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November 22, 2006

Religion and Science -- 7

A few things are extraordinary about the New York Times report, by George Johnson, on a conference on science and religion in California.

1. The general anti-religious tone of the conference. Some quotes:

"The world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief....Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization." -- physicist Steven Weinberg
"Let's teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome -- and even comforting -- than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know." -- Carolyn Porco, a space scientist (whose ideas have been discussed here before)

Indeed, anthropologist Melvin J. Konner said at one point about the conference:

"With a few notable exceptions, the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?"

Since public debate on such matters has been stuck so long at Y and Z, this may have been useful.

2. It is also significant that the ever-cautious New York Times felt comfortable printing an article that is so critical of religion -- an article that ends with this exchange between Weinberg and Richard Dawkins:

Before he left to fly back home to Austin, Dr. Weinberg seemed to soften for a moment, describing religion a bit fondly as a crazy old aunt.
"She tells lies, and she stirs up all sorts of mischief and she's getting on, and she may not have that much life left in her, but she was beautiful once," he lamented. "When she's gone, we may miss her."
Dr. Dawkins wasn't buying it. "I won't miss her at all," he said. "Not a scrap. Not a smidgen."

3. And the debate on how scientists should respond to religion (discussed here often) is also of interest. Here's a dissenting (maybe L or M) voice:

"Science does not make it impossible to believe in God. We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it." -- Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist

Dawkins' hard-line response to this sort of statement is here.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at November 22, 2006 9:42 AM


I agree that science does not deter, nor exclude people from believing in all sorts of unlikely things. Even if scientifio explanations are available which could explain some of these unlikely beliefs, many people would still choose to believe in what I would consider, weird and unlikely scenarios.

The question is (according to DR Sumner Miller who had a science TV show in australia in the 60's and 70's) -- WHY IS IT SO?

Why is there still in many people a preference to believe in the highly unlikely or the highly improbable?

I think that it partially to do with the influence of culture. Do our cultures encourage beliefs in the improbable? Sure they do.

The enormity, the scope and breadth of mass popular culture persists in encouraging us to believe in the highly improbable.

Example: I am not convinced that by buying a particular brand of shampoo that I will be transformed into Elle MacPherson.

But part of me, psychologically, is willing to live the dream, (or to believe in the highly improbable), that by using that shampoo some of the attributes that Elle has, maybe power, wealth, good looks etc may be tranferred to me through "shampoo osmosis." (Yes, I know that sounded weird.)

In other words: "If it is good enough for elle, it is good enough for me. She looks great. I might look great too."

We are encouraged to believe in improbables to live vicariously through the deeds of other people. It is not only good for business but it is also ego confirming.

A kind of self validation occurs by living vicariously through created product. There is an emotional and psychological payoff which benefits the person who believes in the improbable.

Plain soap and water is unlikely to have the same psychological payoff as exclusive shampoo even though the physical results of said product may not be markedly different.

Acknowledging the non-existence of a god/gods is unlikely to have the same psychological payoff as believing in a special supernatural father figure who will protect you from death, even though the physical results of each position are not markedly different.

So, the "god product" is self validating and offers a plethora of emotional and psychological benefits. This is regardless of the truth of the existence of said product.

Why is it so? Because it makes people feel good. "Feeling good" through religious belief is probably one of the most hedonistic activities that a person can indulge in. Consequently, it has remained popular, regardless of whether it is true or not.

Posted by: beepbeepitsme at November 23, 2006 1:38 AM

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