On November 10 author Dan Brown delivered the Penguin Annual Lecture in New Dehli, India, and again two days later in Mumbai. Known internationally for his controversial books, Brown gave a speech that was no less controversial in its discussions of science, religion, and morality.
I imagine people in the humanist community are especially divided in their feelings about Dan Brown. On the one hand, his novel, The Da Vinci Code, celebrates critical thinking over the rigid dogma of the Catholic Church. On the other hand, while his books are works of fiction, many readers see them as representations of historical fact. While there is much to praise about Dan Brown, there is just as much to criticize. His lecture last week was no different.
In his talk Brown advocated strongly for the decidedly humanist idea that societies should be open to a diversity of ideas, where debate and dialogue on a broad range of topics are encouraged. Specifically, he spoke out against book burning and instead encouraged dissenters to write their own responses to materials they find objectionable. As someone whose books have been banned, Brown certainly has reason to support free expression. He also cogently explained the concept of “the God of the gaps,” that is the idea that as science becomes increasingly able to explain natural phenomenon, the need for religious explanations of the material world become more and more irrelevant. However, while Brown acknowledged that science is providing us with answers to some of our most intriguing questions about the origins of life and our universe, he also promoted the notion that religion and science are beginning to blur.
Many humanists would object to that statement, especially when Brown then claims that scientific terms like “the uncertainty principle” and “the theory of relativity” have a religious ring to them. While these terms might sound spiritual to those who are unfamiliar with their meanings and their place in physics, there is nothing religious about them. The uncertainty principle simply states that when the position of a particle can be precisely known, knowledge of its momentum will be less precise, and vice versa. The theory of relativity explains that measurements of various quantities are relative to the velocity of the observer taking those measurements, while the speed of light is constant. These concepts have illuminated our understanding of the natural world in numerous ways, and they have allowed us to create and improve technologies as close to us as our smartphones and as distant as satellites orbiting the earth. What they do not do is make statements about the spiritual or paranormal. Claiming that they represent a blurring of science and religion is at best a stretch and at worst a fundamental misunderstanding of physics.
Even though I, and I’m sure many others, might disagree with Brown’s position on the relationship between science and religion, I can agree with him about the importance of a dialogue between the two. One of Brown’s most compelling assertions from his lecture was this: “It is critical that we live without malice, that we educate ourselves, and that we ask difficult questions, and above all, we engage in dialogue especially with those whose ideas are not our own.” He also said during his speech, “There is enormous danger in believing that we are infallible, that our version of the truth is absolute, and that everyone who does not think like we do is wrong and therefore our enemy.” These are powerful statements to make, especially in a world in which religious fundamentalists from many backgrounds and faiths are attempting to assert their own versions of morality and truth as the only and absolute correct way to live. Brown’s conception of science might not be one that humanists will be comfortable with, but surely we can support his rallying cry against censorship and hostility and for dialogue and discussion about the relationship between science and religion.