Imagine that a well-funded astrology organization were to establish a prize awarding a good chunk of money to a scientist who best affirmed the validity of astrology, all as part of a campaign to bestow a whiff of credibility to the belief that the position of the stars at the time you were born influenced your fate. Astrologers certainly want to pretend that they are scientific, so it’s exactly the kind of thing many of them would love to do; their only problem is that real scientists would laugh them away, and they certainly wouldn’t get the support of any of the major scientific institutions.
So why is the National Academy of Sciences supporting an organization claiming to reconcile science and superstition, and why is the president of the NAS nominating scientists for such an award? It’s exactly analogous; religion has no more validity than astrology, is openly unscientific, and I would argue is anti-scientific, so no legitimate scientific institution ought to be endorsing it. I know that some of their members may be church-goers, but some of them will also be following their horoscope in the newspapers, so that’s still no reason to pander to folly.
Here’s something else that’s odd: we’ve got the Templeton Foundation desperately looking for respect by marrying ancient superstitions to modern science, but we’ve got nothing on the other side. You don’t see American Atheists or the American Humanist Association funding research that would promote the idea that godlessness and science are compatible; they don’t have as much money, for one thing, but also we take it for granted that not invoking supernatural forces is a pretty reasonable thing to do in science. The godless don’t have to strain to wedge their ideas into a domain that excludes them.
We also don’t have an organization awarding a prize to the scientist who “has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s [natural, material] dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works” (that’s the description of the Templeton Prize, with one little change). It would be redundant, since that’s what science does. We also don’t have a major atheist organization giving out awards specifically to the scientist of the year who has made the greatest contribution to actively promoting secularism, even though they could: Dawkins, Harris, Kroto, Atkins and many others would be on the shortlist, easily. Maybe they should, but most atheists aren’t so insecure that they need to make a special effort to show that their ideas are compatible with science.
One reason they should, though, is just to see what would happen when they asked a major scientific institution to host the award ceremony. I predict a very rapid back-pedal from an organization that wouldn’t want to get into a political tangle…a consideration they apparently don’t worry about when what is being promoted is religion, despite the fact that religion is a fraud.