In 2008, the renowned physicist, Steven Weinberg, delivered the Phi Beta Kappa lecture at Harvard. His oration, entitled "Without God" was edited and printed in The New York Review of Books in the September 25, 2008 issue.
Although I may tend to agree with some of Weinberg's points, and I certainly sympathize with the apparent motivation for his lecture--the politicization of science by the religious right during the Bush years--I nevertheless felt that Weinberg's approach to religion was, from an anthropological point of view, naive.
I wrote as much in letter to the NYRB, but my letter was not printed. I posted it as a comment to the Harvard Magazine site, where the oration was reproduced, and there my comment sat for a while. Recently I wanted to refer someone to my "exchange" with Weinberg and I discovered that my comment had been removed from the site. Either my puny disagreement with Weinberg annoyed someone, or it was erased during web house-cleaning. I dug up the original file and resubmitted it, but so far it has not been approved and posted.
It seems to me that OAC is a better forum for this topic anyway, so I will post links to Weinberg's lecture and my comments here. The references to the Bush era culture may be dated, but the topic and Weinberg's approach to it are still debatable.
Steven Weinberg’s well-rendered oration, “Without God,” gives us one of the clearest statements of a scientist’s views of religion since Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am Not a Christian.”
As a physicist, Professor Weinberg can be pardoned for overemphasizing the role of scientific rationality in his theory of the practice of religions. His oration, however, takes up an implicit position in a much larger debate. Science vs. religion (or rationality vs. belief) is a battleground in the contemporary culture wars. With the aid of the Bush administration, the religious right has penetrated the inner sanctum of science, threatening its core practice and its sway over public education. This is undoubtedly the threat that Weinberg is reacting to.
The problem is that Weinberg writes as if one more decisive demonstration of the “truth” of science will unsling the knees of the popular conservative religious right, who are often antagonistic to science, or at least to the rationalist-scientific-atheist-progressive left.
In this, Weinberg has failed to understand the basic elements of religious experience. It is true that some scientific explanations have undermined and eclipsed the nature-explaining dominion of religion, at least in the West. What Weinberg and the New Atheists he aligns himself with do not seem to understand about religious worldview is that only a small part of religious doctrine is devoted to explaining nature as a scientist aims to—in terms of causalities in nature.
“Without God” unselfconsciously takes up the Enlightenment argument, asking: How much longer can the irrationalities of belief withstand the onslaught of increasingly exact scientific explanations of thunder, earthquakes, and disease? After all, the Medieval Church failed in its attempt to preserve its authority on the grounds of its expertise in planetary cosmology. It is therefore only a matter of time before ordinary belief will be swept away by science—if only we can guarantee that evolution continues to be taught in the classroom!
Weinberg’s theory that religion and science represent successive strategies to explain nature is an old one. Nineteenth-century writers posited theories of linear evolution from magic to religion to science, in which progress was thought to be propelled by the recognition of the inferiority of the prior explanatory model. Weinberg’s opening analysis of the conflict between science and religion could have come directly out of James George Frazer’s Golden Bough, published in 1890. Weinberg writes, “Religion originally gained much of its strength from the observation of mysterious phenomena--thunder, earthquake, disease--that seemed to require the intervention of some divine being. There was a nymph in every brook…”
Weinberg allows that the greater part of religion may be concerned with “what makes us happy or good.” He personally is interested in “what is true,” and it seems to him that in the end religion will lose its authority to teach us morality also when its scientific ideas are shown to be false. He summarizes the difference between scientific and religious knowledge: “We progress.”
A reader could be forgiven for linking Weinberg’s notion of scientific progress to the more ideologically charged idea of liberal progressivism. It is societal truths and not scientific ones that religion is after, as Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) first argued. In Durkheim’s view society is above all a moral entity. The falsifiable kind of truth-seeking characteristic of science would not apply to social-moral realities.
The late Clifford Geertz advanced Durkheim’s notion with his 1966 explanation of how the moral-aesthetic-emotional-symbolic truth making of religion trumps all other kinds. The religious perspective, he wrote, “differs from the scientific perspective in that it questions the realities of everyday life not out of an institutionalized skepticism which dissolves the world’s givenness into a swirl of probabilistic hypotheses, but in terms of what it takes to be wider, non-hypothetical truths. Rather than detachment, its watchword is commitment; rather than analysis, encounter.”
The overemphasis on scientific-style rationality/irrationality and its attendant underpinnings comes at the cost of distracting us from a proper understanding of many social phenomena, not just religion. The application of the principle of the falsifiability of claims, for instance, will no more determine the future of religion than it will the outcome of the coming presidential election—and not (just) because some people are stubbornly irrational. More damagingly, interpreting religious commitment in terms of rationality and its opposite, as if to say “here is scientific rationality on one side and their obtuse model on the other” antagonizes religious people at any strata.
When science is used as the warrant for progressive views, it is no wonder that conservative religious activists will seek to unhinge its authority in society. Weinberg is a very fine scientist who, quite justifiably, feels that science in this country is under threat by the encroachment of those who embrace irrational propositions. His essay does not explain that development in terms of religious cultural reasoning but only draws more heat (not light) to the contact point of misunderstanding and misinterpretation.