I'd been warned. A friend cautioned me that if we went ahead and posted our MIT Survey on Science, Religion and Origins, I'd get inundated with hate-mail from religious fundamentalists who believe our universe to be less than 10,000 years old. We posted it anyway, and the vitriolic responses poured in as predicted. But to my amazement, most of them didn't come from religious people, but from angry atheists! I found this particularly remarkable since I'm not religious myself. I have three criticisms of these angry atheists:
1) They help religious fundamentalists:
A key point I wanted to make with our survey is that there are two interesting science-religion controversies: a) Between religion & atheism b) Between religious groups who do & don't attack science
Some forces pushing for creationism in US schools try to conflate the two so that they can pretend to represent the majority, and taunting religious groups that don't attack science can play into their hands. In contrast, I think that drawing attention to b) is the most effective way to weaken the anti-scientific fringe and improve the prospects for future generations.
Although 46% of Americans believe that humans were created less than 10,000 years ago according to a Gallup poll, our survey showed that merely 11% of Americans belong to a religion openly rejecting evolution or Big Bang cosmology, so the mainstream religions representing the majority can be a powerful ally against the anti-scientific fundamentalists.
2) They could use more modesty:
If I've learned anything as a physicist, it's how little we know with certainty. In terms of the ultimate nature of reality, we scientists are ontologically ignorant. For example, many respected physicists believe in the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, according to which a fundamentally random process called "wavefunction collapse" occurs whenever you observe something. This interpretation has been criticized both for being anthropocentric (quantum godfather Niels Bohr famously argued that there's no reality without observation) and for being vague (there's no equation specifying when the purported collapse is supposed to happen, and there's arguably no experimental evidence for it).
Let's compare the ontological views of Niels Bohr to those of a moderate and tolerant religious person. At least one of them is incorrect, since Bohr was an atheist. Perhaps neither is correct. But who's to say that the former is clearly superior to the latter, which should be ridiculed and taunted? Personally, I'd bet good money against the Copenhagen Interpretation, but it would be absurd if I couldn't be friends with those believing its ontology and unite with them in the quest to make our planet a better place.
3) They should practice what they preach:
Most atheists advocate for replacing fundamentalism, superstition and intolerance by careful and thoughtful scientific discourse. Yet after we posted our survey report, ad hominem attacks abounded, and most of the caustic comments I got (including one from a fellow physics professor) revealed that their authors hadn't even bothered reading the report they were criticizing.
Just as it would be unfair to blame all religious people for what some fundamentalists do, I'm obviously not implying that all anti-religious people are mean-spirited or intolerant. However, I can't help being struck by how some people on both the religious and anti-religious extremes of the spectrum share disturbing similarities in debating style.
All my ideas may be wrong, including those I've expressed here, and I don't mind if you criticize me. All I ask is that, before you do, you please read carefully what I've written, make an honest attempt to understand my point of view, and articulate your criticism carefully and thoughtfully. Otherwise you may be undermining your own ideals.
"The impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God." <strong>Clarification</strong>: <em>The full quote, from <a href="http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-8837" target="_hplink">one of Darwin's letters</a>, carries a different sentiment. A young admirer <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16949157" target="_hplink">asked Darwin about his religious views</a> (the original inquiry is lost), and the great naturalist answered: "It is impossible to answer your question briefly; and I am not sure that I could do so, even if I wrote at some length. But I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide."</em>
"So you're made of detritus [from exploded stars]. Get over it. Or better yet, celebrate it. After all, what nobler thought can one cherish than that the universe lives within us all?" --American astrophysicist and science commentator
"What I have done is to show that it is possible for the way the universe began to be determined by the laws of science. In that case, it would not be necessary to appeal to God to decide how the universe began. This doesn't prove that there is no God, only that God is not necessary." --English physicist and cosmologist
"Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual...The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both." --American astrophysicist
"Science is...a powerful way, indeed - to study the natural world. Science is not particularly effective...in making commentary about the supernatural world. Both worlds, for me, are quite real and quite important. They are investigated in different ways. They coexist. They illuminate each other." --American physician-geneticist and director of the National Human Genome Research Institute
"Emotionally, I am an atheist. I don't have the evidence to prove that God doesn't exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn't that I don't want to waste my time" --American biochemist and science fiction writer
<strong>Clarification</strong>: <em>While the <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/17/science/17einsteinw.html" target="_hplink">New York Times noted</a> that "Einstein consistently characterized the idea of a personal God who answers prayers as naive, and life after death as wishful thinking," he also "described himself as an 'agnostic' and 'not an atheist.'" One ambiguous quote, from <a href="http://books.google.com/books?id=58HQXMp1ESwC&pg=PA92&lpg=PA92&dq=einstein+phyllis+wright&source=bl&ots=zn6BlmXlY4&sig=DxDgqkMMwMaJ9pgUVmgwih4WbQE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=2NY6T6euHIbr0gHC4PivCw&ved=0CCwQ6AEwAjgK#v=onepage&q=einstein phyllis wright&f=false" target="_hplink">Einstein's response to a letter from a sixth-grade student named Phyllis Wright</a>, reads "Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe - a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive."</em> --German physicist, created theory of general relativity.
"It was not by accident that the greatest thinkers of all ages were deeply religious souls." --German physicist, noted for work on quantum theory
"I am very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient. It gives a lot of factual information, puts all our experiences in a magnificently consistent order, but is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, god and eternity." --Austrian physicist, awarded Nobel prize in 1933
"In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining...I maintain that faith in this world is perfectly possible without faith in another world." --British biophysicist renowned for her work on X-ray diffraction.
"From religion comes a man's purpose; from science, his power to achieve it. Sometimes people ask if religion and science are not opposed to one another. They are: in the sense that the thumb and fingers of my hands are opposed to one another. It is an opposition by means of which anything can be grasped." --British physicist, chemist, and mathematician. Awarded Nobel Prize in 1915
"God was invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to explain those things that you do not understand." --American physicist, awarded Nobel Prize in 1965
"I find it as difficult to understand a scientist who does not acknowledge the presence of a superior rationality behind the existence of the universe as it is to comprehend a theologian who would deny the advances of science." --German-American rocket scientist
"The more you understand the significance of evolution, the more you are pushed away from the agnostic position and towards atheism. Complex, statistically improbable things are by their nature more difficult to explain than simple, statistically probable things." --British evolutionary biologist
"Science can have a purifying effect on religion, freeing it from beliefs of a pre-scientific age and helping us to a truer conception of God. At the same time, I am far from believing that science will ever give us the answers to all our questions." --English physicist, awarded Nobel Prize in 1977
"A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question." --English mathematician and astronomer.
"Science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets. No one ever demonstrated, so far as I am aware, the nonexistence of Zeus or Thor - but they have few followers now" --British science fiction author and inventor
"I am very much a scientist, and so I naturally have thought about religion also through the eyes of a scientist. When I do that, I see religion not denominationally, but in a more, let us say, deistic sense. I have been influence in my thinking by the writing of Einstein who has made remarks to the effect that when he contemplated the world he sensed an underlying Force much greater than any human force. I feel very much the same. There is a sense of awe, a sense of reverence, and a sense of great mystery." --American theoretical physicist, awarded Nobel Prize in 1998
"Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious." --American neuroscientist
"With pantheism...the deity is associated with the order of nature or the universe itself...when modern scientists such as Einstein and Stephen Hawking mention 'God' in their writing, this is what they seem to mean: that God is Nature." --American physicist