templeton to nas: you will be assimilated

Templeton sends a not so subtle signal to the National Academy of Sciences that they intend to keep spreading their tentacles deeper and deeper into all public discourse about science.
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Maybe there’s something I’m missing, but why did the National Academy of Sciences allow the group founded by a wealthy doctor to spread the principles of Evangelical Christianity by abusing the purpose of debate in scientific disciplines, to award a prize for trying to “reconcile science and religion” in its historic Lecture Hall? And odder still, why did the president of NAS, Ralph Cicerone, recommend the winner of this award, a former priest and current evolutionary geneticist Francisco Ayala?

True, crowning Ayala is much better than giving the same prize to Francis Collins because Ayala is known primarily for doing good science and his promotion of comprehensive evolutionary curricula in schools. Collins, on the other hand, is best known for using his PhD to proselytize through a pet project funded by a grant from Templeton. However, by invading the NAS, the top brass of the Templeton Foundation got what they really wanted, access to the top tier of the science world…

Why is it so hard for groups like Templeton to keep their hands off scientific pursuits? Why do they need to get popular science writers and scientists involved in their crusade by promising them money and prestige? Do supernatural beings with limitless powers really need tag teams of humans making sure that everyone really believes in their existence, desperately trying to drum up some sort of a justification for the necessity of these phantoms? Sure, the fellows of the Foundation are refined, eloquent, and know their way around the very, very touchy politics involved in their mission.

But just because they’re the wealthy, educated, grown-up versions of the Discovery Institute’s team doesn’t mean that their mission is any different from say, Ken Ham’s elaborate attempts to jam fire and brimstone fundamentalism down people’s throats while constantly alluding to the scientific buzzwords he reads while skimming science blogs, with absolutely no regard for what these terms mean. The only difference between the two is how much deviation from religious literalism they’ll allow and to what degree they’re willing to mangle real science to justify their ideologies.

As detailed in the link above, Ham will get the scientists on his staff to write patently ridiculous things to make sure their universal chronology is only 6,000 years and then tries to claim that the horrendous abuses thrown out by his organization somehow prove that science is on his side. In reality, of course, high school graduates with a few science classes under their belts would probably be over-qualified to clear up all the distortions in the articles of his so-called journals. But with Templeton, things are very different.

First off, they’re not literalists like the zealots at Answers in Genesis, and they’re willing to accept good scientific research as worthy of merit in their eyes. But just like the AiG, they’re interested in what scientists can’t answer and exploit every lapse in a large and complex scientific theory to jam in some reference to a deity. In other words, it’s okay that Francisco Ayala is a geneticist who studies evolution and decries literal creationism as folly. Just as long as he works in some kind of nod to God or praises religion as something just as worthy as science, something he did when accepting the £1 million, or roughly $1.5 million, prize from the Foundation…

“If [science and religion] are properly understood,” he said, “they cannot be in contradiction since science and religion concern different matters, and each is essential to human understanding.” Referring to Picasso’s Guernica, he noted that while science can assess the painting’s massive dimensions and pigments, only a spiritual view imparts the horror of the subject matter.

So how do you properly understand religion? With science, you can do an experiment and see whether ideas really work when put to the test and make up your mind based on what’s happening right in front of you. With religious belief, things get a little blurry. How do we know that Ayala’s view is more proper than Ken Ham’s, or vice versa? How do we know who has the proper understanding of a notion based on personal views of what should lie outside of human perception according to theologians, who like to call themselves authorities on such things?

And sure, this high brow argument of non-overlapping magisteria is all well and good, but that’s absolutely not how most believers see their faith. To them, magic and demons and gods are very real and I’ve seen people pray for everything from a divine cure for cancer, to not being late for a trip. To many faithful, either the science backs up their views or doesn’t interfere with them and it’s good, or it contradicts their beliefs and must be decried as evil, arrogant and heretical. Do Ayala and his friends at Templeton want to tell born again Christians, or Muslim fundamentalists, or Orthodox Jews what proper faith looks like? Probably not.

This is exactly why they stick to this vague language devoid of all commitment. Start getting into specifics, and you’ll have not just the disgruntled atheists on your back, but hordes of religious zealots furious that their big idea about the supernatural world isn’t “proper” according to your standards. So instead of detailing the Deist notion of a deity using evolution and cosmology as its tools, we get Ayala talking about paintings and getting it all wrong in the process.

One does not need a spiritual view to understand the horror on the faces of all the creatures in Guernica and what events inspired it. Knowing the history and having a brain that can process an expression of pain or sorrow or anguish for what it is, then relate to that feeling as a social animal which had to evolve in ever-larger groups and cooperate with others to survive for hundreds of thousand of years, is every bit as scientific as measuring the painting and detailing its color palette. The process I described even has a scientific name for it: cognition. As an evolutionary scientist, Ayala should be well aware of it.

# politics // religion / religious beliefs / scientific method / templeton foundation


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