Rees on Religion (via The e-Astronomer)

I agree wholeheartedly with Andy Lawrence on this, and since this is the first time this has ever happened I thought I’d mark the occasion by reblogging his post…

Bit of a Twitter Buzz this morning about Martin Rees winning the Templeton Prize. For those who don't know, the Templeton Foundation is an organisation founded by billionaire John Templeton, to encourage open minded and progressive thinking in religion. In the 1980s they also started funding science, where they felt there was some philosophical (not necessarily directly religious) interest. Most interestingly, in 2006 they gave nine million dolla … Read More

via The e-Astronomer


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22 Responses to “Rees on Religion (via The e-Astronomer)”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    The Templeton Foundation is entitled to give its money to whoever it chooses, although we are free to comment on how closely the receptors match the Foundation’s criteria, and on that basis there have been some strange ‘winners’ of the Prize in the past. Rees’s Guardian interview is unintentionally hilarious – he obviously wasn’t deliberately trying to wind up the reporter by stonewalling, but I’ll bet he succeeded.

    Rees’s “cultural Christianity” is the historical tail end of a very nasty phenomenon in which anybody who disagreed with Established churches over matters of faith were liable to execution. (To say that Jesus of Nazareth took a different attitude is an understatement.) I understand what motivates Dawkins, although he makes a lot of incorrect statements.

    Neither are science and religion as disjoint as some would like. Largely they are, but they say opposite things about miracles.

    Anton

  2. Your fellow bloggers P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne regularly discuss the Templeton Prize, Templeton Foundation etc. While they might have a somewhat different perspective since they live in the intellectual backwater of the USA, I have to agree with them at least to the extent that it does more harm than good. Taking Templeton money is almost as bad as having your medical research financed by a tobacco concern (which actually happens). Some people, even some I otherwise admire such as Stephen Jay Gould, have gone to great lengths to point out that religion and science are orthogonal, downplay contradictions etc. The fact is that the idea that the Bible is not meant to be taken literally practically didn’t exist until science disputed some of the claims. Religion often makes claims which are directly contradictory to science. It is intellectually dishonest to say that when there is a conflict, the Bible is a metaphor, not meant to be taken literally etc.

    I have to agree with Hitchens when he says that religion poisons everything.

    Yes, the modern-day church in some countries might not be as dangerous as it was a few centuries ago, but ask yourself why that is the case. The immoral power the church held, expressed by literally torturing and killing people who didn’t conform to their ideals, has been reduced thanks to science, the Enlightenment etc. Where that hasn’t happened, the torture continues.

    Yes, I know nice people who are genuinely religious. But to a large extent, these are people, although they wouldn’t admit it, who don’t take their religion seriously in an intellectual sense, though they might in an emotional sense. In other words, they sincerely believe something, but this is a) a subset of what actually constitutes their religion and b) is mostly harmless. Martin Rees, John D. Barrow etc are good scientists and nice people and are sympathetic to the goals of Templeton. Without criticising their science nor their character I think it is fair to say that not being more critical of Templeton does a disservice to science on the whole.

    If science can’t stand up to the woo which is religion, it can’t stand up to the woo which is homeopathy, the idea that vaccinations cause autism, astrology, creationism etc. Reason (which doesn’t exclude morals, emotions or anything which makes life worth living) is the only way forward, otherwise there is the danger that irrationality will decide over our lives and deaths, as it still does in a large part of the world.

    In summary, it is intellectually dishonest to reject only the harmful ideas of religion and keep the harmless bits.

    I also fail to follow the argument that since harmless religious people are better than harmful religious people, we should support the accommodationists. First, there is no reason not to honestly state that it is possible to live a good life without religion. Second, the jump from the religious fundamentalist to the “cultural Christian” type is larger than that between the “cultural Christian” and the honest atheist, so a) they might as well be encouraged to go all the way and b) realistically, very few religious fundamentalists lessen their belief due to whatever reasons. If anything, people who are unsure might be attracted first to “harmless” religion and then drift into fundamentalism.

  3. Real courage would be if someone were to publicly decline the prize and state quite clearly why. Is that too much to ask? Yes, it is a lot of money—a million pounds—but Martin Rees is a millionaire already, as is John Barrow and probably some other winners. (Of course, not all winners are, and of course many have no qualms at all about accepting the prize.) Also, remember that Abba were offered a billion dollars for one album and one tour, and declined. That’s integrity. Nice to put things in perspective. (They feared they wouldn’t live up to the expectations.)

    Another tack would be to accept the money, but donate it ostentatiously to an organisation which helps the victims of organised religion or something similar. Of course, where possible those responsible should pay up and such an action shouldn’t prevent them from doing so, but there are many cases where that is not a realistic possibility and there are many victims of religion which need help they couldn’t otherwise get.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      As I recall from the interview, Martin Rees declined to say whether he was already a millionaire.

      I don’t think Abba would have been doing anything morally wrong by taking that billion. It is the world that is mad when such money is on offer to four musicians – just as I don’t blame footballers for the ridiculous salaries they get. It is a (secular, stir, stir) society that is willing to pay them that much which is up the pole.

  4. telescoper Says:

    Phillip

    I couldn’t agree less with your comments. The “blame everything bad that’s ever happened on religion” argument just doesn’t hold water.

    I don’t believe in God but I genuinely respect other people’s beliefs and moreover am interested in what they say, even if I don’t understand where they’re coming from.

    There’s absolutely no reason why John Barrow (who is a Christian) or George Ellis (who is a Quaker) or Martin Rees (who is an atheist) should turn down the Templeton Prize. It’s not given “for religion” but for promoting dialogue. I think that’s a good thing.

    A person I respect enormously is George Ellis. When he won the Templeton Prize he used a large part of the money not for personal things, but to set up funds to allow disadvantaged students to study at university in South Africa. That’s what I call integrity.

    If I won the Templeton Prize (which is an outcome of vanishingly small probability) I would happily accept it, be glad of the publicity it generated to help promote dialogue, and then spend it on things I believe in.

    Peter

  5. “I couldn’t agree less with your comments. The ‘blame everything bad that’s ever happened on religion’ argument just doesn’t hold water.”

    Just to be clear, I didn’t say that all bad things are due to religion (many are certainly not), but rather that religion makes everything worse. In some cases, maybe to a negligible degree, in many cases to a large degree. People can be good without religion, and people can be good despite religion. I just haven’t run across any case where it was clear to me that religion led to improvement. (In the case of religious people doing good things, I have never been convinced that they were doing good because of religion, even if they believed so themselves. Certainly non-religious people can do similarly good things.)

    “I don’t believe in God but I genuinely respect other people’s beliefs and moreover am interested in what they say, even if I don’t understand where they’re coming from.”

    Likewise; witness my debates with Anton here.

    “There’s absolutely no reason why John Barrow (who is a Christian) or George Ellis (who is a Quaker) or Martin Rees (who is an atheist) should turn down the Templeton Prize. It’s not given “for religion” but for promoting dialogue. I think that’s a good thing.”

    I would consider Quaker as just another form of Christianity, like Catholic, Baptist, Mormon, Anglican, Methodist, Calvinist, whatever. I think the crucial (no pun intended) question is the extent to which the Templeton Foundation is honest with respect to its motivation. There is at least some credible evidence that the “dialogue” is a facade and the actual agenda is another.

    “A person I respect enormously is George Ellis. When he won the Templeton Prize he used a large part of the money not for personal things, but to set up funds to allow disadvantaged students to study at university in South Africa. That’s what I call integrity.”

    I agree. I also have great respect for George Ellis (and am reading one of his papers now).

    “If I won the Templeton Prize (which is an outcome of vanishingly small probability) I would happily accept it, be glad of the publicity it generated to help promote dialogue, and then spend it on things I believe in.”

    Surely running a blog is “promoting dialogue”, so you must be a hot candidate for the next prize. 🙂

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip: Please stop talking about ‘religion’ as if all religions are equivalent, when their scriptures are incompatible at very basic levels. I can speak personally for only one theistic religion but I assure you of those incompatibilities. To assert that these religions are all the same is to claim that you know better than their adherents what these scriptures are really saying, even though those adherents spend a lifetime investigating them.

    Beyond that it is worth looking at what those scriptures actually say. I can think of one major theistic religion which tells its adherents to kill everybody who won’t accept it. My own (Christianity) commands me to offer people informed choice and leave it at that.

    The church has killed people too? By the Bible’s own criteria that wasn’t the church, just people claiming to be – and many of the very people they put to death were the scriptural church, such as the Lollards in England and the Waldenses around the Alps, both in mediaeval times. Authentic Christianity, the kind about which Tertullian recorded that people were saying, “See… how they [Christians] love one another… and how they are ready to die for each other”, has always been a counter-culture. (Quote from Apologeticus, ch. 39; 197AD.)

    You have described yourself on this blog as formerly a “fire-breathing Christian”. That desciption makes me wonder whether you were sadly misled over what the Christian faith entailed.

    ‘Religion’ is simply a theistic faith system and its practice. But there are plenty of non-theistic faith systems, and everybody has to start somewhere, ie believe something that they can’t prove from more basic axioms. Western secularism is basically the claim that man is perfectible by social engineering (cf by divine cleansing). Within its framework we have seen two world wars and communist enslavement. Unless sin is dealt with then it will always find something to alight on.

    Anton

  7. telescoper Says:

    I just wanted to add, more briefly, that it’s not religions that do bad things to people, it’s other people.

  8. Rhodri Evans Says:

    Has Martin Rees stated that he’s an atheist? I got the impression from things I’ve heard him say and write that he is an agnostic, or possibly a “mild Christian (Church of England)”, but someone who prefers to keep his religious beliefs to himself.

    I agree with you Peter – it is of course people who do bad things to each other, not religions. Much good has been done in the name of religions, as has much bad. Wasn’t it Poincare who said “humanity is both the glory and the scum of the Universe”. That is true for religious people too, one can find bad people who claim to be Christian or Muslim or Hindu, and one can find good people. I don’t think it is religions which make people good or bad.

    I remember once waiting for a train in the concourse area of Charing Cross Station, and someone asking me if I would give some money to charity (I can’t remember the cause). I was happy to give a few pounds, and when I did the person asked me whether I was a Christian, I found this to be a very strange question, as if being a Christian was a pre-requisite to being charitable.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I can remember Martin Rees saying something in conversation many years ago that I think was a statement that he was an atheist, although I do not recall the exact words: it is possible that he said that he was not a believer, or did not believe in God. I therefore think that he was atheist, but cannot exclude the possibility that he was an agnostic (two rather different viewpoints).

  9. “Please stop talking about ‘religion’ as if all religions are equivalent, when their scriptures are incompatible at very basic levels.”

    They certainly aren’t equivalent in that sense. (This is one motivation not to believe in any of them; most people are completely convinced atheists with respect to all gods except their own. Those who call themselves atheists just take it one god further.) Of course, for the person suffering, it doesn’t matter if the person imposing the suffering is following the religion properly or not; the fact is that, right or wrong, much harm has been done in the name of religion. Also, someone else might define religion differently (as you point out, they are not all equivalent) and, as you say, that might include killing non-believers.

    If anything, I would think that some of their effects are the same; almost all religions have some idea of a soul, usually immortal etc. There are many common themes and thus many common effects on the people who believe them.

    Yes, one can say that it isn’t religion killing people, it is people—like the bumper sticker “guns don’t kill people, people do”. It’s all a question of definition. For that matter, even if secularism led to wars, by your reasoning it wasn’t secularism but rather people. (I don’t see how secularism led to either of the two World Wars. Yes, in the case of WWII, one could make a claim that the USSR was a secular state, but the USSR did not start WWII. (WWI was technically started by those who won, though one can debate how much guilt there was on all sides. WWII was more clear-cut.) Of course, there has also been a lot of non-communist, even explicitly religiously motivated, enslavement, e.g. almost all Islamic countries, to a greater or lesser degree.)

    What is a true Christian? Many people call themselves Christian, and as you say their beliefs are not compatible. It makes more sense to lump them all together as “Christian” if they believe in the basic tenets (i.e. Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead), since each and every one of them beliefs that his belief is the one true belief. One can’t even base it on the Bible, since each group has different views as to what is to be taken literally and what is symbol, metaphor etc.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      It was Peter who said that people (not religions) kill people, and technically that’s true but I think it’s a bit glib when the scriptures of one religion say kill all who don’t convert and another says don’t. I am willing to take responsibility for my choice of faith, so please address your response to that comment to Peter, not me…

      I didn’t say that secularism ‘led’ to WW1&2; I’m saying that those wars happened in a basically secular culture. Secularists are quick to blame the religious for many mediaeval wars so let’s have a bit of symmetry.

      Who is a true Christian? Even Satan believes that the Bible is true – he just hates it – so I can’t go with intellectual assent to biblical assertions as the sole criterion. An element of commitment to following the message of Christ, as found in the gospels, is also involved: which is why I said what I did.

      Anton

    • “I didn’t say that secularism ‘led’ to WW1&2; I’m saying that those wars happened in a basically secular culture. Secularists are quick to blame the religious for many mediaeval wars so let’s have a bit of symmetry.”

      The difference is that, rightly or wrongly, many wars were (and still are) fought in the name of religion, while I can’t think of any war fought in the name of secularism. (I’m not sure, but it might be that Buddhism has never had any wars fought in its name.)

    • telescoper Says:

      My statement may well have been glib, but the point behind it was intended to be that whatever the message of the religion itself there’s always the danger that people will distort it for their own ends. I have a limited knowledge of Christianity, but it does seem clear to me that there are many that wilfully represent the Gospels in order to pursue an agenda which has nothing to do with their true meaning.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Peter: We’re not too far apart. the parable of the Good Samaritan that Jesus told in Luke 10 is that unbelievers can behave better than believers.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      “many wars were (and still are) fought in the name of religion, while I can’t think of any war fought in the name of secularism”

      Again, religions are not all the same. But in answer to your implied question, try the civil war known as the French Revolution.

  10. Bryn Jones Says:

    I’ll just note that the “Ads by Google” space above these comments is displaying for me now:

            “Kabbalistic Astrology

            “Learn the Secrets of Your Horoscope according to Kabbalah’s teachings

            “Show My Sign.”

    🙂

    • telescoper Says:

      Unfortunately I don’t get any royalties.

    • I don’t see any “Ads by Google” on Telescoper’s blog at all. On the other hand, if for some reason some people do see ads on his blog page, then he should be getting some royalties.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Perhaps Bryn is using Google chrome? It also tells them where people have been surfing.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      WordPress sometimes (but only sometimes) shows adverts immediately below “Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)”. It is now showing one for audio books. I’m using Firefox.

      I presume that is how WordPress makes money (and profit) to run its service.

  11. […] particularly interesting timing after the discussion of religion and science that arose after I reblogged a post by Andy Lawrence about the Templeton […]

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