Why do scientists give religion a pass?

From My God Problem, which was one of the stories listed in the Best Science and Nature Writing of 2005 that I linked to the other day.

No, most scientists are not interested in taking on any of the mighty cornerstones of Christianity. They complain about irrational thinking, they despise creationist “science,” they roll their eyes over America’s infatuation with astrology, telekinesis, spoon bending, reincarnation, and UFOs, but toward the bulk of the magic acts that have won the imprimatur of inclusion in the Bible, they are tolerant, respectful, big of tent. Indeed, many are quick to point out that the Catholic Church has endorsed the theory of evolution and that it sees no conflict between a belief in God and the divinity of Jesus and the notion of evolution by natural selection. If the pope is buying it, the reason for most Americans’ resistance to evolution must have less to do with religion than with a lousy advertising campaign.

So, on the issue of mainstream monotheistic religions and the irrationality behind many of religion’s core tenets, scientists often set aside their skewers, their snark, and their impatient demand for proof, and instead don the calming cardigan of a a kiddie-show host on public television. They reassure the public that religion and science are not at odds with one another, but rather that they represent separate “magisteria,” in the words of the formerly alive and even more formerly scrappy Stephen Jay Gould. Nobody is going to ask people to give up their faith, their belief in an everlasting soul accompanied by an immortal memory of every soccer game their kids won, every moment they spent playing fetch with the dog. Nobody is going to mock you for your religious beliefs. Well, we might if you base your life decisions on the advice of a Ouija board; but if you want to believe that someday you’ll be seated at a celestial banquet with your long-dead father to your right and Jane Austen to your left-and that she’ll want to talk to you for another hundred million years or more—that’s your private reliquary, and we’re not here to jimmy the lock.

Consider the very different treatments accorded two questions presented to Cornell University’s “Ask an Astronomer” Web site. To the query, “Do most astronomers believe in God, based on the available evidence?” the astronomer Dave Rothstein replies that, in his opinion, “modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God . . . places where people who do believe in God can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating any contradictions.” He cites the Big Bang as offering solace to those who want to believe in a Genesis equivalent and the probabilistic realms of quantum mechanics as raising the possibility of “God intervening every time a measurement occurs” before concluding that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of a god, and religious belief doesn’t—and shouldn’t—”have anything to do with scientific reasoning.”

How much less velveteen is the response to the reader asking whether astronomers believe in astrology. “No, astronomers do not believe in astrology,” snarls Dave Kornreich. “It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary.” Dr. Kornreich ends his dismissal with the assertion that in science “one does not need a reason not to believe in something.” Skepticism is “the default position” and “one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something’s existence.”

You see a lot of this. The science community will generally call a duck a duck when it comes to any of the fringe supernatural beliefs: ghosts and demons and UFO’s and all that stuff that was once featured on The X-Files. But when it comes to any of the big three religions, they tip-toe around the issue and hem and haw before pointing at the shiny thing and running away before they really answer the question.

The answer should would be something like this: There’s no scientific evidence whatsoever for the type of God who would speak to Moses through a burning bush and impregnate a virgin with his son only to have him die and resurrect him. This does not exclude the possibility, but one should look skeptically at such notions.

But they never, ever say that. Instead, they try so hard not to that it actually gives fuel to James Dobson and those idiots, as they make it look like they’re reluctantly acknowledging the validity of religious claims – or at least, there’s something about them that can’t be dismissed as readily as leprechauns and oiuja boards.

The author reasons that in the case of scientists, its simply a self preservation instinct, which makes sense enough – except you see something similar pretty much everywhere. There’s an attitude that you shouldn’t disparage someone’s beliefs, no matter how stupid the belief might be (at least, when those beliefs center around the big three monotheistic religions).
What makes beliefs so special that it’s a social no-no to call them stupid when they are, in fact, stupid? Why must we censor ourselves so that people won’t accidentally hear something that threatens their worldview?

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