Here beginneth the first lesson...

October 11, 1996

What does a theologian do when two eminent scientists dismiss his faith as a symptom of psychological insecurity? Pray for their souls or take issue with their reasoning? Here Keith Ward opts for the latter. A peculiar feature of modern academic life is that the Inquisition has been revived, and heretics are being hunted down by the possessors of absolute truth. The odd thing is, however, that the new dogmatists are scientists and the heretics are those who hope that beauty, truth and goodness are objective values that should command the attention of the mind.

Of course, not all scientists are like that. Most regard the pursuit of truth as a moral goal, and allow that the disciplines of history, literature, philosophy and theology have their own distinctive methods of pursuing truth. But there is a small but vociferous group of scientists who hold that experiment and observation are the only routes to truth, and that scientific explanation is the only respectable sort of explanation there is.

Such a view might seem too crude to be worth considering, but it is continually propagated by Oxford's professor of the public understanding of science, Richard Dawkins, who is in danger of being better known as the professor of the public ridiculing of religion. I have no personal animosity to Dawkins. On the contrary, I am a great admirer of his style. But my admiration does not extend to his comments on religion, which show what seems to me an astounding hostility.

I have been taken aback by the immense animus against theology that exists among some scientists. I might have discounted it as an aberration, but the editor of Nature wrote an editorial attacking religion, and discounting miracles as scientifically impossible. Dawkins went on to ridicule religion even in public lectures on science for children at the Royal Institution. Peter Atkins, a professor of chemistry at Oxford, asserted that my beliefs were due to lack of oxygen in the brain. I was never quite sure whether this was preferable to their being caused by a virus or by a deep psychological insecurity, which is Dawkins's preferred explanation.

All this is quite amusing, but there are important academic issues at stake, and attacks on theology are only part of a wider attack on the humanities, as disciplines concerned with rationality and truth.

If the sciences alone can provide explanations or arrive at objective truth, the humanities become places where purely subjective opinions are aired, and everyone's opinion is as worthwhile as anyone else's. Historical or personal explanations, in terms of motives, desires and goals, have to be reduced to physiological explanations. Moral opinions are explained as the genetically imprinted behaviour-patterns of a relatively stable evolutionary strategy. Religious opinions are explained as catering to deep psychological needs. Humanities departments become departments of primitive opinions. Eventually, they will be subsumed in departments of neuro-physiology - and ultimately the physicists are waiting to take over everybody, and establish the ultimate hegemony of the one respectable discipline, particle physics.

The prospect is absurd. Yet the view that science explains everything is seriously propounded in Atkins's and Dawkins's books, as though something in Einstein or Darwin showed it to be true. These "new materialists" encourage ignorance of the course of philosophical argumentation and of theological study over many centuries. They claim the authority of particular limited scientific theories for very general and grandly metaphysical world-views. They also claim that the scientific world-view itself is so obviously true that it is beyond criticism by rational minds.

Both Dawkins and Atkins say they are genuinely concerned with truth, and I believe that. But when they stray from their scientific disciplines to more general issues of the true nature of things, or the grounds of religious and philosophical belief, they do not feel it necessary to establish their competence by research publications in these fields. One suspects that they do not really think there is any difference between competent thought on such issues and the simple assertion of opinion.

Reading their thoughts on these matters is rather like reading the argument of a theologian (fictional, I hasten to add) that the theory of relativity must be wrong because it is not in the Bible.

There are serious questions to ask about the way scientific discoveries affect our view of human nature and various traditional religious beliefs. Certainly, materialism is one hypothesis to be considered. Theism - the view that there is one mind-like source of the cosmos - is another. I would have thought any dispassionate observer would say that we are not in a very good position, theoretically speaking, to be certain which is true. It does seem to be quite disreputable for a scientist to use great expertise in one field to dismiss out of hand the very possibility of scholarly work in the field of religious belief. It is also wrong to refer, in the course of a lecture on the importance of science, to religious beliefs as matters of irrational faith, in contrast to the reasonable beliefs of science.

In fact, the materialist view is itself very much a matter of faith. It involves a large-scale claim about the nature of things which is highly disputed, which cannot be proved to the satisfaction of all competent observers, and which makes huge assumptions about future human knowledge. Atkins, for example, claims that "everything can be understood", and Richard Dawkins likewise holds that neo-Darwinism can explain all the puzzles of human life, so that there are no mysteries left. Most biologists I have met think there are a few mysteries left, and are rather sceptical about whether the human mind will ever understand everything. We certainly do not do so yet; so at best these views express an unsubstantiated conviction that certain things will turn out to be the case in future. But that is a sort of faith. Further, it is a sort of faith that seems unable even to credit the rationality of those who do not accept it.

There is no justification for this, on the theory itself. Dawkins holds, as a self-proclaimed Darwinian, that human beliefs survive because they have been conducive to the propagation of certain sets of genes. The reason people hold religious beliefs, he says, is that they have been genetically programmed to do so. But the same must be true of Darwinian beliefs, too. Dawkins cannot claim a greater "truth" than religious believers. Or, if he can, he is only making an attempt to get his beliefs genetically strengthened. To call them "true" is just to say that they have survival-value. The alleged battle for truth is revealed as a battle of the genes for survival. We do not have "beliefs based on reason" versus "beliefs based on (irrational) faith". We have two sets of beliefs, which we are biologically programmed to have. The theory that science is rational and faith irrational is replaced, on his own account, by the theory that both are genetically based.

From this position, one can move in one of two directions. Either one can relativise all human knowledge so that scientific beliefs become, like moral, aesthetic and religious beliefs, sociologically or biologically conditioned - the postmodern move. Or one can move in a Popperian direction, in which religious and scientific beliefs are parts of general theoretical systems, confirmable or disconfirmable in various complex ways, by argument and experience. It is extremely difficult to remain with the sort of absolute divide between "scientific reason" and "religious faith" that has become standard among the new materialists.

The sadness of this situation is that in fact new and positive relationships between theism and the sciences are starting almost every day. Most of the great scientists of the past, such as Isaac Newton, were strongly committed theists, and saw their work as the deciphering of the wisdom of the creator. Today scientists are developing new and exciting views of the universe that explicitly appeal to the idea of God as part of any adequate explanation of how things are. It is not at all established that a reductionist, mechanistic account of the cosmos is able to provide an explanation even of matter itself, much less of a universe in which consciousness, moral endeavour and a sense of transcendent mind feature importantly. Relativity theory and quantum mechanics are very new theories, not yet coherently related to each other. Similarly, evolutionary and cosmological theories have only just begun to be applied to the human understanding of God, and of ancient religious traditions. Almost everything remains to be done in these areas, and this is an exciting time for imaginative hypothesis and bold speculation, for new vision and understanding. Seen against that background, the "scientific" attacks on religion come to seem very much like flogging a dead horse, while the live one is galloping off in a different direction.

So what accounts for the often vitriolic attacks on religion by the neo-Darwinians? I am tempted to use Dawkins's argument, and say that they must have some sort of deep psychological weakness. But if I say that, I am capitulating to the view that questions of rationality are unimportant. So perhaps it is rather that they have genuinely come to think that science gives all the explanations for everything. This is not a conflict between science and religion, though it is sometimes represented as such. It is a reprise of the old C. P. Snow conflict between the "two cultures" of science and the humanities. But now "science" has been reified into a grand unified (if unproven) theory, and the humanities have been relegated into self-help groups for those who happen to be interested in non-truth-related subjects such as poetry or music. This is the sad consequence of the divide in our higher educational system between numerate scientists and verbose arts students. It is true that some religious believers do not see how to relate their religious beliefs to modern science. It is just as true that some highly publicised scientists feel no shame at their ignorance of and lack of respect for widely held religious and philosophical beliefs.

Let us have no more talk of lack of oxygen and leaps of faith, but a united attempt to understand the hopes, desires and feelings of human beings and their biological structure and evolution, too.

Keith Ward is regius professor of divinity, University of Oxford. His book, God, Chance and Necessity, is reviewed on page 19.

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