"Don't believe everything you think," says a bumper sticker I've seen around town. That sentiment underlies Steve Paulson's new book, Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science (Oxford University Press). Whether you're a devout believer, a firm atheist or somewhere in between, Paulson's book will both resonate with your worldview and jiggle it off kilter.
Paulson is executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio's nationally syndicated program To the Best of Our Knowledge. While his book won't be released officially until November, he'll have copies for sale when he speaks at the Wisconsin Book Festival on Saturday, Oct. 2. Ronald Numbers, a UW historian of science and religion featured in the book, will join him.
Arguing that religion and science have become polarized camps in modern American society, Paulson seeks a fair-minded middle ground. His interviews with 21 leading thinkers, in fields ranging from neuroscience to evolutionary biology to the history of religion, are generally brisk and engaging. While the book is aimed at the general reader, things get heady when talk turns to string theory and quantum mechanics.
Personally, I'm a sucker for books that provoke a running mental debate. Certain statements inspired a flash of recognition - things I've thought before, but never formulated so well - while others goaded me to articulate their weak spots, if only in my own mind.
Many of Paulson's interviewees are internationally renowned, such as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and neuroscientist Sam Harris, both authors of best-selling books critical of religion (The God Delusion and The End of Faith, respectively). Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and former head of the Human Genome Project, is an evangelical Christian who considers God the "author" of the evolutionary process. Paulson's conversation with legendary primatologist Jane Goodall closes the book.
While, for the most part, the questions Paulson poses to his subjects are fair and insightful, I do quibble with his repeated use of the term "hardcore" (as well as "strident" and "combative") to describe atheists such as Dawkins. There's no doubt that Dawkins is passionate and blunt, but words like "hardcore" play into the common perception that nonbelievers are inherently rigid and arrogant - when, as Dawkins himself concedes, "Technically, you cannot be any more than an agnostic," since one can't prove the nonexistence of God.
Overall, though, Paulson's book of interviews is a stimulating foray into some of the most contentious issues of our time.
Steve Paulson, Ron Numbers
Wisconsin Book Festival
Overture Center's Promenade Hall, Saturday, Oct. 2, 3 pm