Recently, I attended a three-day conference at the Salk Institute, organized by The Science Net¬work. The conference was titled, Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason, and Survival and was conducted as a town-hall meeting before an audience of invited guests. Speakers included Steven Weinberg, Harold Kroto, Richard Dawkins, and many other scientists and philosophers who have been, and remain, energetic opponents of religious unreason. And then there were other esteemed participants and audience members who proved themselves to be eager purveyors of American-style religious bewilderment.
It was a room full of bright, scientifically literate people—molecular biologists, anthropologists, physicists, engineers—and yet, three days were insufficient to force agreement on whether or not there is any conflict between religion and science. While at Salk, I witnessed scientists giving voice to some of the most unctuous religious apologies I have ever heard. It is one thing to be told that the pope is a great champion of reason and that his opposition to embryonic stem cell research has nothing to do with religious dogmatism; it is quite another to be told this by a Stanford physician who sits on the President’s Council on Bioethics. Over the course of the meeting, I had the pleasure of hearing that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were examples of secularism run amok, that the doctrines of martyrdom and jihad have nothing whatsoever to do with Muslim terrorism, that people can never be argued out of their beliefs because we live in an irrational world, that science has made no important contributions to our ethical lives, and that it is not the job of scientists “to take away people’s hope”—all from atheist scientists, happily trading in the most abject and paralyzing shibboleths of academic political correctness. There were several moments during our panel discussions that brought to mind the final scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers—people who looked like scientists, had published as scientists, and would soon be returning to their labs nevertheless gave voice to the alien hiss of religious lunacy at the slightest prodding. In case anyone thought that the front lines in our culture wars could be found at the entrance to a megachurch, I am here to report that we still have considerable work to do in a nearby trench.
For all the frustration I felt at this meeting, it seemed like the perfect forum in which to resolve the centuries-old collision between reason and faith. If reputable scientists cannot be made to agree that there are important intellectual and moral differences between knowing something and pretending to know it, we are doomed. Happily, the meeting at Salk will be convened again next fall. Perhaps then it will be possible to rule out the Virgin Birth of Jesus as a valid scientific hypothesis.
While I heard many silly retorts to atheism at this conference, here is a list of those most in need of deflation by freethinkers:
I invite readers of FREE INQUIRY to provide short answers to any or all of these fantasies. The winning responses will be published in a future issue of the magazine. Winners in each category will be sent signed copies of both of my books and a cash prize of $100. Each response must be two hundred words or less (longer responses will be disqualified). Correspondence should be sent to: Free Inquiry Contest, P.O. Box 664, Am¬herst, NY 14226-0664.
Sam Harris is the author of The New York Times bestsellers, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation.