December 9, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Nature Takes Note of Religious Influence

The surprisingly strong show of support for moral issues in the recent U.S. election has been the talk of the news for weeks now, and Big Science can’t ignore it.  “The voices of religion are more prominent and influential than they have been for many decades,” begins a prominent editorial in Nature1 Dec. 9, entitled ”Where theology matters.”  But taking note of it is about all it can recommend: “Researchers, religious and otherwise, need to come to terms with this, while noting that some dogma is not backed by all theologians.”
    The “dogma” of mention is primarily doctrine that leads to positions against abortion and stem cell research – namely that of Catholics and evangelical Christians, as portrayed by Tony Reichhardt and two assistants in a news feature exploring varying religious views on embryonic stem-cell research.2  In the section on evangelicals, Reichhardt quotes Bible verses they use to support their view that life begins at conception: in particular, Psalm 139:13 and Jeremiah 1:5.  These are the religions that give scientists the most grief over bioethics.  Presumably the diversity of views listed implies that scientists do not need to take the arguments of evangelicals and Catholics all that seriously, because so many other religious groups disagree.  But in the same issue, Nature3 published a surprisingly friendly news feature about the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhists, admiring their spirituality and support for “science.”
    The editors realize this is an old fight, but claim problems arise when religion and science encroach on each other’s turf.  Why not just accept the views of Aquinas or Einstein or the Pope, and let each field live and let live?

The reason is that the two traditions regularly stray onto each other’s territories and stir up trouble.  Consider the political battles over the teaching of ‘creationism’ and ‘intelligent design’ in schools – an attempt by some religious people to foist their beliefs, masquerading as science on others.  Science bases its conclusions on empirical data, not on the authority of the Talmud, Bible or Koran.  And even though some may find it distressing that science recognizes no god, forcing it to do so will only produce bad science

But lest the reader think all fault is on the religious side, the editorial quickly adds, “Meanwhile science, allied with business, is encroaching on religion’s turf by unleashing technologies that raise profound questions about human nature.”  Nature’s advice?  “Religious thinkers and secular ethicists are right to raise concerns, and scientists shouldn’t just charge ahead without listening to them.”  In testimony on the President’s Council on Bioethics, for instance, the editors were “struck by the high-mindedness and sincerity of the discussion.”  They recommend each side avoid caricaturing the other, like “godless Frankensteins” versus “ignorant Bible-thumpers.”
    The last line sounds like advice from one atheist to another: “Secular scientists (probably the majority) should avoid underestimating the influence and rights of those who believe that only a god can give meaning to the world, human suffering and mortality.”


1Editorial, “Where theology matters,” Nature 432, 657 (09 December 2004); doi:10.1038/432657a.
2Tony Reichhardt, “Religion and science: Studies of faith,” Nature 432, 666 – 669 (09 December 2004); doi:10.1038/432666a.
3Jonathan Knight, “Religion and science: Buddhism on the brain,” Nature 432, 670 (09 December 2004); doi:10.1038/432670a.

They just don’t get it, do they?  This article gives only faint praise to non-atheists.  It basically says, “instead of charging ahead to redefine humanness and secularize all ethics, stop and listen for five seconds to the concerns of a few numbskulls who need the crutch of a god to give them meaning, then proceed to charge ahead and redefine humanness and secularize all ethics.  Just don’t give a microsecond of ear to those rascally creationists and ID folk who are trying to foist their beliefs on us unenlightened materialists.  Stop a moment to appease the religious folk by dropping a flower at the feet of the Dalai Lama and chanting a mantra, then get on with the business of our godless world view.”
    Incredible.  They actually think that scientists base all their conclusions on empirical data.  They actually think intelligent design is religious.  They still believe that science and religion have non-overlapping magisteria, and that science is about fact and religion is about faith.  They actually still think their turf is values-free.  They really think all religions are equally valid and equally stupid in terms of dogma, but some are better when they don’t get in the way of unlimited mad science.  Can you believe it?  Nature, get real; this is 2004, not 1925 – where have you been?  You are like Sennacherib*, still boasting before the news arrived from Jerusalem.  You can intimidate the common folk on the wall, but don’t underestimate the angel of the Lord.  And don’t expect Charlie Nisroch to repay your adoration when you need him the most.
*Isaiah 36-37.

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