Science is neutral on matters of religious faith simply as a matter of its methodological limitations. Scientific inquiry can not address the supernatural nor is it a tool to decide matters of ultimate spiritual or moral purpose. Of course scientific inquiry can test the bare claims of a religious tradition, claims stripped of any divine causation, claims such as a global Noachian deluge or a young earth. But add the intervention of a divine agent and we simply can not take these claims seriously as testable ideas.
Unfortunately many scientists have forgotten these limitations and have attempted to use science to deny a particular religious viewpoint. But, are scientists always so hostile towards religion? Oddly enough the answer is no. Typically criticism of religious beliefs from within science has been directed towards Judeo-Christian beliefs for the simple reason that these are the prominent religious beliefs in western societies and Judeo-Christian beliefs underlie pseudoscientific challenges to evolutionary biology such as scientific creationism and intelligent design theory. However, many within the scientific community adopt an entirely different opinion towards non-western religious traditions.
For example, Tibetan Buddhism’s spiritual leader in exile Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dali Lama, has been asked to speak at the annual meeting of Society for Neuroscience (Cyranoski, D. 2005. Neuroscientists see red over the Dali Lama. Nature 436: 452). Despite the protests of more than 500 members of the society the Dali Lama will speak on Buddhist meditation at the November 2005 meeting of the society (Cyranoski, D. 2005. Dali Lama gets go-ahead for meditation lecture. Nature 436: 1071). The Dali Lama’s participation in the meeting has even prompted support from outside the neuroscience community (Dickinson, J. 2005. Buddhism is no bar to an open mind. Is science? Nature 436: 912). By having one of the world’s major religious figures speak at a national scientific meeting the life sciences are sending one message that religious ideas have no place in the science classroom and another by having a particular religious viewpoint presented in the context of a scientific meeting. I wonder the reaction if Pope Benedict XVI were asked to speak at the society’s meeting on the subject of prayer?
I agree that dialogue between scientists, philosophers, theologians and religious leaders is incredibly valuable and scientists should consider the influence of their work in a broad societal context. However, I see little the value of such a dialogue in the context of a scientific meeting. A more appropriate forum would be one that included scientists and religious and spiritual leaders of traditions beyond just Tibetan Buddhism. Unfortunately scientists operate in a culture that on the one hand sees little problem in inserting Darwin’s name in a symbol of Christian solidarity since Roman times, the Ichthys, but would likely frown upon any desecration of a Buddhist prayer wheel or the Tibetan flag (a popular bumper sticker among the faculty and graduate students on college campuses usually along side a ‘Darwin fish’). Hopefully there are some scientists, like myself, that would see any desecration of either religious symbol as irresponsible and reject the presentation of one religious view either in the science classroom or at a scientific meeting in lieu of others.