A bright journey to atheism, or a road that ignores all the signs?

Thu, Apr 20, 2006, 01:00

Under the Microscope: The Nobel Laureate Dr Richard Roberts will give a public lecture entitled A Bright Journey from Science to Atheism at 7.30pm in the MacNeill Lecture Theatre, Hamilton Building (Near Lincoln Place Gate), TCD, next Monday, writes Prof William Reville

Dr David McConnell, professor of genetics at TCD, will chair the meeting and all are welcome to attend. I had a pleasant chat last week with Dr Roberts about his lecture. 

Dr Richard Roberts received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1993, jointly with Dr Phil Sharp, for their discovery of "split genes", ie individual genes are often interrupted by sections of "junk" genetic material that doesn't code for anything. He is now chief scientific officer of New England BioLabs in the US, a key supplier to the biotechnology industry.

Dr Roberts is a member of an organisation called The Brights, an international internet constituency of individuals, described on their website http://www.the-brights.net. A Bright is defined as a person who has a naturalistic worldview, free of supernatural and mystical elements. The aim of the organisation is to promote the civic understanding and acceptance of a naturalistic worldview and to educate society towards accepting full and equitable participation of all such individuals.

All members of The Brights are non-religious and typically include agnostics, atheists, rationalists, sceptics, and so on. However, the difference between The Brights and secular humanism is not clear to me.

The Bright movement was founded in California and it feels, understandably, that it has work to do in America where science is under sustained attack from fundamentalist Christians. There is much less work in Europe for the Brights, where Christian fundamentalism is not strong and secularism is in the ascendant.

Dr Roberts is an atheist and I put it to him that atheism is a step too far for science. I suggested that agnosticism, which holds that there is insufficient evidence to support belief in the existence of a Supreme Being, as opposed to atheism which rejects outright the existence of God, is a more appropriate stand for a scientist since there is no proof that God does not exist. Dr Roberts would not accept this. He thinks the explanatory power of science and the lack of hard evidence for God makes the God-hypothesis redundant.

In Dr Roberts's experience 99 per cent of scientists are atheists. His impression here is exaggerated, according to surveys of scientists' religious beliefs. According to the last big US survey, close to 40 per cent of scientists believe in God but this figure drops to 7 per cent when the survey is confined to "top scientists". Dr Roberts is certainly a top scientist and probably circulates predominantly among top scientists. Also, he is a biologist and biologists tend to be more atheistic than other scientists, eg physicists and mathematicians.

One topic Dr Roberts will address in his lecture is the origin and evolution of religion. He believes that religion is man-made and was invented by early humans to comfort themselves in a completely uncertain world. Early man was very much at the mercy of unpredictable weather, dangerous animal predators, disease, accidents, uncertain food supplies and so on, and this, coupled with ignorance of the mechanisms that underpin the natural world must have constantly aroused high anxieties. What if the sun won't come up tomorrow? What if winter becomes permanent? And so, Dr Roberts believes, early humans invented gods who controlled the elements, to whom they could pray and whom they hoped to influence. In time, calculating individuals cynically claimed to have special access to the gods and began to mediate on behalf of the people. Thus began the priesthood and religious rituals.

I accept that this may be partly true, but not that it represents the full picture. For example, this explanation ignores any innate inner human knowing that something greater than the human exists, towards which we are inevitably drawn. In any event, even if Dr Roberts' explanation were completely true, it no more invalidates modern religions, based on teachings of eminent and holy founding figures, than alchemy invalidates modern chemistry.

Dr Roberts tells me he will illuminate his lecture with some good jokes. In that vein let me finish with an atheist joke: An atheist is swimming in the ocean. Suddenly he sees a shark in the water, so he starts swimming as fast as he can towards his boat. As he looks back he sees the shark turn and head towards him. He's scared to death, and as he turns to see the jaws of the great white beast open, revealing its teeth in horrific splendour, the atheist screams, "Oh God! Save me!"

In an instant time is frozen, a bright light shines down from above and he hears the voice of God say, "You are an atheist. Why do you call upon me when you do not believe in me?" Confused, but knowing he can't lie, the man replies, "Well, that's true, I don't believe in you, but how about the shark? Can you make the shark believe in you?" The Lord replies, "As you wish," and the light retracts back into the heavens.

As the atheist looks back he can see the jaws of the shark start to close down on him, when all of a sudden the shark stops and pulls back. Shocked, the man looks at the shark as the huge beast closes its eyes and bows its head and says, "Bless us O Lord, and these thy gifts, which of thy great bounty I am about to receive . . ."

• William Reville is associate professor of biochemistry and public awareness of science officer at UCC -