Religion and science

by Tony Akkermans

Half a century ago my brother and I were waiting outside our RC church in my native Holland for the service to end.  We would pretend to have attended mass by claiming to have sat behind a pillar in the rearmost pew. We feared our parents, if not God.

For us the penny had dropped early. Religion was just silly nonsense wafted down from the dark ages. As teenagers we were increasingly amazed that adult people could be so gullible as to believe in bread turning into the body of Christ and similar voodoo rituals. Knowing that most of the village was still in the grip of medieval  superstition we realised that it would take a while for sanity to rise to the surface but  I remember us confidently predicting that in fifty years time enlightenment would have dawned.

And sure enough, in Western Europe at least, a lot of progress has been made. I recently returned to the place of hardship where we  juvenile apostates had stood and the poor old building looked distinctly sorry for itself. It’s once welcoming imposing front door was locked. Gone were the myriad of bicycles that used to be strewn about the building and hedges. An eerie silence reigned, broken only by the irreverent cawing of rooks nestling in the bell tower. But although religion is down, it certainly is not out.

As I grow older the mystery as to why people entering the 21st century are still able to believe in the concoctions served up by ancient desert tribes is ever deepening. Two thousand years ago religious belief was very understandable. Science was in its infancy and in their eagerness to understand, people were willing to jump to unsubstantiated conclusions. But time has moved on, mankind has had the benefit of Galileo, Einstein, Darwin, Attenborough and Dawkins.  By now we should have reached the point where amongst intelligent  people religion had become extinct. A relic of more ignorant times. If religion were restricted  to the uneducated, the gullible and, frankly, stupid then the conundrum could be solved. Educate the ignorant and leave the stupid with the comfort their religion might bring. But here is the dilemma:  research examining religious belief amongst scientists still reveals substantial percentages of believers.  Exact figures are hard to come by, but recent US surveys amongst university educated scientists  average a one in three for god belief.  As might be expected the percentage is lower for eminent scientists (members of the National Academy of Sciences).  A 1998 poll returned the much lower figure of 7 per cent confirming that the higher the calibre of science, the lower the belief in superstition.

A similar study amongst NAS scientists, held in 1914, produced a 28 per cent belief in God, showing that progress is being made. Improving trends or not, the fact remains that even in these modern, more enlightened times a substantial proportion of educated people retain adherence to a religion or a belief in a higher power. This is where we rationalists remain baffled.

What is it that sets us apart? It can’t be mere intelligence. I make no pretence to being particularly clever. On a good day in an IQ test I might score a point or two above the norm but Mensa are not beating a path to my brain. So why is it that I can readily see that it is unlikely that amongst the billions of galaxies in immeasurable space, little planet earth has been earmarked for special attention. That it is fanciful to believe that humans survive in an incorporeal state after death. That prayers have as much chance of being answered as a random throwing of the dice. That miracles and apparitions only happen when witnessed by peasant children. That nature red in tooth and claw is grotesquely incompatible with a benevolent creator. How come that people who are high achievers in certain intellectual tasks can come across as supremely naive in other fields? It must be because a crucial ingredient is missing. Defining this ingredient has been the subject of many learned and not so learned articles in freethought publications. I will venture my own attempt. To escape superstition the necessary mindset is rigorous scepticism. Particularly towards memes. Dawkins has defined memes as viruses of the mind. Beware of attitudes that result in turning baseball caps the wrong way round. Avoid bandwagon jumpers of all descriptions. People who readily adopt clichés. Sheep who run with crowds. The rationalist must stand alone, always prepared to examine the facts before coming to conclusions. But if the facts point to ignominious extinction, as they surely do, then for many people that is too much to take.  For the majority resignation in the face of one’s personal demise is one rational step too far. The emotions rise up to stifle the horrid thought. If science cannot console then something else must. So in the brain an attic door is kept ajar. It leads to a secret room of promising delight. No deep thought may enter here just pleasant notions of make-believe. Thus anaesthetised the religious go through life guiltily aware that hoping it is so doesn’t make it so but not having hope at all is simply unacceptable. So the most formidable opponent of rationalism is not theology but the pitiful frailty of the human condition. It takes a hardy soul who can contemplate oblivion with equanimity. So strongly held is comfort faith that when asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. What’s more, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory. This reliance on religious faith may help explain why so many people do not see science as a direct threat to religion. Only 28% of respondents in the same Time poll say that scientific advancements threaten their religious beliefs. These poll results also show that more than four-fifths of respondents (81%) say that “recent discoveries and advances” in science have not significantly impacted their religious views. In fact, 14% reply that these discoveries have actually made them more religious. Only 4% say that science has made them less religious.

All findings quoted here are US based. Faith surveys are common there. In Western Europe religion is in rapid decline. In Britain just 18% of the public say they are a practising member of an organised religion. Only 33% describe themselves as religious and  40% claim to believe in a god. The proportion of religious scientists is minuscule at less than 2%.

I have sympathy for religious people, even if scientists, who need invented crutches to cope with the vicissitudes of life. But for those who have had their education, done their thinking and in the cold light of day still come down on the side of revealed religion I can only feel contempt. The first rule of science is to look for evidence before reaching ones conclusions.  Scientists who suspend this basic rule when it comes to their religious convictions are not proper scientists but part timers at best.


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