Man walks into a column, no.15: Atheism

A little over a year ago, I went to a lecture given by a Christian academic, who amongst a few other things, said that whilst there is nothing fundamentally illogical about God, you have to have had a personal experience of him (it?) in order to be persuaded that he/it exists.

I’m a big fan of this idea. I’ve had no such personal experience and, quite on the contrary, the whole notion of a divine being seems to me to be most odd. But I’m entirely relaxed with the idea that others have and, so long as they don’t try to (a) force non-converts to share their belief (for example through state education), (b) use their faith as pretext for aggression, or (c) misuse their status as ‘religious people’ to wield influence over political processes, say, then why on earth should I care what they believe in?

I guess you could call this position Liberal Personal Atheism. For me, God does not exist: there’s no doubt about it (which is why I’m allowed to call myself an atheist, not an agnostic; don’t even get me started on those sitting-on-the-fence-types). But if others truly believe that he/it is real, who am I to argue?

As well as being attracted to the idea that we should let religious types get on with it (as long as they don’t flout (a)-(c)), I suppose I go a little further, in thinking that attempts to refute, undermine or otherwise attack the concept of God are unnecessary, counter productive, and, ultimately, arrogant.

The frequently eloquent and funny Steven Baxter wrote a great post on this subject earlier this year, in which he said that despite being a rationalist and an atheist he felt strongly that:

…curiosity is such a valuable part of science and exploration; without curiosity, we wouldn’t have the scientific near-certainties we enjoy today. I don’t like dismissing anything that doesn’t fall neatly into certain parameters…

I couldn’t agree more. Just one glance at the latest amazing advances in science and technology is all one needs to confirm how weird, counter intuitive and unpredictable this world of ours often is: everything from the Higgs Boson to the kind of neuroscience wizardry I blogged about in this column a little while ago. If a person is able to find some personal comfort from religion, and even some inspiration, and that leads them to make some important discovery in their field, then surely we would be mad to deprive others like them of the same?

All of the above explains why, like many people, I found the apparent furore over Martin Rees receiving the Templeton Prize completely bizarre. This is an eminent scientist receiving an award from an institution that has funded research that showed prayer to have – at best – no effect on heart bypass patients’ chances of recovery. A man that refuses to assume he has all the answers:

Doing science made me realise that even the simplest things are hard to understand and that makes me suspicious of people who believe they’ve got anything more than an incomplete and metaphorical understanding of any deep aspect of reality.

But at the same time Rees isn’t saying that religion has any place in science, in fact in the full Guardian interview he says that the two do not ‘have much scope for constructive interaction, but they have in common perhaps an awareness of mystery’.

One of the things that appealed to me most about Rees’ position was his insistence on prioritising outcomes, and in particular the outcome of a good education in science, over atheistic dogmatism, or as he put it: ‘If you are teaching Muslim sixth formers in a school and you tell them they can’t have their God and Darwin, there is a risk they will choose their God and be lost to science’.

I fully support humanist and other attempts to stamp out overweening, illegitimate religious influence over politics and education, but I can’t help but feel that hardline atheists, who pride themselves on protecting science, aren’t cutting off their nose to spite their face. I’ll leave the final word to Michael White, writing in The Guardian:

many of our greatest scientists – Darwin, Michael Faraday, Isaac Newton – were men of faith. If Newton, perhaps the greatest scientific mind in history, could reconcile faith and reason (“Gravity is God”) Rees should be able to sleep soundly, cheque in hand.

Amen to that!

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