Volume 14 Number 3, Autumn 2001
Rhyme and Reason
I normally avoid getting involved in discussion of religion in the context of skeptics and skepticism. The main reason for this is that I do not believe that there is necessarily any intrinsic conflict between a belief in one or more deities and a scientific approach concerned essentially with falsifiable phenomena. If someone’s religious beliefs have no observable and testable consequences on the universe then, in a sense, they are of no interest to the scientist or the skeptic. Therefore, although I do not possess any myself, I do believe that it is possible to hold religious beliefs and, at the same time, to have a scientific and skeptical worldview. And, indeed, there are many people with religious beliefs that, in the main, do not contradict their rational worldview.
For instance, a god who initiated the Big Bang but who has been strictly non-interventionist since that moment (light-the-blue-touchpaper-and-retire school of godhood) may be a strictly unnecessary construct, in my view, but belief in Him/Her/It does not conflict with an otherwise logical and scientific view of the Universe. For instance, the late Nobel laureate, solid-state physicist Sir Nevill Mott in an essay entitled “Can Scientists Believe” , espoused almost exactly this type of belief when he replaced the usual omnipotent and omniscient deity with an altogether more fallible one. Taking this idea to its logical conclusion, the American author Kurt Vonnegut introduced the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent in his novel The Sirens of Titan: here is a church to which one could belong without having to take on board the problem of reconciling belief in godly benevolence and omnipotence with war, famine and the general misery of the human condition.
The type of religious beliefs that have prompted me to write this column, however — those that were instrumental in the events of September 11 — have nothing whatever in common with those of Sir Nevill Mott. One of the most important aspects of a scientific approach to acquiring knowledge is the humility which comes from always doubting and questioning one’s beliefs. If a colleague or a PhD student draws an apparently obvious conclusion from a set of experimental observations, it is every scientist’s professional responsibility to question those conclusions and seek alternative interpretations of the data. How different this is from the fundamentalist religious believer whose understanding of the universe comes from scriptures that he knows to be the word of God. And how can he be so certain that they are the word of God? Because it says so in those self-same scriptures, of course. The degree of certainty in one’s beliefs necessary to fly passenger aeroplanes into buildings full of innocent people is something that I hope could never come from a rational or scientific approach to knowledge acquisition — no scientist should ever have that degree of certainty in the correctness of his conclusions. It is tempting to imagine that Islamic society, being somewhat less than 14 centuries old compared with the two millennia of Christian society, is still in its medieval period and that a fundamentalist Muslim with an axe to grind may thus be more dangerously irrational than his more enlightened Christian counterpart. Don’t believe that for a moment. In the days following the September 11 attack on America, the American televangelist, the Reverend Jerry Falwell appeared on a TV programme hosted by like-minded Christian Broadcasting Network presenter Pat Robertson. Speaking of the events of September 11, Falwell said “The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) has got to take a lot of blame for this . . . God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve . . . I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.'” Robertson agreed: “I totally concur” was his response to this diatribe. The logical conclusion to this line of thought (not that logic comes into it) would be to do nothing whatever to protect society against terrorism as no degree of security measures would be able to prevent an omnipotent God from wreaking his vengeance on America.
A scientific/rationalist approach does not, by itself, solve the problems of society and will not even provide unequivocal answers to questions such as whether a society should use nuclear power, grow genetically modified crops or put fluorine in water supplies. But neither will it lead to the imposition of practices and restrictions that may not, under any circumstances, be questioned because they are based on incontrovertible revealed truths.
So let us all continue to acknowledge the imperfections of our partially rational and libertarian British society and continue to question the outpourings of scientists, politicians and spin-doctors alike. But let us also all pray to our favourite (preferably non-omniscient and non-omnipotent) deities that neither the raving ayatollas nor the likes of Falwell and Robertson ever exert the slightest influence over the way we run our affairs.
Steve Donnelly is a former editor of the The Skeptic magazine and Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Salford.