Monthly Archives: August 2007

Art and the limits of science

There are people who argue that science should not investigate some issues. Sometimes they say these issues should be left to religion and philosophy. No doubt there are questions which don’t lend themselves to scientific inquiry – but then is there any evidence that religion is capable of handling those questions?

In the past, areas related to mind, consciousness, spirit, soul and the artistic realm have been ruled “out of bounds” to science – often by scientists themselves. But, in reality, religion has not been able to investigate these areas either. Their pronouncements on these issues have been based on dogma, not understanding.

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Atheism and religious diversity

AENJThere has been quite a bit of discussion in New Zealand about the problems of religious diversity and the need to develop understanding and cooperation. However, this has concentrated on ethnic and religious groups. The third of the population with non-religious beliefs are mostly ignored and this undermines true acceptance of diversity. We need to widen our horizons beyond the “Interfaith” approach if we are to address problems underlying suspicion and conflict between people of different beliefs.

I have contributed an article on this to a special issue of the Aotearoa Ethnic Network Journal. This issue deals with Faith and ethnic communities. The article entitled, Atheism and Religious Diversity, argues for an approach to religious diversity which includes non-theist groups and is therefore more consistent with international treaties, and New Zealand legislation, on freedom of religion and belief.

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Evolution’s threat to religion?

James D. Watson, one of the scientists awarded a Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA, makes an interesting comment in his book DNA: The Secret of Life:

“With its direct contradiction of religious accounts of creation, evolution represents science’s most direct incursion into the religious domain and accordingly provokes the acute defensiveness that characterises creationism.”

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The atheist wars?

There are surprisingly few conflicts between atheists. Certainly, nothing like the “clash of civilisations” currently raging amongst theists. Perhaps this is because non-theists seem to feel little need to organise into groups. As Richard Dawkins says, organising atheists is like herding cats!

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The Enemies of Reason

This two part series, presented by Richard Dawkins, was shown on British TV this month. The reviews have been very good. The chances of seeing it on New Zealand TV are probably very remote.

However, copies of both programmes are now available on the internet. Have a look below and give me some feedback.

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Science and the supernatural

Richard Dawkins TV series Enemies of Reason has caused some discussion about the relationship of science to the supernatural. This also comes up in discussions of the nature of science, the science/religion conflict and the motivation behind intelligent design and creationism. Some of the terms used in this discussion can mean different things to different people, so it’s worth starting with some dictionary definitions.

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Religion and Schools

Too often when we talk about religious diversity, people with non-theist beliefs are excluded. We saw this with the the statement on Religious Diversity in New Zealand. It refers to our legislation, and international treaties, which guarantee human rights for people with religious and non-religious beliefs. However, it then goes on to ignore the non-religious when guaranteeing rights to safety (clause 3), recognition and accommodation in work and education (clause 5), education (clause 6) and relationships with government (clause 8).

This attitude is being repeated in current discussion on religious education. Proposals to teach an understanding of different religious traditions are positive but suffer from a huge blind spot if they don’t recognise non-theist traditions as legitimate and include these in the education of our children.

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Limits of science, limits of religion

Are there limits to the use of the scientific method? Are there questions science cannot investigate? Should some questions be left to religion? Do science and religion have different non-overlapping domains? Does there need to be a conflict between science and religion? There appears to be a lot of interest in these questions.

Neil deGrasse Tyson in his book Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution describes four reactions people have to science:

  1. Ignore it, not interested;
  2. Embrace it, the best way of understanding nature, no other methods required;
  3. Disagree with it because it assaults your cherished beliefs. Attempt to disprove scientific results (generally using pseudo-scientific methods or appeal to scriptures);
  4. Accept the scientific approach to nature but maintain a belief in supernatural entities which cannot be understood using the scientific approach.

The fourth approach appears to work for many. In principle it removes the need for conflict and there are many religious working scientists who think this way. In effect, they keep these two parts of their lives separate, not allowing interference. They maintain that science and religion have separate, non-overlapping domains.

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Humility of science and the arrogance of religion

The science/relgion debate has exposed a disturbing tendency by some religious people to reject science. Not only scientific theories, such as evolution and the origins of the universe, but also the scientific method itself. Such people will often argue for faith as a better way of obtaining knowledge. Melanie Phillips, a daily Mail columnist, recently argued this way in her column: Arrogance, dogma and why science – not faith – is the new enemy of reason
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Richard Dawkins and the enemies of reason

Richard Dawkins“Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion sold a million copies. In a new and hilarious onslaught he pits hard science against astrology, tarot, psychics, homeopathy and other ‘gullibiligy.'” This is how Richard Dawkins’ new two-part TV series was introduced in a recent Sunday Times review, The Gullible Age.

The makers describe the series, entitled The Enemies of Reason as follows: Continue reading