Amy Levin: What happens when we give scientists the authority to speak about God? This was my first question when I discovered Jonathan Pararajasingham’s recent video compilation called “50 Famous Academics and Scientists Talk About God.” It’s posted on Open Culture and the list of those featured includes 16 Nobel prize winners, including a bundle of recognizable names like Richard Feynman, Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, Bertrand Russell, Stephen Hawking, and Leonard Susskind.
The montage is a hefty undertaking and a convenient exploration of some of the most fascinating personal belief talk around. It’s also dialogical candy for political atheists like Bill Maher and worshippers of Richard Dawkins. After all, who can argue with an orgy of scientific elitism on the question of objective truth?
If you watch patiently as each commentator bleeds into the next you’ll find the academics look strikingly similar – aged, white, Western men. Each discussing the irrationality, the lack of evidence for a supernatural force, a divine, smiting God. With the exceptions of Rebecca Goldstein and Partha Dasgupta, the group is devoid of any racial, gendered, or cultural heterogeneity. Unsurprisingly, the linguistic trope running throughout the video equates “God” and “religion” with a biblical notion of Western divinity, reducing religion to belief.
The video’s predicament is not that these scientists are mostly atheists, or even that some of them condemn religion. To be sure, there is no lack of mediatized scientists who profess to believe in God. Instead, it is the overt hierarchical elitism that pervades the video from beginning to end. The video opens with the following statement:
The more scientifically literate, intellectually honest and objectively skeptical a person is, the more likely they are to disbelieve in anything supernatural, including god.
And ends with the following:
in heaven, all the interesting people are missing. – Friedrich Nietzsche
In this narrative, believers are not only intellectually dishonest, but uninteresting. And speaking of selective representation, the Nietzsche quote we are left with is slightly misleading. After all, it was Nietzsche, who, in The Gay Science, argued that science and religion are quite the bedfellows due to their unquestionable belief in objective truth, a truth which assumes that humans can interpret reality without human subjectivity.
And on the topic of who is more interesting? Well, that just deserves a cosmic laugh.