Steven Weinberg: Free People From Superstition

Professor Steven Weinberg prefaced his acceptance speech as the first Emperor Has No Clothes awardee by saying, “I enjoy being at a meeting that doesn’t start with an invocation!”

Weinberg addressed the audience at the 22nd annual Freedom From Religion Foundation convention in San Antonio in November 1999 on “insidious” creationist arguments, the Big Bang and its evidences, public misunderstandings of the scientific method, and his rejection of religion. Weinberg confessed he has almost envied his friends in evolutionary biology for being on the front lines fighting the creationists.

WEINBERG: “But these people in Kansas have done me the great service of attacking the standard cosmological theory, the Big Bang theory, so that we cosmologists are now in the thick of it along with our friends in evolutionary biology.

I think that’s simply wonderful.” “Nothing,” he said, “has been more important in the history of science than the work of Darwin and Wallace pointing out that not only the planets but even life could be understood in this naturalistic way.”

He added: “I personally feel that the teaching of modern science is corrosive of religious belief, and I’m all for that! One of the things that in fact has driven me in my life, is the feeling that this is one of the great social functions of science — to free people from superstition. But I don’t think that that attitude of mine should control the high school curriculum,” he said, adding “my own personal motivation is irrelevant,” just as the motivations of religious people should not affect high school curricula:

“Science should be taught not in order to support religion and not in order to destroy religion — science should be taught simply ignoring religion.” While he called creationism “a persistent problem,” Weinberg termed more serious the fact that “a large majority of Americans, without believing very much in the teachings of their religion, nevertheless believe strongly in religion.” While actual belief is gradually diminishing, “there continues to be respect for the moral teaching of religion.” This, he said, raises all sorts of questions, such as:

“Why do you think your religion should be respected as a source of moral authority if in fact your religion has nothing to say about the world?” Weinberg pointed out that two or three hundred years ago, “Most of the world’s great religions coexisted very comfortably with slavery.” Part of the general moral improvement of the human race can be credited to “the growth of science — a sense of rationality, a scientific view that we don’t really differ that much from one another, that there is no divine right of kings and so on, there is no intrinsic racial difference that should allow us to enslave one race for the benefit of another race.”

“People have just gotten less religious and more moral,” he explained. Weinberg expressed some frustration with what Susan Sontag calls “piety without content.” He addressed the current claim that the Ten Commandments are “not religion, just good morality.” If you read the Ten Commandments, the first four have nothing to do with morality — they’re purely descriptions of piety.

“The Ten Commandments portray a deity who is self-centered, selfish, jealous, obsessed with his own importance; this is not a nice kind of person. The traditional teachings of religion are, from the point of view of the morality most people share today, pretty immoral.” Speaking of Abraham being ordered to sacrifice Isaac, he asked:

“What kind of leader, if he was a human being, would want that kind of loyalty, demand that kind of loyalty?” He said there is a perversity in the creator of the universe regarding the crucial test, “determining whether or not you spend an eternity in torment or joy, as whether or not you believe in him, even though he’s done a damn good job of hiding evidence of his existence.”

Weinberg does not know “whether or not we’re headed for another Dark Age when people do start crusades and jihads and pogroms again, or whether the course of rationalism and humanitarianism is going to continue, and religion will gradually dwindle into something much less important.

“From my own point of view, I can hope that this long sad story will come to an end at some time in the future and that this progression of priests and ministers and rabbis and ulamas and imams and bonzes and bodhisattvas will come to an end, that we’ll see no more of them. I hope that this is something to which science can contribute and if it is, then I think it may be the most important contribution that we can make.”

More About Steven Weinberg

The New York Times ran an appealing profile on him (“Physicist Ponders God, Truth and ‘a Final Theory’ ” by James Glanz, Jan. 25, 2000), noting he recently received the Lewis Thomas Prize awarded to the researcher who best embodies “the scientist as poet.” The article called him romantic, reporting that he cannot hear “La Boheme” performed “without dissolving.” In this interview Weinberg continued to speak plainly on the subject of his atheism.

When asked about “human spirituality,” Weinberg replied: “I don’t even know what it means.” Glanz wrote: “He sees no redeeming value in religion and considers it nonsense.” The article revealed that Weinberg, born in 1933 in the Bronx, lost much of his mother’s family in Germany during the Holocaust. As he grew up, he enjoyed listening to classical music and learning chemistry from a hand-me-down set. He attended Cornell on scholarship where he met and fell in love with a student. Louise Weinberg is now his wife and professor of law at the University of Texas.

The article cites as the biggest battle of his professional career a lobbying campaign for a multibillion-dollar Superconducting Supercollider to be located near Waxahachie, Texas, which Congress killed in 1993. One of his major battles today, according to the article, is with “postmodernist thinkers and philosophers of science who maintain that scientific theories reflect not objective reality but social negotiations among scientists.” Weinberg says that “half-baked philosophy has sometimes gotten in the way of doing science.” The Times said his “much-quoted aphorism” is:

“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” On the subject of religion, Weinberg told the Times: “The whole history of the last thousands of years has been a history of religious persecutions and wars, pogroms, jihads, crusades. I find it all very regrettable, to say the least.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation