Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? HTML version
intolerance—that is, to coercive suppression of other points of view. Societies that do not protect freedom
of speech and thought hamstring themselves and consign themselves to the backwaters of history.
Examples of fundamentalist close-mindedness include the traditiona l Confuc ianism that protects teachers
in rura l China against accusations of sexual abuse (19); the Taliban's opposition to education for women
and girls; the heedlessness of NASA officia ls who overruled the engineers on the doomed Challenger
space shuttle mission; the "commissars" on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who arbitrarily
substituted their own judgment for that of hands-on operators at the near meltdown of the nuclear reactor
at Three Mile Island; and, with catastrophic consequences, Japan's nuclear regulators who ignored
warnings of the vulnerability of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant to earthquakes and tsunamis
We all know that there are religious fundamentalists who would impose their beliefs on others and revile
or excommunicate those who disagree with them. But, when scientists demean true believers they're
indulging in one-upmanship not unlike that employed by the targets of their disdain. Religious
fundamentalists, cocksure ideologues, crusading atheists, and smug scientists should not be surprised
when derision and contempt for their opponents fail to change minds.
When adherents to any fundamentalist creed demonize dissenters as immora l or evil, they're treading a
path that leads to dehumanization, oppression, and sometimes, in the extreme, to genocide. When
nonbe lievers derogate fundamentalists, they're taking a step down that same treacherous path.
If there is no God,
Not everything is permitted to Man.
He is still his brother's keeper
And he is not permitted to sadden
By saying that there is no God.
– Czeslaw Milosz, Nobel-laureate in Literature
Modern art writ large presents one cultural expression of a larger political gamble on the
human possibility of living in change and without absolutes.
– Kirk Varnedoe, museum curator
Living without absolutes takes some getting used to. It requires breaking our dependency on "intoxicating
certitudes" (21), resisting the temptation to stifle debate by invoking authority, and, instead, marshaling
the evidence for the best models we've got.
When our mode ls can't change, behavior patterns become frozen, and some of them are apt to be abusive
and unjust. The peace and prosperity of the world depend on attitudes about the evolution of models and
our degree of comfort in a llowing this process to unfold.
One reason it can be so hard to accept the notion of changing mode ls is that they are composed of
interlocking sets of fondly he ld be liefs. Nothing dies harder than one's own cherished opinions. Many
people are so identified with the ir beliefs that they react to the idea of revising them as they would to the
prospect of losing an arm or a leg. Institutions are usually even more resistant to change.
Avoiding the violence this breeds requires that we learn to hold our be liefs not as immutable absolutes
but rather as working assumptions which, taken together, function as a pragmatic mode l. As we've seen,
this is how scientists are taught to hold the ir theories. Adopting this posture is equally important to artists,