God, Science and an Unbeliever's Utopia

Despite some efforts to broaden the approach to religious matters, most attendees did not seem particularly intent on deepening Enlightenment ideas. Chemistry Nobel-prize winner Harry Kroto spoke of his global educational efforts in science and scoffed at the efforts by the Templeton Foundation and others to find some kind of rapprochement between religion and science. He also noted that though very large majorities of Americans say they believe in God, only a bit more than 5 percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do. Chemist Peter Atkins made similar remarks.

There was little talk of politics at the conference, but no one held out much hope that any presidential candidate would come courting the group. It certainly wouldn't be former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who believes in the biblical creation story, but not evolution, nor former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has said, somewhat frighteningly, that "freedom requires religion," nor any of the others who seem to tout their religious faith even when asked about the policies of the Federal Reserve.

Near end of the conference, Sam Harris reiterated the critical importance of evidence and rationality and also addressed the question of whether science and religion can be reconciled. I agree with him and probably most of the other attendees that, though there is much to be gained by considering different approaches to knowledge and life, the answer is no. Since religions (except possibly a couple that are devoid of dogma) make many significant factual claims -- historical, biological, and cosmological -- that are simply and egregiously false, science and religions do not deal with separate realms and cannot be reconciled.

Again I urge readers, especially those with a different perspective, to browse through the hours of video of the conference proceedings at http://thesciencenetwork.org/BeyondBelief2/. It's a good show.

John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, is the author of the best-sellers "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper," as well as of the just-released "Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up." His "Who's Counting?" column on ABCNEWS.com appears the first weekend of every month.

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