Saturday, May 03, 2008

Religion, science and the third way

Last night American philosopher Dan Dennett came together with Robert Winston to debate the motion that 'religion is the greatest threat to scientific progress and rationality today'. Richard Denton reports on the final debate in the Guardian's Rethink series

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Wednesday April 23, 2008

In any debate about science and religion, the American philosopher Dan Dennett has the advantage of looking uncannily like Charles Darwin. The good Lord Robert Winston, on the other hand, has the advantage of being a national treasure. They came together in the last debate in the Rethink series mounted by the Guardian and the think tank Agora to debate the motion that "religion is the greatest threat to scientific progress and rationality today".

In the light of the controversy about hybrid embryos, it seemed like a winning idea. It's pretty clear, in this case, that religion wants to be a restraining force on scientific research. Winston, although a religious man, is on the side of science in that debate: he is, after all, a doctor, and an expert in human fertility issues.

However, that he is with the scientists on stem cell research doesn't prove the premise of the debate wrong. If anything, it proves the reverse: there wouldn't be so much controversy about this research without the religious lobby.

The fact that Winston opposes the religious lobby on these occasions just proves that it needs opposing; and the fact that a religious man opposes the religious position in this debate demonstrates the blurred lines of the issue.

However, the experience was rather strange. Winston's debating skills have been honed at Westminster and, perhaps wisely, he managed more or less to avoid the whole issue of religion. Dennett, however, is a deep-thinking philosopher who clearly needed more than the eight minutes allotted to advance his initial thesis.

It began well. Dennett was introduced as an atheist, though as a "good cop" in comparison to Richard Dawkins' "bad cop". The audience seemed to be satisfyingly split: 25% for the motion, 25% against and a healthy bunch who were undecided in the middle.

Dennett began by claiming that science is a rational and systematic search for truth, whereas religion sets up a barrier beyond which nothing can be questioned without risking blasphemy.

He wondered if religion is the "greatest" threat to rationality, suggesting that while other things - such as alcohol, TV and computer games - may disable our rationality, only religion "honours the disability".
He was just warming to this theme when his eight minutes were up.

Winston replied by accepting that religious excess is damaging, but claimed it was no more so than - and no different from - any other excess.

His point seemed to be that "certainty" is the enemy of rationality - and science portrays itself as certain. He added that scientists "peddle it as truth with no moral dimensions". He then went on the characterise religion as the "expression of uncertainty".

Dennett may have found it hard to recognise that description of religion. After all,

he comes from the US, a country where half the population rejects the theory of evolution and - for largely religious reasons - says it is "certain" that humans only appeared on this planet in the past few thousand years, and by direct intervention of the divine.

Dennett also rejected the idea that science is certain about anything - except the method it uses to pursue the truth.
For Dennett,
it is science that expresses uncertainty and religion that plays "the faith card when rationality is no longer on its side".

It is religion that lets people hide behind "the certainty and sincerity of their passions to do something inexcusable"
, he said.

But before long it became clear that on some issues there is not much to choose between their positions.

It was Winston, not Dennett, who has in the row about hybrid embryos attacked Cardinal O'Brien as "a liar". In this debate Winston described the Catholic church as a "just a minority view with a very powerful a voice".

By contrast, it was Dennett, not Winston, who said that "people become religious because they want to be good and they recognise that they need help".

Both, however, were appalled by people who seek to impose their certainties on others.

Winston to me sounded as though he was representing the "God-Lite" approach to religion: an unthreatening and more-or-less rational - and private - approach. It's hard to object to that: practised in this way, religion is unthreatening and benign.

If all religious people took the "God-Lite" approach, there would be no problem; a conclusion that seemed convincing enough for the audience. The motion was roundly defeated.

I entered the chamber as an atheist and therefore was not likely to be convinced that religion really is a benign and progressive force.

And so I voted for the motion - but less as a result of what Dennett said and rather more as a result of what Robert Winston has done.

Let's face it, if religion is not the greatest threat, what other threat could have caused someone as agreeable, polite and diplomatic Winston to denounce a Roman Catholic Cardinal as "a liar"?

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