Day By Day

Monday, December 11, 2006

What a Wonder-filled World!

This afternoon I was walking around the Federal Hill section of Baltimore and came across this, a conjunction of images that seems to encapsulate many of the tensions that make contemporary American culture so interesting and contentious.

The picture is of an observatory attached to the Maryland Science Center where each year tens of thousands of youngsters are enticed and indoctrinated into a heroic, wonder-filled and uncritical vision of Science with a capital "S".

But the image is a bit indistinct, reflected as it is in the window of a shop that epitomizes what Carl Sagan called the "Demon-Haunted World" of popular culture. A psychic who claims to be able to access supernatural powers wishes us all a general, non-denominational "Season's Greetings." Who knows what God she serves! If I had moved a few yards to the right I may have been able to include in the picture part of a nursing home and care facility operated by the Lutheran Church -- but if I had done that the Science Center would have dropped out of frame.

It may not seem interesting to you, but it stopped me right there in my tracks, and kept me thinking for at least another block and a half. To me it is wonderful that multiple systems of belief, each of which serves the needs of different segments of the population, can co-exist in relative harmony.

I was reminded of this later, when I watched Richard Dawkins on C-Span, lecturing in Lynchburg, Virginia on his latest book, "The God Delusion." Dawkins, well aware that Lynchburg was the home of Liberty University, apparently came with the intention of being as obnoxious as possible -- certainly he appeared that way to me. He read sections from his book pointing out the absurdity and viciousness of certain Biblical passages and used these to deride the entire concept of supernatural agency. He then moved to a questions section in which he attacked American society, argued that atheists were a persecuted minority, much like homosexuals (he seemed to have the strange idea that no admitted homosexual could ever be elected to office in America), and urged students from Liberty University to leave and enroll in "a real college".

To be fair, he is right that there is much that is absurd and downright vicious in the Bible, as in any religion, and he interspersed his insults with lucid accounts of scientific triumphs, but his treatment of religion was decidedly one-sided. Religions are human constructs -- imperfect attempts to comprehend the divine -- and as such reflect the whole range of human imperfections. But they are not just ridiculous; they are also sublime and can inspire wonderful and amazing responses in people.

And Dawkins' account of Science is equally one-sided. It, too, is a human construct and as such reflects the full range of human foibles. Whatever its theoretical strengths, and they are numerous and significant, in practice institutionalized "science" is often fallible and destructive. And, if religion has inspired horrific responses in some people, so too has "science." One need only remember the terrible atrocities inflicted on humanity by officially atheistic regimes in the Soviet Union, in Mao's China, and Pol Pot's Cambodia. Adherents to Marx's "scientific" objectivity may well have destroyed more human life than all the religious zealots in history.

It was brutal to watch Dawkins demolishing the arguments of various undergraduates. What was disgusting was to see the relish with which he undertook the demolition. Dawkins is a smug, mean, and vicious man whose intolerance would, if empowered, be inhumane. In Dawkins' ideal world, there is no room for the neighborhood psychic.

Later C-Span offered me another opportunity to ruminate on the image above. It presented a lecture by Michael Crichton who discussed his latest book "Next" and in the process launched a full-bore attack on institutionalized scientific authority. He lovingly detailed instances of fraud, mis-reporting, falsification of data, unsupported generalizations, and the like that have become all too common, especially in the areas of medical and environmental science. His basic point -- one with which I heartily agree -- was that science, in its current state, is an inadequate foundation upon which to solely base public policy.

It would have been fun to watch Dawkins debate Crichton. At least the heroic model of science would have taken a good thumping, and in Crichton's argument there would have been advanced a more humane view of the role of science in the modern world than that put forth by Dawkins.

I am a rationalist! I have no faith in psychics, and have no intention of ever consulting the woman in Federal Hill; but I find it comforting to know that her business is thriving, even in the shadow of the Science Center.

I wish her a very merry Christmas.

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