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Religion and science

Appropriately for the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth, I have recently read three books by Sean B Carroll:

The links will take you to the relevant pages on Carroll’s own website.

I also recently watched Professor Brian Cox’s excellent BBC Horizon programme on developments in nuclear fusion.

Carroll manages brilliantly to go into considerable detail about the mechanisms of evolution and the development of animals from embryo to adult without ever losing the lay reader (much) in obscure science - a great talent. Cox manages to do much the same with physics. My main conclusion from Carroll’s books is that the theory of evolution is well and truly proven and that the underlying processes have now been pretty well explained.

And from Cox’s broadcast I gained a feel for the important role of nuclear fusion in the development of the universe.

It seems reasonable to ask ’If the scientific account of the origins and development of the Universe and life is now so well developed, why do so many people reject it in favour of supernatural beliefs?’ For me, the answer is that, since humans began thinking, wondering and imagining, it has been more important to believe that you understand your environment than simply to accept whatever evidence you have and to say ’We just don’t know’ about the rest. Not knowing is scary. Believing you do know is reassuring.

Far from being separate and mutually hostile, I have come to see religion and science as two essential components in the development of man’s beliefs about his surroundings. Please note the word ’beliefs’ - and please also note that this does not mean that, having reached my late 60s, I’m taking a more sympathetic view of religion, perhaps as a precursor to convincing myself that there might, after all, be an afterlife!

It comes down to this... Obviously - like all but the most primitive organisms (no value judgment here: they’re probably the ones that will be thriving on earth long after we’ve blown, starved, infected or otherwise removed ourselves off it – just as they were here a billion or more years before we arrived) - we need to understand as much as we can about the environment in which we are trying to survive and prosper. That’s common sense. As we have first evolved and then educated ourselves to live ever more complex lives (let’s not kid ourselves that we’re still evolving - but that’s another issue entirely!), the environment which we occupy, exploit and – increasingly – manipulate has become larger and larger. It follows that we need to understand a lot more of it than we did a few hundred (or thousand) years ago. I guess the practical limit we’ve reached for the moment is getting ourselves to the moon and back and getting our artifacts anywhere we like in our Solar System.

But, along with language, we humans have developed consciousness and imagination. With these has come, I think, not just a practical need to explore the world about us but also a compelling emotional need to believe that we have a complete understanding - even when we haven’t yet got the evidence on which to build all (or even most) of it. We are pretty rigorous in dealing with what evidence we do have, for the very good reason that getting it right helps us to survive and prosper. The problems arise when we try to deal with the bits we don’t yet know, because these have to be based on guesswork rather than evidence, and different cultures have inevitably made very different guesses.

So why do we do it? Why can’t we just be satisfied with mentally mapping and understanding as much of our environments as we need for practical living? Why do we devote so much time and energy to creating fantasy worlds and convincing ourselves that they exist, even to the extent of slaughtering our fellow men and happily giving up our own lives for them?

I’m not a scientist, a priest or a philosopher, but I think I’m at last beginning to put the pieces together. Or is that just me inventing something for which I have no evidence...?

I believe that this is to do with something I learned about in Educational Psychology when I was training as a teacher nearly forty years ago. I became interested in it while researching a dissertation on the biological (now I would say ‘evolutionary’) basis of art – both creativity and aesthetic awareness. It’s called The Orienting Reflex, and it’s the genetically-programmed drive we have to explore and understand our own environments. Google will find you around 20,000 entries if you enter ?"orienting reflex"? (the double quotes ensure that you only search for the whole phrase) This has obviously served us very well in our evolution and social development - otherwise we wouldn’t be here! But I think that, as we’ve become more intellectually and emotionally complex, both our investigation of the evidence and our attempts to understand the things we can’t yet explain have dug us into a hole. This is partly because the behaviour driven by the Orienting Reflex has become more complex, partly because front-line scientific research is now looking much more critically at things far beyond the ken of almost all of us, and partly because religions have become very mature, complex and deeply embedded – not to mention incredibly useful as tools of social control.

And that’s the real problem with religion. It’s too useful to be just another honest scientific theory, even if it started out as that. The Divine Right of Kings and its equivalents, together with promises of Heaven (with or without precise allocations of virgins for true martyrs) and Hell (not to mention more immediate earthly practices like burning heretics at the stake), have given enormous power to monarchs, governments and other institutions of power and domination, and have therefore become immune to the scientific discipline of changing in the light of new evidence. Indeed, they have been used very energetically to discourage honest scientific investigations - ask Galileo and Leonardo, for example...

The entrenchment of religious power has been aided and abetted by the fact that scientific progress is slow. It’s slowed down by the growing need for genuine rigour: no longer can someone decide arbitrarily that there are only four elements - Earth, Air, Fire and Water - or invent entities like phlogiston and phlegm to explain the phenomena they see. Scientific theories have to be solidly based on the currently-available evidence, not on wild flights of fancy. Worse, as the simpler stuff is explained and the more complex stuff comes to the head of the queue, it gets slower (the Large Hadron Collider was not built in a day). That allows the imaginary explanations longer to become even more deeply embedded in culture and therefore more difficult to displace with new evidence-based ideas. Moreover, as the stuff at the leading edge becomes more obscure - and more remote from everyday exprience and technological need - its power to undermine fantasy in most people gets less and less.

And before we fall into the trap of drawing a firm line between evidence and imagination, let’s not forget that even the science we use to produce electricity, internal combustion engines, nuclear weapons - and now genetically-modified crops and cloned sheep - is still theory, even though the technology we do on the basis of the evidence undoubtedly works. Good scientists don’t ever say anything is definitely true. We still have The Theory of Evolution (unless we are called Richard Dawkins, in which case we assert publicly that ‘evolution is a fact’), and Einstein’s General and Special Theories of Relativity, even though we can manipulate genes and make hydrogen bombs. Theories are built on the currently available evidence, but they are always open-ended. Newton’s theories about gravity stood us in good stead for centuries – they even got us to the moon (and safely back) and our unmanned spacecraft to the outer reaches of the Solar System – but they come unstuck at the level science is working at today. It took Relativity to explain why the orbit of the planet Mercury appeared to defy Newton, even if it doesn’t really.

So science gives us theories that work as far as they go, other theories which are the best shot at making newer evidence fit together - and then, if we’re desperate to convince ourselves that everything is explained, we have to resort to religion, which is what we have always invented to paper over the cracks in science. Of course, those of us who are comfortable with uncertainty and trust science to get there in the end (or even to accept that it probably never will) are content to let the cracks show. Maybe we’re the ones with a defect – an incomplete Orienting Reflex. Or maybe we’re the ones whose intelligence is somehow more able to overcome instinct, which is what a reflex at this level is.

I can understand primitive man, who would have known his immediate environment very well indeed but nothing else, feeling very insecure watching the sun, the moon and the stars doing their stuff and not having a clue what was going on. It must have been pretty scary sitting round the fire with the world in total darkness, with all this mysterious stuff going on outside the pool of light from the flames. And I can understand the leaders of primitive men gaining authority and prestige from ’explaining’ it all. And, once this process started, it was unstoppable. As people and politics became more sophisticated, so did religions - until they found it necessary to try to stop the advance of scientific knowledge. Galileo got into terrible trouble for proposing a rational model for the Solar System. Leonardo had to dissect his corpses very discreetly indeed. And even as recently as Victorian times, poor old Darwin came in for plenty of stick from the Christians - and still does, even - or, perhaps, especially - in what is supposed to be the most sophisticated nation on Earth.

On the whole, though, Christianity (well, mainstream Christianity, anyway) and science now seem to be rubbing along together rather better. Even the Vatican is sponsoring scientific research on issues like evolution (though might this be a subtle way of controlling the information?).

I’m not suggesting here that everyone with religious beliefs today is driven to them by a desperate need to believe they understand the Universe. On the contrary, in this selfish and materialistic society we’ve created, I doubt if there are that many people who stop to worry about any of this stuff. Religion has been around for a long time, and for those who get it drilled into them from birth it must be nearly impossible simply to stop believing. I used to work for a man for whose intelligence and integrity I had tremendous respect, and I found it very difficult to understand why he still went to church every Sunday and lived an abstemious and, I guess, Christian life. The answer, of course, is that he was the son of a Baptist minister. He had been brought up (very well, I must say) in a good Christian family and had absorbed belief, as it were, through his pores or his mother’s milk. If someone like this, after a top-quality education and working for years in, of all things, computing, can retain a strong faith (or at least a strong attachment to the trappings of that faith), it’s hardly surprising that countless others, less fortunate, also stick to ’the old ways’.

While the front-line between science and religion has advanced a very long way since our cavemen were sitting round their fire, it seems inevitable that its advance has slowed - or maybe even stopped. It’s almost 150 years since Darwin’s seminal On the Origin of Species (not ’of the Species’) was published, yet the theory it propounds is still rejected by huge numbers of people, even in the enlightened West (and especially in the paradoxically primitive USA). Why? Basically, because like so much science it’s quite difficult to understand and even more difficult to believe – especially in the face of the much simpler alternative ‘explanation’, which has been around for thousands of years. Yet evolution isn’t that difficult – it’s actually child’s play compared with either of Einstein’s great theories, and they in turn are straightforward compared with more recent items like string theory and quantum mechanics. The incredible Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was a best-seller, but I doubt if many of the people who bought it understood much of what it says. At the time of writing, I’m attempting to re-read it, and have decided I need to go back and take notes, despite having first read it twenty years ago!

With ideas like space-time being curved, we’ve reached the point where we have to choose whether or not to take what the scientists tell us on trust. New scientific ideas are no longer simple enough for them to explode in our heads, producing a ’So that’s it!’ reaction (as evolution did for Thomas Huxley). Today’s theoretical physicists tell us that there must be a particle called, of all things, the Higgs Boson. And they say this not because they’ve seen one but because without one none of their equations work. It’s no accident that Hawking, one of the greatest theoretical physicists we?ve ever had, is actually a professor of mathematics. This research is all about maths. Rather than progressing from one practical experiment to the next, it appears that you do the sums, formulate a hypothesis and focus your research on proving or disproving it. A lot more research seems to be done on blackboards and computers these days than on laboratory benches.

But then today’s ‘laboratory benches? are pretty costly. The Large Hadron Collider - the enormous particle accelerator near Geneva - has cost billions of dollars. Someone somewhere obviously believes the equations!

What technology will emerge from this obscure science is unclear, but maybe one day we will enjoy unlimited free, non-polluting energy from the long-sought nuclear fusion reactor. Just as the atom bomb preceded the fission reactor, the power of the hydrogen bomb may be harnessed in a fusion reactor. Or not.

Once, new scientific discoveries led quite quickly to useful new technology - things we could use in our daily lives. ’The appliance of science’, to quote the ad-men. You tend to believe theories that produce something you can use. It’s harder to believe those that may or may not produce something useful at some point in the indeterminate future.

So is science still pushing religion into a corner? Probably not. The science that’s about things we can see, touch and manipulate has been around for a very long time. The science which we know works, like the stuff Einstein did that helped the development of the atom bomb and nuclear power, may be beyond our understanding, but we take it on trust because we’ve seen the results - and that hasn’t made much of a dent in religion. For scientists, there isn’t much doubt that the Big Bang happened about 13.7 billion years ago, but the world is full of people who believe that God created the Universe around 4000 years ago.

The stuff being done now may never be any practical use to anybody, so its impact on most people’s beliefs will be negligible. Much as I love listening to Hawking theorising about black holes, I don’t really care whether he’s right or wrong.

Religion is pretty adaptable when it comes to fighting rearguard actions. Some Christians have now acknowledged that the theory of evolution makes a lot of sense and that probably the process of evolution explains most of the living things we see today. But it’s so clever that it must have been designed by some intelligent entity. And there are some organisms which represent such a huge leap away from anything else, with no fossil traces of any intermediate stages, that they cannot have simply evolved due to random genetic mutation - evolution must have had a nudge. Intelligent Design, they call it, and they are trying to infiltrate it into the Science curriculum. They’re missing one vital point. Evolution is still a theory. It can’t explain everything yet, but it’s open-ended and can be adapted to deal with new evidence. They also overlook many possibilities: what if the inexplicable creature was the first of its kind sufficiently evolved to escape some catastrophe that wiped out all trace of its ancestors? We know that there are still huge holes in the fossil record.

And, perhaps more to the point, where did The Designer come from? This kind of thinking doesn?t explain anything - but then it was never intended to: it was cynically developed to send us all back to God.

Most religions are quests for certainty, and science will never provide that. However, it does provide explanations which are vastly more likely to be correct than the imaginings of the religious.

Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.

This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.