Is religion the people's opium?


In the October issue of the Dubliner Magazine, Prof Richard Dawkins, the well-known writer on evolution and Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford, is quoted as saying that the Roman Catholic Church is "one of the forces for evil in the world, mainly because of the powerful influence it has over the minds of children".

He expressed delight at the news that a leading Irish Catholic seminary is closing down and he fervently hopes that "the Catholic Church in Ireland will die".

Richard Dawkins has made a notable contribution to our understanding of evolution and he writes on this topic with wonderful clarity. I disagree, however, with his attitude to religion and, in my opinion, he does science a disservice in the manner he propounds this view.

Because Richard Dawkins is well-known, some people may think that his anti-religious position represents the official attitude of science. It does not. Some scientists agree with Dawkins, but I believe that most do not. It is also my strong impression from talking to colleagues that the majority of scientists are embarrassed by his loud public expression of anti-religious sentiment.

Richard Dawkins is an atheist and a materialist. Materialism claims that the properties of matter and energy explain all that exists in the universe. Many scientists are atheistic materialists, many are not. It is not necessary to be an atheist to be a scientist. Many of the greatest scientists ever were devout Christians. Many scientists today are religious.

A 1997 general survey of American scientists found that 40 per cent expressed belief in a deity. A follow-up study concentrating on "top scientists" found that only seven per cent believed in God. I believe that at least part of the reason top scientists profess belief in God to a significantly lesser extent than the generality of scientists is cultural pressure. To profess religious belief in the scientific community is considered to be unsophisticated.

The business of science is to discover the natural mechanisms that underpin the natural world. Science has no competence to investigate the supernatural. It neither denies nor affirms the supernatural - it simply says nothing about it.

Richard Dawkins believes that religion is "a bad-virus of the mind", culturally transmitted from generation to generation. He says that religion gives people false explanations of how the world works, explanations that prevent many from accepting the true explanations revealed by science. "The Catholic Church has developed, over the centuries, brilliant techniques in brainwashing children; even intelligent people who have had a proper, full cradle-Catholic upbringing find it hard to shake it off when they reach adulthood," he says.

Dawkins has been speaking against religion for many years, but in a somewhat restrained manner. However, since the September 11th, 2001 attack on the Twin Towers in New York, an event he believes was made possible only by religious fanaticism and brainwashing (the Guardian September 15th, 2001), he believes the time has come "to take the gloves off". Of course, he ignores the fact that religious fanaticism is not an exclusive motivating factor for atrocious behaviour, as demonstrated, for example, by atheistic Communism under Stalin.

THE core of Christianity calls on us to love God, treat our neighbour as we would wish to be treated ourselves, forgive our enemy, take responsibility for our actions, and to hope for eternal life. This is surely a decent way to live.

However, there is no doubt that much that has been taught in the name of Christianity was wrong: e.g.. hell-fire and damnation, obsession with "sins" in the sexual sphere, literal interpretation of every word in the Bible, and so on. Dawkins condemns these practices, which is fair enough, but where he goes wrong, in my opinion, is to go beyond this and call on humankind to entirely abandon religion

There is extremism and bad practice in all disciplines, including science. For example, eugenics, the notion that it is feasible and desirable to improve the human stock by selective breeding, was avidly promoted by biological science in the early decades of the 20th century. This led initially to programmes of sterilisation in mental institutions in America and elsewhere. The Nazis were great enthusiasts for "racial hygiene" and took the matter to its ultimate horrible extreme.

A critic of science, and there are many, who adopted Dawkins's approach, could equally say that following the Holocaust it was time to "take the gloves off" and to loudly call on humankind to finally and fully renounce science. But reasonable people realise that science in itself is good, despite the occasional excesses of fanatics.

Richard Dawkins is entitled to be a materialistic atheist, but, in my opinion, he is not justified in attacking thoughtful religion. Such religion is expressed by many eminent scientists - for example, physicist Dr John Polkinghorne.

I believe Richard Dawkins is speaking for himself and not for science when he condemns religion. Indeed, he needn't fret about Irish Catholics or other Christian denominations meekly accepting backward rules. Most Catholics now think for themselves - as they will, no doubt, when considering the views of Richard Dawkins.

William Reville is Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Director of Microscopy at UCC