Atheists Discuss the Benefits of Faith

The great Danish physicist Niels Bohr, it is said, had a good-luck horseshoe hanging in his office. "You don't believe in that nonsense, do you?" a visitor once asked, to which Bohr replied, "No, but they say it works whether you believe in it or not."

If one thing emerged from the "Beyond Belief" conference at the Salk Institute in LaJolla, Calif. it's that religion doesn't work the same way. Some 30 scientists—one of the greatest collections of religious skeptics ever assembled in one place since Voltaire dined alone—examined faith from the evolutionary, neurological and philosophical points of view, and they concluded that some things only work if you do believe in them. Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist and author of the best-selling book "The God Delusion," said he couldn't have a spiritual experience even when he tried. After another panelist, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran of the University of California, San Diego, explained that temporal-lobe seizures of the brain create profound spiritual and out-of-body experiences, Dawkins disclosed that he had participated in an experiment that was supposed to mimic such seizures—and even then he didn't feel a thing.

Dawkins obviously feels this loss is a small price to pay for freedom from superstition. But even physicist Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate and an outspoken atheist, acknowledged that science is a poor substitute for the role religion plays in most peoples' lives. It's hard, he said, to live in a world in which one's highest emotions can be understood in biochemical and evolutionary terms, rather than a gift from God. Instead of the big, comforting certainties promoted by religion, science can offer only "a lot of little truths" and the austere pleasures of intellectual honesty. Much as Weinberg would like to see civilization emerge from the tyranny of religion, when it happens, "I think we will miss it, like a crazy old aunt who tells lies and causes us all kinds of trouble, but was beautiful once and was with us a long time."

To which Dawkins retorted, "I won't miss her at all." Only in the most extreme circumstances would he deign to take account of the consolations offered by religion. He would not, for instance, try to talk a Christian on his deathbed out of a belief in Heaven. He didn't say what he would do if he were the one near death, but it's unlikely he would be calling for a priest. The atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett had been expected to attend, but two weeks earlier had been rushed to the hospital with a near-fatal aortic rupture. At the conference, people handed around copies of Dennett's essay entitled "Thank Goodness," posted on the science Web site, in which he described how annoying it was to hear from friends that they had been praying for his recovery. "I have resisted the temptation," he wrote, "to respond, 'Thanks, I appreciate it, but did you also sacrifice a goat?'"

It's hard to be a skeptic, that much was clear from the conference. Hard for the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, who described trying to offer up thanks "to the scientists who made this abundance of food possible" at a friend's Thanksgiving dinner, only to be shouted down by demands for a proper grace. Hard for atheist author Sam Harris ("Letter to a Christian Nation") who likes to point out that people today believe in God based on no more evidence than the ancients had for believing in Zeus or Poseidon—with the result that in addition to all the mail he gets from Christians, he's now getting angry letters from pagans who claim he's insulted their beliefs, as well.

The moderate position at the conference was represented by physicist Lawrence Krauss, who took the view that "science doesn't make it impossible to believe in God, it just makes it possible to not believe in God." The majority view was best articulated by Tyson, who said that atheism is not just the only intellectually coherent position, but a positive boon to humanity. He makes much of the statistic that only 15 percent of the scientific elite in the United States, defined as members of the National Academy of Sciences, express belief in a personal God who takes an active role in the world. That's approximately the mirror image of the population as a whole—but to Tyson, the mystery is that the number of believers among the scientist group isn't zero.

Tyson is a commanding public speaker, which is why his fellow astronomer Carolyn Porco, the head of the imaging team for the Cassini space probe to Saturn, nominated him at the conference to be the first minister of her proposed (although not very seriously) "Church of Science." She thinks science is a perfectly adequate substitute for religion. "Being a scientist and staring immensity and eternity in the face every day is as grand and inspiring as it gets," she says. "No religion offers anything comparable." To the promise of immortality, she counters with the proposition that all the atoms of our bodies will be blown into space in the disintegration of the solar system, to live on forever as mass or energy. That's what we should be teaching our children, not fairy tales about angels and seeing grandma in Heaven. "If anyone has something to replace God," she says, "I think scientists do." Of course, it's not clear that anyone else is looking for one.

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