Sunday, 12 October 2008

View From the Pulpit

Religion vs science: can the divide between God and rationality be reconciled?

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"Attacks on religion, when I was a student in the Sixties, were largely on political grounds," says Dr Denis Alexander, the Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge. "It was seen to be on the side of capitalism and the rich." In Anglo-American philosophy, says Baggini, "religion was seen as wrong but as something that didn't really matter much. The world was going secular and eventually it would just die out."

But the rise of Christian fundamentalism in America in the past few decades - the word fundamentalist in its religious sense was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in only 1989 - was mirrored in a milder way in Britain too. Liberal Christianity, so long in the ascendant in the Church of England, began to lose ground to evangelicalism. "Non-literal Christianity failed," says Baggini, "because it doesn't capture the popular imagination. The certainties of evangelical Christianity appeal more to those for whom the attractions of religion are on a more visceral level." This appeal was symbolised through the 1990s by the Alpha course on the basics of the Christian faith devised in London by a curate at Holy Trinity, Brompton, which has since been used by more than 10 million people in 160 countries. The idea that the miracles of the New Testament may have been metaphors rather than literal truths suddenly went out of fashion in Christian circles.

Throughout this time scientists such as Richard Dawkins had evidenced a disdain for such simple certainties. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene there were a few side-swipes at religion and in 1986 in The Blind Watchmaker he conducted a sustained critique of the 18th-century deist argument that the world is too complicated to have sprung into existence by accident so a rational observer should conclude that it must have been designed, just as someone finding a watch would conclude that somewhere there must be a watchmaker who made it. And by 1991, in response to the question of why evolution had allowed religion to thrive, he had coined the notion that religion was a virus.

But it was the terrorist attacks in 2001 that turned Dawkins into an Alpha atheist and transformed him from an academic backwater into a populist ideologue. Before 9/11, he said, religion may have appeared a "harmless nonsense". But the attacks in New York showed it to be a "lethally dangerous nonsense". Previously, he said, "we all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let's now stop being so damned respectful!" The gloves were off.

But another prominent atheist, medic and secularist, the Liberal Democrat MP, Dr Evan Harris, is not so sure that 9/11 was the nodal point. "It's not the main thing to scientists," he insists. "When you talk to them the thing that comes up most often is the influence religion has had on science in America under George Bush." Religious pressures there have had direct impacts on a wide range of policy - from a ban on public money being put into stem cell research to a refusal to allow US aid programmes to hand out condoms to fight Aids in Africa. "Scientists who are publicly funded can't go to conferences and speak without being obliged to stick to the Bush line," says Harris.

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From the Independent.

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