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Religion vs. science vs. politics

In recent years, the holiday season has sparked plenty of reflection on the interplay between religion and science. We’re also heading into the prime political season, with science-related issues ranging from climate change to stem cell research. So you’d think scientific discourse would play a role on both those fronts this season. That’s not the case this year – and some of the people who think deep thoughts about science and society are wondering why not.

It's not for lack of trying: This time last year, there were a good number of high-profile books about science and religion sitting on bookshelves, ranging from Richard Dawkins' provocative screed, "The God Delusion," to E.O. Wilson's "The Creation" and Francis Collins' tale of conversion, "The Language of God."

Just in the past few weeks, a high-profile coalition of scientists, politicians and other interested parties assembled under the aegis of Science Debate 2008 to call on the presidential candidates to devote a debate to the scientific and technical issues facing the nation. via MSNBC
  CLICK FOR VIDEO: GOP presidential hopeful Mike 

  Huckabee appears in a Christmas TV ad. Click on

  the image for a discussion of Huckabee's strategy

  on MSNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews."

So far, however, the scientific perspective is virtually nowhere to be seen in the values debate. Instead, political candidates are in full holier-than-thou mode. One of the holiest (at least according to BeliefNet's God-o-Meter), GOP candidate Mike Huckabee, scoffed at the idea that his views on evolution should carry any weight in the presidential race.

It's a situation that cries out for a reality check from someone with the stature of the late celebrity astronomer Carl Sagan, who died exactly 11 years ago today after a long battle with bone marrow disease. If he had lived, Sagan would be 73 years old now - just a couple of years older than Sen. John McCain.

Sagan's name has come up as the kind of person who could moderate Science Debate 2008 - if the idea could ever get off the ground. "I'd have loved to see Sagan host this," one commentator opined in response to Matthew Chapman's essay on the debate movement.

Ann Druyan, Sagan's widow and the keeper of the "Cosmos" flame, agrees that her husband would have been engaged in the political debate - just as he was during the debates over nuclear war and global warming back in the 1980s. The current times are similarly dire, she said.

Cornell Univ.
Carl Sagan, 1934-1996

"I just can't imagine how Carl would have felt, knowing this sad, dreary lie that we've been on for at least the last seven years, maybe longer," she told me.

Druyan, who is one of the most spiritual atheists I know, said she is increasingly concerned about the latest turn in the scientific/religious/political debate. "What I've been thinking about mostly is how worried I am about what's happened to our Constitution, and the separation of church and state," she said.

Naturally, she's particularly struck by the way Republicans are overtly courting religious believers this time around - including devilish discussions.

"The thing that is, I think, so very, very worrisome is that so many people will not realize how dangerous it is for candidates for the presidency to really pander to the religious resentments of people," she said.

Druyan would love to see someone of Sagan's stature try to turn the agenda toward scientific topics - and that's why she was one of the first advocates to sign up in support of Science Debate 2008. "I really feel like it's been so long since we had an exponent of science, doing it the way Carl did it - without tearing anybody down, but being very direct," she said.

She doesn't think the confrontational approach taken by Dawkins and other militant atheists is doing the trick. In fact, that approach runs the risk of closing off the dialogue and drawing even sharper battle lines. "The frontal assault on religion has not resulted in the degree of communication that was possible even a few years ago," she said.

Despite Druyan's gloom, there are positive signs as well - for instance, the success that former Vice President Al Gore has had in raising awareness about what he calls the climate crisis. Such consciousness-raising efforts may well have contributed to the Bush administration's turnabout at this month's climate talks in Bali.

"I don't understand why Gore doesn't run for president," Druyan said. "I really feel that he would be one candidate who probably the majority of the people in the country would embrace." (Though judging from the feedback to my recent posting on Gore and science advice, I'm not so sure.)

At Cosmos Studios, where Druyan presides as founder and chief executive officer, the news is also positive: For instance, Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" series will be rebroadcast starting on Christmas night on the Discovery Science Channel.

"It's incredibly gratifying," Druyan said. "It's hard to imagine another 30-year-old science series that could be broadcast in prime time."

Druyan also has been working on a totally new TV series that would serve as a successor to "Cosmos" - and she said there would soon be further details to report on that project. She said it wouldn't cover the same territory as the original "Cosmos," but instead would expand Carl Sagan's universe.

"There's just something beautiful about this transgenerational aspect - no generation getthing the total answers to everything, but building on the previous generation," she said.

Around this time of year, we traditionally open a forum to discuss what's ahead for the kinds of deep subjects that science as well as religion address. Feel free to reflect - but please make sure you don't attack the comments of others, or stoop to lecture people about their evil ways, or copy-and-paste long stretches of scripture.

To get an idea of the lay of the land, here are the topics from our past Yuletide symposia on science and religion:

For more about Sagan's legacy, check out Druyan's blog posting to The Observatory, as well as the blogathon under way at Joel's Humanistic Blog. And to learn more about where the candidates stand on scientific issues, check out Popular Mechanics' "Geek the Vote" interactive.