Wednesday, October 04, 2006


An interesting and amusing piece in this week’s “Spectator” magazine describes the battles between Francis Crick, the discoverer of DNA and colleagues at Cambridge over the construction of a chapel at Churchill College. Crick, like a number of distinguished scientists of atheistic bent before and since, was under the impression that his work destroyed the need or justification for religion and was convinced that religious faith was doomed. Crick’s biographer Matt Ridley, who appears to share Crick’s view that all religion is ridiculous superstition, laments that “the discovery of the genetic code had virtually no effect on religious belief or any other form of superstition” and that “religion can be repeatedly contradicted on its factual claims and still claim people’s intellectual loyalty.” (The article is called “The genetic code genius who failed to kill faith” in the 30 September issue of the Spectator.)

The dichotomy between religion and science is, however a false one. Like people before and since, Crick had not demolished the case for religion: he had demolished a straw man with little relevance to what religion is saying. Some arguments put forward by believers have indeed been ridiculous: but no more so than many arguments put forward by atheists.

Certainly there have in the past been attempts by religious believers to extrapolate from religious texts a view of the material world, sometimes with some basis in the wording of those texts, sometimes with none. The former Prime Minister, Gladstone, attempted to argue that the emergence of species as shown from the fossil record corresponded to the order in which creatures emerged in the Book of Genesis. Actually the fit between the two is much closer than either atheistic writers like Richard Dawkins, or Creationists, like to admit, but you can’t make them fit perfectly. Attempts to establish “Creation science” invariably end up doing one of two things: either challenging statements for which there is overwhelming evidence, or moving beyond the territory of science, as the idea of “intelligent design” does, because it cannot be subjected to any form of scientific test which could possibly falsify it.

However, for every attempt by believers to put forward views which can be scientifically disproved, there has been an attempt by atheists either to misrepresent what the religions of the world have said or otherwise present as disproving the idea of God evidence which shows nothing of the sort. For example, I always feel that the Bishop who argued against Columbus’s expedition gets a very raw deal, especially by those who wrongly describe him as believing that the world was flat.
In fact he had a much more accurate view of earth than Columbus: they both knew perfectly well that the world is spherical, but the Bishop didn’t share Columbus’s delusion that the world was about half its actual size. Neither of them knew of the existence of the American continents, so the Bishop argued quite reasonably that the crew of a 15th Century caravel sailing west from Europe to the East Indies would die of starvation and thirst long before they arrived. Had America not been there, Columbus might well have met that fate.

I have a clear memory of the first time I met a ludicrous argument purporting to disprove religion. I was about 15, and one of my geography teachers said that science had started to undermine faith when a researcher successfully synthesized urine. I asked how on earth this undermined religion and was told that up to that point people had believed that that everything connected to life was somehow special, so the fact that you could duplicate a by-product of life disproved this.

I felt like asking him where in the Bible, the Koran, or any other holy book it said that waste body products have any sacred significance, and how you could possibly prove whether any spiritual component was present or absent in synthesised or natural urine even if it did. At the time I thought I’d better not press the point in case my disdain for the argument being described might come over as disrespect for the teacher. I didn’t fancy a detention. But a student who put forward such sloppy logic would certainly deserve one.

Incidentally, it is certainly not the case that all, or even the vast majority, of scientists are agnostics or atheists. A huge number of the founders of science were religious believers, whether they followed Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or Deism; there are still many scientists who believe in God today. They see no conflict between their work and their faith.

Despite the contrary impression created by a minority of atheistic scientists, the scientific method can never disprove the existence of God because it is impossible to prove a negative statement. Science works by forming a thesis for which you can devise a test which might disprove it. If there is a God and he wished to give completely convincing proof of his existence he could undoubtedly do so, but I can imagine no possible scientific test which could disprove either the thesis that there is a God, or that there is not. So in a real sense an atheist is as much a man of faith as a religious believer: one takes a leap of faith that there is a God, which he cannot prove, the other takes a similar leap of faith that there is not.

Jesus once suggested that his listeners should “render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” The same applies to science and religion. When I want to know something about how the material universe works, including our human bodies, a scientist has a better chance of telling me than a priest. But when I want to consider an issue of right and wrong, science has nothing to say to me, but the words of Jesus are the best guide I can find.


Anonymous said...


I urge you to get hold of "The Universe in a Single Atom" by H H the Dalai Lama. Published Jan 2006 Little, Brown; ISBN 0-316-73224-9. This is a "riveting read" exploring the complementary relationship between science and spirituality Over the last 30 years Tensin Gyatso has attained a remarkable understanding scientific method and theories in fields of physics, biology and psychology. Would that other spiritual and religious leaders were so educated - the world might just be a better place.
Best Wishes, David

Chris Whiteside said...

Dear David

Thanks for your message. I will keep my eyes open for a copy: I don't pretend to be very familiar with the Dalai Lama's writings but I do recall hearing him highly praised on other occasions.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Im from Melbourne in the land of Oz. The so called debate between reductionist scientists and dim-witted exoteric religionists is so boring, so predictable, so fruitless.
Please check out these essays which provide an Illuminated understanding of the relation between science & exoteric religion.

Plus an essay on the dreadful politics & culture created in the image of these two baneful reductionisms.


Chris Whiteside said...


Thanks for your suggestions. I will try to find some time to look up these sites.