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More fuel for faith-vs.-science debate

Thinkers weigh in on all sides of the issue, and a Vatican astronomer ponders extraterrestrial life.

May 24, 2008|Steve Padilla | Times Staff Writer

The ongoing debate over whether religion and science comfortably coexist got more ammunition this month, and on both sides of the argument.

This ammunition took thought-provoking forms -- a foundation dedicated to exploring provocative questions, a letter written in 1954 by Albert Einstein and a Vatican astronomer who said it's OK to believe in space aliens.

Let's start with Einstein.

The letter was sold at auction in London on May 15 for $404,000. Einstein, writing a year before his death to philosopher Eric Gutkind, said, "The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish."

But Einstein once said that "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind," and people with and without faith have long argued that he fell into their camp.

Some atheist bloggers warmly greeted the letter. In it Einstein celebrated his Jewish cultural roots, but also said, "For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions."

Next up: space aliens.

Speaking with the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Father Jose Gabriel Funes said it's possible life exists elsewhere in the universe.

"How can we rule out that life may have developed elsewhere?" said Funes, director of the Vatican observatory. "Just as we consider earthly creatures as 'a brother,' and 'sister,' why should we not talk about an 'extraterrestrial brother'? It would still be part of creation."

In the story headlined "The extraterrestrial is my brother," Funes told the newspaper that the concept of alien life "doesn't contradict our faith." He called the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe "reasonable" and said that the Bible "is not a science book."

Next, a debate:

The John Templeton Foundation, which explores topics related to religion, is fond of asking thoughtful people what it likes to call Big Questions. A previous question: "Does the universe have a purpose?" (Reviews were mixed.)

This month the foundation asked, "Does science make belief in God obsolete?" The answers may be read in their entirety at http://www.templeton .org/belief/

Here are excerpts from a few of the answers:

* From Steven Pinker, Harvard University psychology professor and author of "How the Mind Works":

Yes, if by "science" we mean the entire enterprise of secular reason and knowledge (including history and philosophy), not just people with test tubes and white lab coats. Traditionally, a belief in God was attractive because it promised to explain the deepest puzzles about origins. Where did the world come from? What is the basis of life? How can the mind arise from the body? Why should anyone be moral?

Yet over the millennia, there has been an inexorable trend: the deeper we probe these questions, and the more we learn about the world in which we live, the less reason there is to believe in God.

Start with the origin of the world. Today no honest and informed person can maintain that the universe came into being a few thousand years ago and assumed its current form in six days (to say nothing of absurdities like day and night existing before the sun was created). Nor is there a more abstract role for God to play as the ultimate first cause. This trick simply replaces the puzzle of "Where did the universe come from?" with the equivalent puzzle "Where did God come from?"

* From Mary Midgley, philosopher and author of "Evolution as a Religion":

Of course not.

Belief -- or disbelief -- in God is not a scientific opinion, a judgment about physical facts in the world. It is an element in something larger and more puzzling -- our wider world view, the set of background assumptions by which we make sense of our world as a whole. We seldom notice these assumptions, but we often use them in resolving our inner conflicts.

As life goes on, we shape them gradually into patterns by which to relate the things we find most important. And occasionally, when something goes badly wrong, we realize that we must somehow think differently about our whole lives. Doing this is not an irrational substitute for formal proof. It is the groundwork without which new thought is impossible.

* From Jerome Groopman, Harvard University professor of medicine:

No, not at all.

As a physician and researcher, I employ science to decipher human biology and treat disease. As a person of faith, I look to my religious tradition for the touchstones of a moral life.

Neither science nor faith need contradict the other; in fact, if one appreciates the essence of each, they can enrich each other in a person's life. So, the question of obsolescence is miscast, because science and faith should exist in separate realms. Science uses logic and experimental methods to measure and describe the material world. It yields knowledge about the workings of molecules and machines, mitosis and momentum. Science has no moral valence. It is neutral.

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