bedtime stories steeped in power. They’re debilitating soporifics, inducements to be passive as we wait for social change because, some day, our prince will come.

Why wait, though? If the world is to transform, faith in politicians offering hope and change is a recipe for disappointment. Ask almost anyone who voted for Obama. Change happens through millions of acts of rebellion and mutual aid, not through faith in one great leader. What’s depressing about this whole Maitreya thing is that it is a sign that we’ve given up on ourselves, that we need to depend on The One rather than finding the means to fix our own problems directly.

There’s a lot there with which Incredulity agrees.  But I want to be picky.  The idea that religious beliefs act to discourage activism is a familiar bit of rhetoric – I’ve used the “get up off your knees” line myself – but is it true?  There are plenty of religious people whose beliefs have inspired their progressive radicalism or reformism, and of course reactionary activism too. 

How many people abstain from political engagement because they think a messiah is on the way?  Probably not that many: the problem is the opposite one of conservative messiah-believers using their collective political muscle to get their own way.  If we think that because they spend a lot of time praying they therefore don’t have time for doing stuff, we run the risk of complacency.

I’ll end with a line or two from the end of Patel’s article, with which I can wholeheartedly agree:

This… is the world I’m keen to live in: one without princes but with billions of world teachers, in which we live under neither God nor Master. It’s a recipe for change that makes for poor storytelling but great politics.

Posted by: Dan @ Incredulity Services

Reading the ‘New Statesman’ God issue #1

April 12th, 2010
This week’s New Statesman (5-18 April)  is their annual “God” issue.

Here’s how they introduce the issue:

This magazine has been resolutely secular since its first issue in 1913. Yet our annual “God” issue often proves to be our most popular. Proof, perhaps, that as Harold Wilson recognised, social democracy in Britain always owed more to Methodism than it did to Marx.

Methodism – nonconformism generally – was an important element in the labour movement (and the Labour Party), that much is true.   But the NS is here setting up a false dichotomy: you could be religious but still influenced by Marx.   Furthermore, not all secularists were Marxists either.

The NS also seems to assume that the increase in sales for the “God” issue is down to lots of Methodist social democrats suddenly deciding to buy the magazine.  That is not a safe assumption.   Sales might be going to people who are not social democrats, but are religious.  Or indeed to atheists who are neither social democrats nor Methodists but who are interested in reading about religion.

Whether the nonconformist influence on the labour movement was in the interests of the movement is another matter entirely.

For us, secularism has always meant a secular state, not a secular society.  A belief in a state that does not act on the basis of religious considerations is perfectly compatible with a recognition that faith has an important role to play in the public sphere.

This is also a rather confused comment.   To the writer, “secular state” appears to mean church/state separation, or disestablishment.  And “secular society” appears to mean religious unimportance “in the public sphere” – whatever that is.   That sounds a bit like the secularisation thesis, which states that religion has become much less significant in people’s lives.

But that’s a sociological point, and you might advocate that religion become less significant, without believing that it actually has. Indeed, you might want religion to become less powerful, precisely because you think it is too powerful.

Therefore, an advocate of a secular society (if we take that to be a society where religion is not important, as opposed to a society where religion has disappeared – another useful distinction) might also recognise that religion plays an “important role”.  But that is something they would oppose, rather than welcome – as the NS seems to.

However, acknowledging that doesn’t mean we are indifferent to the depredations of organised religion – far from it, as is shown by John Cornwell’s report (see page 22) on the crisis engulfing the Roman Catholic Church.

The crisis in the Catholic Church is precisely an example of its “important role” in the public sphere.  No doubt that wasn’t what the NS had in mind, though.

Religious observance in Britain is, with a few exceptions, in steep decline, but interest in science, metaphysics and epistemology has perhaps never been stronger. David Lewis-Williams (see page 53) is right when he says that the human appetite for belief is hard-wired. We hope this issue goes some way to sating your hunger.

That happens not to be what David Lewis-Williams says, but if he had said it, it would be implausible.   All human beings require food,and feel hungry if they don’t get it.  But many human beings live perfectly well without religious belief, and do not miss it.   What might be “hard-wired” are certain ways of behaving or interpreting the world around us, that lead people to make cognitive mistakes which we call religion.  Particular religious beliefs are unlikely to be hard-wired, such as – for example – that priests should be unmarried.

Posted by: Dan @ Incredulity Services

“Is Christianity being marginalised?” asks the Observer

April 11th, 2010

This week’s “panel question” in the Observer asks Mary Warnock, Donald MacLeod, and Anastasia de Waal whether Christianity is being marginalised.

The introductory context to the question is this:

Nurse Shirley Chaplin lost her legal battle for the right to wear crucifix at work

So if you thought the question was about secularisation, it’s clear what is really being asked is whether Christians (and/or Christianity itself) are being pushed to the margins of society.  We are obviously intended to take Chaplin’s Employment Tribunal defeat as an example of that happening.   As opposed to what it really was, which was simply the Tribunal upholding the importance of NHS health and safety rules against someone who wanted to be able to disregard those rules merely because her jewellery was associated with her Christian beliefs. 

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Secularism and religious “influence”

April 10th, 2010

Tony Bayfield, former chaplain to the Lord Mayor of London, writes in today’s Guardian/Comment is Free that,

I understand the necessity of separating state and religion. Both state power and religious power are huge and, in the same hands, far too much. Religious parties working for sectional interests are a disaster – for the state, and for religion.

So far so good.

But I simply don’t understand the notion that politics is one thing and religion is another and religion should have no influence or say in the political arena.

It’s surprising to hear that Tony doesn’t understand the notion, since it seems a fairly straightforward – if ambiguous – concept. Presumably he just means he doesn’t agree with it.

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