God, why do scientists have such a hang-up with religion?

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A recent post by The Conversation columnist Rob Brooks, Analytic thinking erodes religious belief, is just another in a long line of articles, books and opinion pieces seeking to perpetuate the myth that science and religious belief are incompatible.

One could summarise the author’s argument as follows: intelligent people (scientists and “analytic thinkers” – like the author) are less likely to believe; if you are intelligent you will agree that religious belief is nonsense; if you do have religious belief you are likely to be less intelligent.

This is just a step up from the attempt to re-label atheists as brights, a proposal taken up with initial enthusiasm by celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins, but labelled by the late author and journalist Christopher Hitchens as a “cringe-making proposal that atheists should conceitedly nominate themselves to be called ‘Brights’”.

Perhaps not such a bright idea after all.

Brooks captures the basics of his position by reference to a quote by Bertrand Russell: “Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence; it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines.”

To quote further from Brooks’s column:

“At the heart of Russell’s quote […] is a prediction. That religion will decline – if not entirely wither – in societies where reason and science enjoy prominence. That prediction turns out to be correct.”

“Religious belief has slowly dwindled since the Enlightenment. Leading scientists are far more likely than the general public to identify as agnostic or atheist.”

The fact that religious belief persists can only then be put down to ignorance, superstition, wide-spread irrationality or lack of a proper education.

Underlying that argument is the assumption that somehow scientists are brighter than the rest of humanity, that scientists are paradigms of rationality. “Leading scientists are far more likely than the general public to identify as agnostic or atheist.”

We should then get with the strength and follow the lead of “leading scientists.”

But why scientists? Why not historians or philosophers or mathematicians? Indeed, if university entry scores are anything to go by, our best and brightest students end up in law and medicine.

So why not seek out the religious beliefs of high court judges or surgeons? Or are we bearing witness to yet another instance of contempt towards disciplines other than science, especially “hard” science?

Or perhaps there’s a self-esteem problem among scientists who don’t earn the large salaries of doctors and lawyers and need to feel good about themselves in some other way.

Of course, one could also argue that the fact scientists are less likely to be religious is more a matter of the culture that surrounds science than any personal attribute (intelligence or “analytic thinking”) of the scientists themselves.

There is something of a self-perpetuating culture among scientists to look down on religious beliefs, based on a mistaken idea that, because some fundamentalist believers reject science, such views are an essential element of religion.

A great many scientists conveniently write out of their histories the contribution of scientists who are believers – they do this to create a grand narrative of scientific progress overcoming religious superstition.

They then use the cultural standing of science to promote this grand narrative among the general population.

Of course it is easy to find counter-examples to the general thesis. What do the following have in common?

  • Gregor Mendel, who uncovered the basic laws of genetic inheritance, without which Darwinian evolution remains a theory without an underlying mechanism to explain how characteristics are passed on to offspring.
  • Teilhard de Chardin, who contributed to finding major evidence of the evolution of human beings through the discovery of Peking Man, for which he was elevated to the French Academy of Science.
  • George Lemaître, who first proposed the notion of the Big Bang by finding a solution to Einstein’s equations for gravitation, two years before Edwin Hubble provided empirical evidence for an expanding universe.

Each has contributed significantly to our current understanding of evolution and cosmic processes. And each was not just a believer, but a Catholic priest. Each lived a life of prayer and obedience to church authority.

None was ever condemned for their scientific involvements or achievements.

Of course in relation to Mendel, Dawkins offers a grudging acknowledgement:

“Mendel of course was a religious man, an Augustinian monk; but that was the 19th century, when becoming a monk was the easiest way for the young Mendel to pursue his science. For him, it was the equivalent of a research grant.”

Let us pass over for the time being Dawkins’s tacit admission that the church was a major supporter of scientific research in that era – becoming a monk was the easiest way to pursue science (!) – and reflect more on the assumption that somehow pursuing science was the primary motivation for Mendel becoming a monk, an assertion for which no evidence is presented.

Dawkins would have us believe that the young Mendel willingly submitted himself to the full rigours of monastic life (prayer five-to-six times a day, daily Mass, regular penance and fasting) in order to pursue his scientific interests, as a sort of research grant.

And Dawkins calls religious believers deluded!

As a believer I have no problems at all with any element of modern science and in fact can rejoice in all that science reveals about the universe.

I do have problems with scientists who use the cultural authority of science to promote atheism or agnosticism which have nothing to do with science per se.

I also have problems with believers who cling to pre-modern world views out of some mistaken sense of loyalty to Biblical or religious authority.

Such positions are not intrinsic to being either a scientist or a believer. Nor do they contribute to an informed discussion on the relationship between science and religion.

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