In some ways Harry Kroto’s talk at Lindau was the most provocative of all because of its emphasis on a rejection, or at least transparent criticism, of religious faith. To get an idea of what students thought about it I buttonholed three graduate students, two from Germany and one from Russia, during lunch on Thursday. Florian and Annalena are students at the University of Frankfurt and Aachen respectively and Peter is a student at the University of St. Petersburg. In an interactive dialogue I found that Florian and Annalena differed a little in their views of Kroto’s talk and the whole science-religion issue. This was a good thing since disagreement always offers one a chance to truly learn.
In the limited amount of time that we had I could only get a glimpse of their opinions, but even at the end of the short discussion I had reached one very encouraging conclusion; that while we differed on certain issues we could all achieve common ground. The general conclusion was that views should be respected if they are doing good (Peter Agre in his interview also expressed the same view when he said that we should look at consequences and not the beliefs that drive them). A third blogger who is a European editor for Chemical and Engineering News also joined us and thought the same way. Especially Annalena thought that religious views should be respected if they are kept private and are causing no harm, a viewpoint which I suspect would be shared by many. Florian agreed, but on the whole he seemed more tuned in to Sir Kroto’s views. It was also clear from our discussion that the science-religion issue is much more acrimonious in the United States, and we all agreed that this is because politicians and religious fundamentalists have somehow managed to mix politics and religion so well that the public has started perceiving the meld of the two as a necessary one. Would the European students imagine a ‘creation museum’ like the one in Kentucky springing up in Britain or Germany? The answer was a vigorous no.
There was one point on which we all unanimously and resoundingly agreed; that whatever the merits or lack thereof of religion, it should be always kept separate from the political sphere. The great tragedy of the United States in my opinion is that politicians have exploited people’s religious views and forced religion into the political arena for gathering votes. And many people seem to fall for this ploy election after election.
While we were having this discussion, Peter from St. Petersburg was largely silent. It had started raining outside and I wanted to attend another session. I asked him what he felt about the whole issue. His answer was simple and to the point. “In Russia”, he said, “We have a dominantly atheist society. But while we do sometimes tease religious people, nobody is beaten up for their religious beliefs”.
That, I thought, was an ideal note to conclude our conversation. Let it always be so.