Boxing with God

December 4, 1998

I am glad that some of your respondents (THES, letters, November ) realised that I may not have been entirely serious in suggesting that genetic engineering could be used to abolish religious belief (THES, letters, November 20). On a more serious note, a brief letter to The THES cannot begin to contain all the arguments and evidence which persuade the vast majority of scientists (see Nature 394, p313) that they have no need of religion.

I did not say, as David de Pomerai states, that "the sole purpose of religions is to identify outgroups for inhuman treatments". They serve other functions too, such as providing (misguided) solace for individuals, and persuading people to accept onerous conditions or tasks in this life in exchange for the promise of rewards in the next.

A common theme in the letters from theologists was that they have heard all the arguments against religion before. This is a typical reaction that has been used as a reason to ignore the voices of, for example, Richard Dawkins, Edward Wilson, Carl Sagan, Peter Atkins and many others who have provided cogent scientific evidence and arguments to counter religious mythology. Attempting to engage in debate with religious believers is like shadow boxing. You land a knockout punch and suddenly they say that bit of the body was not really there - creationism for example.

Jonathan Clatworthy thinks that my comments about theology apply to scientific disciplines, and that departments need controversy. There is no comparison. Scientists seek evidence to test hypotheses, which are discarded if they are found wanting. Faith is the antithesis of this. There are no alchemists in chemistry departments, or flat-earthers in geography. Perhaps Peter Atkins could have the last word: "Religion is a dreadful disease of society, and science liberates people from the world's religions" (from last week's Textbook Guide). But how often does the general public get to hear the scientists' point of view?

Chris Lote Reader in physiology University of Birmingham

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