‘Religion is simply irrelevant to science’


Sir, – While many columns can be generated by pitting predictable views on science and religion against each other, it seems unlikely anyone changes their view as a result. Perhaps David McConnell (“Science does not try to undermine religion – religion is simply irrelevant to science”, Opinion & Analysis, July 11th) should consider the words of an Irish cleric, Jonathan Swift, who astutely observed that, “it is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into”. As far as the real dispute goes, if there ever was one, it surely ended when people began to place lightning rods on churches. – Yours, etc,



Co Cork.

Sir, – Prof David McConnell claims that science disappeared from Europe for 1,000 years. Is he unaware that the standard curriculum for every university student in every one of the many church-established universities of the Middle Ages included the compulsory study of arithmetic, music (as a form of mathematics), geometry, and astronomy?

Is he unaware of the work of 13th-century pioneers of the scientific method like Roger Bacon OFM and Albertus Magnus OP?

Prof McConnell goes on to state that the work of Euclid was absent from Europe until the Renaissance. Is he really unaware that the first books of Euclid’s Elements were a standard text in medieval universities?

And finally he writes that the new science – the science of the Renaissance – was not embraced by the church. Somebody had better tell the Jesuits, who actively collaborated with the leading scientists of their day – including Galileo – in fields such as astronomy, palaeontology, seismology, epidemiology, and zoology. Somebody had better tell Gregor Mendel too, the Augustinian friar who founded the field of genetics.

Far from being unthinkingly condemned, the new sciences were typically the object of papal support and patronage, most strikingly in the case of two 18th-century women scientists, Maria Gaetana Agnesi and Laura Bassi.

The story of constant opposition between science and the church is a tired old myth, and it’s disappointing to see it trotted out again. We shouldn’t, of course, exaggerate the role of Christianity in the progress of science, but the historical evidence points to a clear conclusion: the church is among science’s oldest friends. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 1.

Sir, – Space does not permit me to debate religious matters with David McConnell, and in any case I would hope that God, if he exists, would be well able to stand up for himself, without any help from me. Furthermore, both David and myself are of an age when we will shortly be meeting our maker – or not, as the case may be; so I prefer to follow the lead of Voltaire who is reputed to have commented, on his deathbed, when invited by the priest to renounce Satan, that it was not an appropriate time to make any unnecessary enemies.

But I do want to challenge him (Prof McConnell, not God, in case of any offence or misunderstanding) on a point of science – and it pains me to do so, as I have had the greatest respect for David McConnell as a scientist over many years.. With an absolute certainty which would have been the envy of the most authoritarian 19th-century archbishop, he asserts that “a fertilised egg is not a person”.

This statement can be made true only if one carefully defines and limits the word “person” according to adult traits such as cognition or independence

From a biological point of view, though, the life history of each individual human organism begins at fertilisation. The fertilised egg and the embryo at its various stages have all the characteristics that the human individual should have at that stage. Dispose of the individual at any of those stages and you are cutting short the life story of a unique human individual. This may be an inconvenient truth, but it is nevertheless a biological fact. It is scientific fact, irrespective of belief or non-belief in any God or any religion. – Yours, etc,



Emeritus Professor

of Biotechnology,

National Institute

for Cellular


Dublin City University,

Dublin 9.