Scientists take a mystical turn

May 3, 1996

Popularisers of science have become as dogmatic as the 17th-century church that rejected Galileo's theory, a conference on God and Science heard last week.

Some scientists are making mystical claims about science that amount to pantheism - attributing spirit to the inanimate world, said Colin Gunton, professor of theology and religious studies at King's College London.

Factors such as "chance" or "evolution" have been elevated to "quasi agents of creation" he told the conference, held by King's College's centre for philosophical studies.

Comments by Richard Dawkins, who popularised the idea of the selfish gene, showed that: "Membership of a cultural elite increases the likelihood of propounding absurdities with impunity."

The mysticism was ironic, he said, in that it involved rejecting the theological doctrine that the church reached in order finally to accept Galileo's theory. This is the Christian doctrine of creation which asserts that the world is good and therefore - crucially - rational.

Other speakers criticised scientists who rail against religion. John Brooke, professor of the history of science at Lancaster University, criticised Peter Atkins, the Oxford chemist, for his "diatribe against religion".

Professor Atkins says that religion emerged from magic, said Professor Brooke: "The effect of Atkins's dogmas is to create a cultural dichotomy - science high on its pedestal, the arts down and out on the floor . . . the dichotomy is surely too crude."

Professor Brooke, who has studied the aesthetic motivations of history's major scientists, such as Copernicus, Newton and Einstein, said that Professor Atkins's "appreciation of the aesthetics of nature" might have encouraged a greater sophistication.

Meanwhile, Professor Brooke said there had been a rise in discussions of religion and science for various reasons. These include concern about the public understanding of science and a consequent linking of science by popularisers with the "big questions"; increasing desperation of scientists for money causing more ambitious imagery in their writings; the rise of new technologies which cause the public to think about science, religion and ethics together; and concerns about the rise of religious fundamentalism, which are driving some theologians towards science.

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