Lord May of Oxford, the outgoing president of the Royal Society (the UK's academy of science) has criticised fundamentalist religion in his anniversary speech.
May begins with an explanation of Enlightenment values:
What are these values? They are tolerance of diversity, respect for individual liberty of conscience, and above all recognition that an ugly fact trumps a beautiful theory or a cherished belief. All ideas should be open to questioning, and the merit of ideas should be assessed on the strength of the evidence that supports them and not on the credentials or affiliations of the individuals proposing them. It is not a recipe for a comfortable life, but it is demonstrably a powerful engine for understanding how the world actually works and for applying this understanding.
He then explains that the world is heading into dangerous times with problems related to climate change, biological diversity and infectious diseases. May describes how religious fundamentalists and others who reject the scientific method are inhibiting progress:
Not surprisingly, there exists a climate change "denial lobby", funded to the tune of tens of millions of dollars by sectors of the hydrocarbon industry, and highly influential in some countries. This lobby has understandable similarities, in attitudes and tactics, to the tobacco lobby that continues to deny smoking causes lung cancer, or the curious lobby denying that HIV causes AIDS.
I have dwelt on this campaign against condom use by individuals and institutions motivated by dogma, because it provides another example where faith and belief not only override evidence, but also lead to deliberate misrepresentation of the facts (presumably in the service of a higher good).
The final section of May's speech asks whether it's 'Twilight for the Enlightenment?'. May covers the threat from the US where religion has become anti-science and the threat from Islamic fundamentalism and concludes that that is definitely cause for concern.
Sadly, for many, the response is to retreat from complexity and difficulty by embracing the darkness of fundamentalist unreason. The Enlightenment's core values, which lie at the heart of the Royal Society - free, open, unprejudiced, uninhibited questioning and enquiry; individual liberty; separation of church and state - are under serious threat from resurgent fundamentalism, West and East. Our forceful and effective presence on the national and international stage is more important today than at any time in the Royal Society's 345-year history.
The full text of the speech is available here.
I find it very sad that Lord May feels the need to defend science against religious fundamentalism. Sad, but unfortunately necessary.