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Although the authors are both on the side of science, they have not always agreed about the best ways to oppose religiously motivated threats to scientific practice or instruction. Krauss, a leading physicist, frequently steps into the public spotlight to argue in favor of retaining evolutionary theory in school science curricula and keeping pseudoscientific variants of creationism out of them. An open letter he sent to Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, urging the pontiff not to build new walls between science and faith, led the Vatican to reaffirm the Catholic Church’s acceptance of natural selection as a valid scientific theory.
Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, prolific author and lecturer, is also an eloquent critic of any attempt to undermine scientific reasoning. He has generally shown less interest than Krauss, however, in achieving a peaceful coexistence between science and faith. The title of Dawkins’s best-selling book The God Delusion perhaps best summarizes his opinion of religious belief.
These two allies compared notes from the front lines during breaks at a conference devoted to discussing clashes between science and religion held at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego late last year. In a dialogue they re-create here, the authors explained their respective tactics for engaging the enemy and tackled some of the questions that face all scientists when deciding whether and how to talk to the faithful about science: Is the goal to teach science or to discredit religion? Can the two worldviews ever enrich one another? Is religion inherently bad? In an extended version of their conversation available here, the authors also delve into whether science can ever test the “God Hypothesis.”
Lawrence M. Krauss is Ambrose Swasey Professor and director of the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics at Case Western Reserve University. Author of seven popular books and dozens of commentaries for national publications, radio and television, he also lectures widely on science and public policy. Among his many scientific honors, he has the unique distinction of having received the highest awards from all three U.S. physics societies. In his spare time, he has performed The Planets with the Cleveland Orchestra, served as a Sundance Film Festival judge and written four articles for Scientific American.
Richard Dawkins is Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. His nine books have earned him honorary doctorates in literature and science, and he is a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature. His many prizes include the Cosmos International Prize, the Nakayama Prize for Human Science and the Shakespeare Prize for Distinguished Contributions to British Culture. In 2006 he created the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. New British school guidelines encourage students to play the roles of such figures as Galileo, Darwin and Dawkins while debating science and creationism.
Krauss: Both you and I have devoted a substantial fraction of our time to trying to get people excited about science, while also attempting to explain the bases of our current respective scientific understandings of the universe. So it seems appropriate to ask what the primary goals of a scientist should be when talking or writing about religion. I wonder which is more important: using the contrast between science and religion to teach about science or trying to put religion in its place? I suspect that I want to concentrate more on the first issue, and you want to concentrate more on the second.
I say this because if one is looking to teach people, then it seems clear to me that one needs to reach out to them, to understand where they are coming from, if one is going to seduce them into thinking about science. I often tell teachers, for example, that the biggest mistake any of them can make is to assume that their students are interested in what they are about to say. Teaching is seduction. Telling people, on the other hand, that their deepest beliefs are simply silly—even if they are—and that they should therefore listen to us to learn the truth ultimately defeats subsequent pedagogy. Having said that, if instead the primary purpose in discussing this subject is to put religion in its proper context, then perhaps it is useful to shock people into questioning their beliefs.
Dawkins: The fact that I think religion is bad science, whereas you think it is ancillary to science, is bound to bias us in at least slightly different directions. I agree with you that teaching is seduction, and it could well be bad strategy to alienate your audience before you even start. Maybe I could improve my seduction technique. But nobody admires a dishonest seducer, and I wonder how far you are prepared to go in “reaching out.” Presumably you wouldn’t reach out to a Flat Earther. Nor, perhaps, to a Young Earth Creationist who thinks the entire universe began after the Middle Stone Age. But perhaps you would reach out to an Old Earth Creationist who thinks God started the whole thing off and then intervened from time to time to help evolution over the difficult jumps. The difference between us is quantitative, only. You are prepared to reach out a little further than I am, but I suspect not all that much further.
Krauss: Let me make clearer what I mean by reaching out. I do not mean capitulating to misconceptions but rather finding a seductive way to demonstrate to people that these are indeed misconceptions. Let me give you one example. I have, on occasion, debated both creationists and alien abduction zealots. Both groups have similar misconceptions about the nature of explanation: they feel that unless you understand everything, you understand nothing. In debates, they pick some obscure claim, say, that in 1962 some set of people in Outer Mongolia all saw a flying saucer hovering above a church. Then they ask if I am familiar with this particular episode, and if I say no, they invariably say, “If you have not studied every such episode, then you cannot argue that alien abduction is unlikely to be happening.”
“Enriching faith is far different than providing supporting evidence for faith.”