Friday, 14 September 2012

"Science and Religion" Chairs Proliferate

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks made a rather silly program for the BBC where he attempted to cosy up to science. Churchmen and theologians have noticed that science keeps stripping away the evidence from their beliefs, and they're left rather embarrassed by their nakedness, as if they have only just eaten from the tree of knowledge. Sacks was repeatedly coquettish when Dawkins asked him if he really believed the story of Abraham and Isaac. He realised, I suppose, that he would look silly if he said yes, but would never live it down if he said no. He gave a non-answer that a politician would have been proud of.

Now he's accusing Dawkins of perpetuating an anti-semitic stereotype when he described the god of the Old Testament as a "vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser", and "misogynist", "homophobic", "racist", "pestilential" and "infanticidal", in The God Delusion:
I was concerned that he was using an anti-semitic stereotype, which has run through a certain strand of the Christian reading of what is called the 'Old Testament' as a result of which thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Jews, died in the Middle Ages because that's how people spoke about the God of the Old Testament.
(This is a sad accusation, but all too readily offered now by the religious and their apologists when they don't get their own way. Allan Dershowitz has launched a poorly spelt attack on the Germans for ruling against circumcision, even though the ruling also goes against Muslim teaching too. Can't they be Islamophobic?) It's an ad hominem, since it casts aspersions on the motives of those making these judgements rather than addressing the arguments. Sacks could just explain why he doesn't think his God is infanticidal, for example. Otherwise he needs to explain why pointing out the truth is anti-semitic. As Dawkins says, the quotes are anti-God rather than anti-semitic.

In the BBC website report, the 'science and religion' meme is given an airing. A quote is garnered from Dr Thomas Dixon, a Senior Lecturer of History at Queen Mary, who has written books on the subject, and another from Dr Denis Alexander, Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge University. The Faraday Institute has been funded by the Templeton Foundation, who have ploughed money into the 'science and religion' meme for years now. Maybe this investment is paying off? Alexander comments on the divisions between science and religion:
In academic discourse, it's never before been more positive. Now there are several science and religion chairs in universities and lectureships and so on, which were never there before.
The implication is that academia has come to its senses, and has realised that, hey! Science and Religion are best buddies really. Really? Well, no, not in my opinion. Let's check out all these science and religion chairs in universities.

I can't say I can find many, at least in the UK. The only one I'm aware of is the Andreas Idreos Chair in Science and Religion, attached to the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, which has been funded by the Templeton Foundation. This is currently held by Peter Harrison, and is being advertised anew. The incomer will be able to take advantage of a generous grant from the Templeton Foundation:

A major review of the undergraduate curriculum is currently under way, for which the Andreas Idreos professor will be able to develop new undergraduate courses in Science and Religion. Following a generous donation from the John Templeton Foundation, the incoming professor will have the opportunity to appoint to a three-year Departmental Lectureship in Science and Religion and to fill three fully-funded three-year doctoral studentships (up to two of which may be for overseas candidates), all to start in October 2013.

I don't think there is a chair in the subject at Cambridge, although I could be wrong. Dr Alexander's base, the Faraday Institute, is there, established by the Templeton Foundation.

Still, I looked further. I remembered that the University of Edinburgh runs a science and religion course. Oh yes, it's funded by the Templeton Foundation too.

After that, I don't see too much going on. I noticed that the University of Exeter has a Dr Christopher Southgate who has taught for the Department of Theology and Religion  "on the science-religion debate". No course funding there, apparently, but Dr Southgate did win a Templeton award in the past. Professor David Knight is at Durham University, and "In 1998 he received a Templeton Foundation award for teaching a module on ‘Science & Religion in the 19th century’". In July 2007, Alan J. Torrance, Professor of Systematic Theology, and Professor Eric Priest FRS were awarded £65,300 by the Templeton Foundation to promote a major series of lectures on science and religion in the University of St Andrews.

Internationally, we can see there are a number of academics interested in the subject by looking at the membership of the International Society for Science and Religion. Note, too, that they receive funding from the Templeton Foundation.

So I think Dr Alexander may be right: the small amount of interest in 'science and religion' in academia probably justifies him saying "it's never before been more positive". But as far as I can see this is almost entirely down to funding from the Templeton Foundation. There is nothing wrong in that, of course, but it's as well to understand how ideas can be sown and propagated. It's a shame the BBC has been roped in to assist.


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