Friday, December 08, 2006


The Know-nothings and the Know-everythings

"The know-nothings and the know-everythings are at it again," writes Leonard Fein in an eloquent essay published in the Jewish Daily Forward.

The know-nothings, as ever, mock Darwin, scorn stem-cell research, affirm abstinence, blame science for what they see as a collapse of American values and an imminent threat to the American family.

The know-everythings — i.e., the scientists — agitated by endless debates about evolution and stem-cell research, irritated by the blatantly anti-science policies of the Bush administration, and emboldened by several recent books — Richard Dawson’s “God Delusion,” Sam Harris’s “Letter to a Christian Nation” and Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell” — are making their anger with the know-nothings very public. They refuse any longer to suffer in silence or just to live and let live.

This will be a difficult essay for some RSR readers to read because it's critical of those scientists and defenders of science who conflate creationism with all religious belief, but it's equally critical of primitive religion -- religion that unwisely offers puerile explanations of the natural world -- as well.

There is much in the Fein's essay that skeptics will disagree with -- RSR, for example, would prefer to substitute the humanities for religion -- but it will reward anyone who reads it with and open mind and follows its sound reasoning through to the end.

Here's an example of one of the rewards to be found along the way:
The distinctive hallmark of scientific wisdom is that it is cumulative. A graduate student in physics today knows more physics than Einstein knew. The same is obviously not so in religion. It would be absurd to suggest that Billy Graham or the pope or the most distinguished professor of theology at the most distinguished seminary in the world “knows” more religion than did, say, Isaiah.
At times it seems that the fundamentalists on either side dominate the public discussion, but Fein's essay reminds us that a more sophisticated engagement between science and religion is possible. RSR thinks believers such as Fine and secular humanists must do more to defend science from attack by religious fundamentalists. We also believe some scientists must come to understand the contributions of language and literature, the arts, history, and philosophy, and yes, even religion.


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