May 11, 2006

Separation of Science and Religion

Edge has an interesting discussion on the appropriateness of non-religious scientists accepting pecuniary benefits from John Templeton Foundation. The discussion was organized by Edge in response to the article by John Horgan, "The Templeton Foundation: A Skeptic's Take".1

The Templeton Foundation has as its stated mission, I quote, pursue new insights at the boundary between theology and science through a rigorous, open-minded and empirically focused methodology, drawing together talented representatives from a wide spectrum of fields of expertise. Using "the humble approach," the Foundation typically seeks to focus the methods and resources of scientific inquiry on topical areas which have spiritual and theological significance ranging across the disciplines from cosmology to healthcare.

The Templeton website is peppered with statements about its desire to promote collaboration between science and religion to "increase understanding of the ultimate aspects of human purpose...". I thought that teleology has long been discredited in scientific inquiry, am I correct? The press releases from the Foundation refer to several grants and awards for those are working in "the field of Science & Spirituality/Religion" [sic]. What is this field of science and spirituality/religion? Could someone tell me what this field is about, and what, if any, are its theoretical and methodological foundations?

Should scientists, who reject a supernatural god and religions founded on the purported words of such a god as fundamentally unscientific concepts, participate in the mission of an institution that expressly advocates scientific inquiry into religious/metaphysical phenomena? The general tenor of the discussion in Edge (with some exceptions of course, notably Frank Dyson, who was awarded the Templeton Prize - currently worth more than $1.4m - for 200?) seems to suggest that acceptance of pecuniary benefits from religious sponsors would be a bad idea. Well, of course! If you entertained any doubt in this regard, just take a look at the overview of the prizes awarded by the Templeton Foundation!

The more controversial question is whether participation in Templeton sponsored conferences and meetings of scientists, theologians, and other influential lay persons — journalists, for example — acceptable. Amongst the discussants, two notable participants in such conferences are Richard Dawkins and Leonard Susskind. Both of them are unequivocal in their opposition to accepting any prize money from the Foundation. Here's what the latter has to say about it:

I don't understand the idea that a convergence between science and religion is taking place. I don't believe in any such convergence. Throwing huge amounts of money at scientists who claim to see such a convergence can only lead to a dangerous blurring of boundaries.

I hereby pledge to refuse any prize for advancing the so called convergence between science and religion.

If one believed that a convergence between science and religion would endanger the separation of science and religion, then why participate in a conference that is organized to promote such a convergence? Aren't we risking some enthusiastic religious reporter, who may be a potential candidate for the Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year prize, screaming on the front page of the leading newspapers around the world, "The Confluence of Religion and Science: A Dialogue between Pat Robertson and Leonard Susskind"? If you thought that's an exaggeration, take a look at the controversy surrounding Robert Right's interview of Daniel Dennett here, and do a Google search on it.

What's the point of a discourse between religions that are founded on the tautology of an almighty, supernatural god, and science that is the very opposite of tautology? I admit that there may be tradeoffs for the participants in such a discourse, but none for science. Science derives no benefit from it; only costs. In the interest of humanity, let science and religion be separate and unequal. Humanity needs a way out of this "holy" mess that it has gotten itself into!

1 Originally published by The Chronicle of Higher Education on April 7, 2006.

1 comment :
  1. Hey,

    Usha pointed me to your blog. It is indeed a nice one; and wonderfully incendiary. I also like the Sartre quote on your blog, though I have not read him.

    So on the topic of your current post, I agree that science really does not have much to benefit. However, this step itself, & I'm NOT aware of the full story or the full purpose of the initiative, showcases a good opening up of religious institutions to scrutiny & question. I think this'll actually help in keeping belief systems & rationality systems separate, as more people will realise the different roles each system plays in our lives & will learn to put things in their correct context.

    Now this may not be what the initiative aims to achieve, but I think it'll be a good by-product.



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