Saturday, 28 April 2012

Melanie Phillips on intolerance towards religion

Melanie Phillips has written an essay on the current prevalent intolerance towards religion, as seen in the writings of scientist Richard Dawkins, but which is in fact quite widely spread. I've much sympathy for the initial impulse behind her piece, but I think that she gets a few things wrong, and that there is a far stronger case for religion, which has been lost in the silliness of this debate.

Francis Crick's "directed panspermia" theory was one of his odder hypotheses, to be sure. It's a workable idea, just not one for which we have any evidence. Crick was a theorist, a very brilliant and very logical one, and I think he didn't much like the improbability of the complex biological mechanisms he'd made his name discovering. As with the puzzle of how the eye evolved by a series of small steps, it's hard to see how DNA, RNA, and all the proteins and processes of the human body evolved over time. Just because this is a mystery, of course, doesn't mean that it's insoluble, so the panspermia idea was arguably a kind of scientific impatience from Crick.

Phillips' argument (maintaining that the wilder theories of science are "fantasy") seems populist to me, or perhaps it is simply that she doesn't understand the space between science and religion. Few do.

She touches on one thesis - much beloved of some on the left, actually - that I don't much like. It is this idea that science is of no more value than any other 'narrative', which seems to allow those working in humanities departments the  freedom to say or think whatever they wish - freed from the constraints of any logical and evidential basis. This may be a wonderful freedom for the lazy minded, but not much use for actual scholarship and science. The differences between science and other narratives are simple: science makes verifiable observations, and constructs theories that make verifiable predictions

Even so, it seems to me quite correct to say that Dawkins' tiresome intolerance and blinkered intellectual bullying seem as narrow-minded as the attitudes of the worst religious bigot. If you believe in freedom of thought, you have to practice what you preach. So to, the progressive left seem to thrive on social pressure to believe their version of events. According to them, they are both rational and caring.

There are a couple of reasons for this misguided debate between science and religion. From the start, Darwin's theories got a rather mixed reception from the church, and the famous debate between Thomas Henry Huxley and Wilberforce in Oxford seems to have set the attitudes of many British biologists against religion in general, which is seen solely as a theoretical adversary. It is surely far more than that.

(This minor controversy concerning Darwin's theories echoes the previous dispute between Galileo and the church on whether the earth was the centre of the universe. One other case where the church opposed good science. But I'd argue this is quite rare)

My feeling is that these biologists (some are the pride of UK 20th century scientific endeavour) miss out on almost everything that Christianty is, by focusing on this small part of the belief system. Some then go on to vaguely wave their hand in the direction of the middle-east and say how much trouble religion has caused there - when the truth is that religion has just given human nature a reason to take sides and persecute, and if the religious aspect had not existed, people would have found another reason to take sides and fight - as people often do.

So we can't blame religion for all wars, as some unsophisticated 'rationalists' claim. But when they do a U-turn and  state that religion had no effect on the development of music, art, literature, society, and law they sound particularly desperate. There really does seem to be a strong influence - from religion - on all these areas, and of course on the development of science itself.

But even though science is brilliant at making observations, theories and predictions that come true, it is wrong to see religion as simply a rival to science. It may have attempted to fullfil those roles long ago, but it's power is in it's ability to transform many individual personal lives, and give sense and purpose to them in a way that science cannot do, since it only describes how things are, not what to do about them. Since we are human beings,  and need such a sense of purpose, religion will still be around for some time.

Though religion ought to stop trying to compete with science on it's own territory (many religious teachers haven't twigged to this) it thus certainly has a future of some sort. Though Phillips says correctly that if we start to make  a religion of some simplistic unscientific idea like Marxism, or for that matter feminism or egalitarianism then we may be in serious trouble. These religions do indeed provide us with all the dogma and intolerance of some religious orthodoxies, and none of the spiritual solace.


  1. Meanwhile of course there are now more Christians in the world than ever before, both in total numbers and as a percentage of the human population.

    There are now more Bibles, more Christian literature of all kinds including comic books, more Christian schools and universities, more Christian radio and TV stations, more Christian CD's and DVD's, more Christian websites and blogs etc etc.

    So somehow Christianity is supposedly being threatened!

    Never mind too that the Catholic Church is collectively the worlds largest land and property owner - and yet Jesus owned nothing.

    Meanwhile of course the world is becoming more and more insane everyday. And what is more some of the leading vectors of this now universal insanity/psychosis are right-wing Christians - including Melanie's friends at Standpoint Magazine, and the people at Encounter Books who publish her latest book.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Hmm, do you think Xtianity is a bad thing? It certainly feels threatened in the UK

    For me, religion fails at what science does brilliantly well - modelling the physical world, but it also succeeds at doing what science fails at: giving purpose to our lives.

    After all, no amount of rational thought gives us a reason to get out of bed in the morning :) But we have all these urges and feelings. Science doesn't give them any structure, but religion sometimes can