God, Science and an Unbeliever's Utopia

Last year's wildly popular Beyond Belief 1.0 scientific conference primarily focused upon and championed irreligion. The Beyond Belief 2.0 conference held at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., this past November was wider in scope. Rather than aiming to be another undiluted atheist lovefest, it attempted to consider changes in the ideas of the Enlightenment that are necessary given advances in various disciplines since the 18th century.

At least that was the stated aim, but any gathering that included the diverse luminaries in attendance would be guaranteed to roam all over the intellectual landscape. Despite the roaming and the diversity, however, the conference remained -- pardon the adolescent alliteration -- an unbeliever's utopia, a heathen's heaven, a pagan's paradise.

The complete video of the conference proceedings is available online HERE, and I urge readers to view it and related material for themselves. The video's marquee names include philosophers Daniel Dennett, David Albert and Patricia Churchland, physical scientists Stuart Kauffman, Sean Carroll and Harold Kroto, biologists and cognitive scientists V.S. Ramachandran, David Sloan Wilson, Lee Silver and host Roger Bingham, writers Rebecca Goldstein, David Brin and Robert Winter, various stars, such as Sam Harris, P.Z. Myers and Michael Shermer, and a host of others.

Some of the Contributions

I was fortunate enough to be invited because of my new book, "Irreligion -- A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up." Since the book has just come out this month, I'll take the liberty of noting that it briskly examines and succinctly deconstructs the 12 most common arguments for God. If I may quote myself and continue with the entertainment metaphor, these arguments range from "what might be called golden oldies to those with a more contemporary beat. On the playlist are the first cause argument, the argument from design, the ontological argument, arguments from faith and biblical codes, the argument from the anthropic principle, the moral universality argument, and others."

Along the way, I digress and insert impious observations and whimsical musings on a variety of irreligious themes, ranging from the nature of so-called miracles, creationist misuse of probability, and an imaginary conversation with a sort of minimalist "divinity" to cognitive illusions, Thai Internet Web cams, and prudential wagers.

With that bit of shameless self-promotion out of the way, I note that many of the conference's participants did try to broaden the approach to religion beyond the irreverent chest-thumping of the BB 1.0 meeting. Biologist David Sloan Wilson, in particular, urged people to consider how religion functions in a society. It doesn't do, he claimed, to simply label it irrational and ignore its adaptive role. Unfortunately, he went on to make some points about group selection that were, to my mind, a bit less reasonable.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt also took a more charitable view of religion and its positive impact in binding people together and blunting their more selfish tendencies. (The latter point has always seemed more than a bit dubious to me, considering that studies on crime rates, divorce, alcoholism and many other measures of social dysfunction show that non-believers in the United States are extremely under-represented along each of these dimensions.)

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