Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Lubos Motl's recent posting about Steven Weinberg's recent BBC interview [transcript] on the relation between religion and science mentioned the chapter about God in Weinberg's book: Dreams of a Final Theory.

The following is from chapter 11, titled "What About God?". In the middle of that chapter, Weinberg refers to the problem of religious "liberals", as follows:

"Religious liberals are in one sense even farther in spirit from scientists than are fundamentalists and other religious conservatives.

"At least the conservatives, like the scientists, tell you that they believe in what they believe because it is true, rather than because it makes them good or happy.

"Many religious liberals today seem to think that different people can believe in different mutually exclusive things without any of them being wrong, as long as their beliefs 'work for them'.

"This one believes in reincarnation, that one in heaven and hell; a third believes in the extinction of the soul at death, but no one can be said to be wrong as long as everyone gets a satisfying spiritual rush from what they believe.

"To borrow a phrase from Susan Sontag, we are surrounded by 'piety without content'.

"It all reminds me of a story that is told about an experience of Bertrand Russell, when in 1918 he was committed to prison for his opposition to the war. Following prison routine, a jailer asked Russell his religion, and Russell said that he was an agnostic. The jailer looked puzzled for a moment, and then brightened, with the observation that 'I guess it's all right. We worship the same God, don't we?'

Returning to the role of the religious conservatives, Weinberg later continues:

"Many of the great world religions teach that God demands a particular faith and form of worship. It should not be surprising that some the the people who take these teachings seriously should sincerely regard these divine commands as incomparably more important than any merely secular virtues like tolerance or compassion or reason."

In the middle of Weinberg's BBC interview we have the remarks by Weinberg:

"...I once wrote something [apparently referring to the above quote from his Dreams of a Final Theory] rather disparaging about ultra-liberal Christianity and that I found myself more ... in some ways more akin to a fundamentalist because at least they haven't forgotten what it [is] to believe something. And I got a copy of a fundamentalist newspaper from, I think from New Mexico that praised me! Because what they really ... I think what their real concern was, was not odd atheist physicists, that wasn't what they were worried about, what they were worried about was the liberal Christians. ... I think they [the fundamentalists] just found a surprising ally in the battle that they really cared about - their battle with the liberal wing of Christianity. But please don't let me give the wrong impression, I think enormous harm is done by religion - not just in the name of religion, but actually by religion - and I think ..."

[interviewer]: "How is that? Tell me the harm that is done by religion as opposed to the harm that is done in the name of it."

[Weinberg ]: "Oh, I think people who crash air-planes into office buildings in order to destroy them must really believe in paradise and that this is something that their god wants them to do and that they'll be rewarded in paradise. And if they don't believe that then it's a very foolish career move."

[interviewer]: "Yes"

[Weinberg]: "But, ... you know, the idea that God has ... whether it's Allah or Jehovah or whatever, has dictated certain ways of behaving, certain ways of worshiping, and that it's incumbent on you to force others to behave that way and worship in that way ... God, think of all the harm that's been done throughout all the ages by people who believe that and believe it very sincerely. One could just go on and on about the number of very sincerely religious people who were led by their religion to do the most awful things."

[interviewer]: " Well in fact that was very much an aspect of Judaism before the Diaspora"

[Weinberg]: "Oh, absolutely, yes. I do agree, but just coming back to what we were talking about before, it is the religions that have a theory of the world, it seems to me, at least in recent centuries, that do the harm. So the ... the very sincere true believers are the ones you have to watch out for, even though they may have something more to show for themselves intellectually than the more liberal religious, but they are the dangerous ones."

[interviewer] [To the viewer]: "Given the fact that the current president of the United States could be described as a "sincere true believer", I wanted to know if Steven himself was alarmed by the apparent growth of fundamental Christianity in his own country."

[Weinber]: "I don't see the United States in the grip of a... a really disturbing religious awakening. I think that what's much more frightening in the world is Islam, where people, it seems to me, take their religion seriously to the point of madness. I think, you know, there have been times in the history of the world when Islam was a far more tolerant religion than Christianity, but that is not the case now. "

[interviewer]: "But there is undoubtedly for... a certainly for a European, the impression that there's a very strong association between Christianity and patriotism in a way that simply doesn't exist in Europe, certainly not in my own country, the United Kingdom."

[Weinberg]: "Yes, well, it's... I know that impression exists and I think that Americans think more highly of religion that Europeans do. I sometimes think that Americans believe in religion much more than Europeans do. They don't believe in God much more than Europeans do, but they believe that religion is good for you, and without being particularly religious in any meaningful way. You know, I know many people who say they're religious and go to church every Sunday and belong to church organisations, and then when you talk to them and you ask them, "Do you really think that after death this is going to happen?" they say, "I've no idea, I don't know, it's all a mystery, but I think it's good to be religious. This is the faith I grew up with.". As a physicist, you have to decide what you think is true and you get in the habit of that kind of intellectual activity because if you work on the wrong theory and it isn't true you have wasted your professional time, and you keep having to make judgements of truth or falsity, and truth becomes very important to you. For most people truth is not as important as good behaviour, or loyalty to your ethnic group, or loyalty to your family traditions, and truth is something that you don't worry about very much."

[interviewer]: "Although, of course, in the Middle Ages and indeed when people were opposing atheism in the 17th century, it was insisted that the truthfulness of religion was what guaranteed good behaviour. "

[Weinberg] : "Yes, and many people believe that, but an awful lot of people also believe it doesn't matter whether it's true, you just have to be religious because that will guarantee good behaviour. You know the wonderful line of Gibbon's about the pagan religions, he said "The multitude of gods... ", Gibbon said, "The common people found them all equally true, and the philosophers found them all equally false, and the magistrates found them all equally useful.". And I think many people in America and undoubtedly in Europe are in the position of the magistrates Gibbon was talking about - they find them useful. Although I really don't think that... I don't see religion as actually inspiring moral behaviour. In fact you very often hear people say, "Well, these people who blow themselves up for some religious reason in the Middle East or Hindu mobs who destroy a mosque or Muslim mobs who kill Hindus, that they're not really religious, that real religion doesn't involve that kind of behaviour.". I think what they're saying is that they have a moral sense which allows them to distinguish what is religious from what is not religious."

"I think, for example, George Bush said that these terrorists have hijacked a great religion because their actions, their terrorist actions don't fit his idea of religion. You see what's really happening there is that instead of using religion to decide what is moral, they're using their moral sense, which fortunately is a perfectly, good, reasonable, enlightened moral sense, to decide what is religious... and... if that's the case, then what's the point of the religion?"

[interviewer]: [speaking to his audience] "Finally, I wanted to know whether there were any particular reasons, apart from being constantly asked by people like myself, why Steven felt it necessary to address himself to the topic of religion more than many of his colleagues did."

[Weinberg]: "Oh, I try not to do it too much. I don't want to become the village atheist... and I do get involved in a lot of other issues like missile defence and neo... well, post-constructionism, neo-modernism, but I do spend probably a little bit more time than I should on religion and I have a certain amount of hostility to... to it. I think the most rational reason for it is because of the harm that I see it does, we were talking about that earlier. Many people do simply awful things out of sincere religious belief, not using religion as a cover the way that Saddam Hussein may have done, but really because they believe that this is what God wants them to do, going all the way back to Abraham being willing to sacrifice Issac because God told him to do that. Putting God ahead of humanity is a terrible thing."

"Another reason is because I'm offended by the kind of smarmy religiosity that's all around us, perhaps more in America than in Europe, and not really that harmful because it's not really that intense or even that serious, but just... you know after a while you get tired of hearing clergymen giving the invocation at various public celebrations and you feel, haven't we outgrown all this? Do we have to listen to this? "

"But then, maybe at the very bottom of it... I really don't like God. You know, it's silly to say I don't like God because I don't believe in God, but in the same sense that I don't like Iago, or the Reverend Slope or any of the other villains of literature, the god of traditional Judaism and Christianity and Islam seems to me a terrible character. He's a god who will... who obsessed [about] the degree to which people worship him and [is] anxious to punish with the most awful torments those who don't worship him in the right way. Now I realise that many people don't believe in that any more who call themselves Muslims or Jews or Christians, but that is the traditional God and he's a terrible character. I don't like him. "

I have a friend - or had a friend, now dead - Abdul Salam, a very devout Muslim, who was trying to bring science into the universities in the Gulf states and he told me that he had a terrible time because, although they were very receptive to technology, they felt that science would be a corrosive to religious belief, and they were worried about it... and damn it, I think they were right. It is corrosive of religious belief, and it's a good thing too.


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4:40 AM  

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