Science and religion


Sir, – Rev Patrick G Burke (September 27th) kindly invited all of those attending the meeting in Galway celebrating 21 years of the Humanist Association of Ireland to spend some time in local churches, and some may well have done so.

I was brought up as a Christian, I attend church services from time to time and I value many friends who are religious. I am frequently moved by wonderful sacred music and I appreciate thoughtful addresses, notably at funerals, which bind people together and give us all some strength. I sometimes explain humanism as Christianity without God. Most of the people who signed the first Humanist Manifesto (1933) were Unitarian ministers. There is not much distance between the best of humanism and the best of religion, but it is fundamental.

My difficulty is that I was never able to find any reason to believe in the supernatural. On the other hand I had no difficulty in discovering that ethics have a sound basis in human experience. Rev Dr Twomey (September 29th), a distinguished theologian, and a sharp critic of his own church, advocates faith in addition to science (or reason), but faith in what, a God, a soul, life after death, transubstantiation, the virgin birth, the Trinity, resurrection from the dead, faith in the authority of his church? There is not a shred of evidence to believe any of the supernatural claims of any religion, which is why the churches, recognising the eternal hope for certainty and happiness in an uncertain and cruel world, must appeal to “faith”, uncritical acceptance of what one reads in books written thousands of years ago and what one is told by priests.

Humanists have found that they get on well without faith – they rely on what they can see and know from their own and other people’s reliable observations. Yes, humanists believe, in Dr Twomey’s words, that “nothing exists beyond the empirical realm” but that realm includes all the useful and reliable things and ideas that have emerged from people’s inquisitive and creative consideration of the world around them. Mathematics, chess and music, poetry, plays and books of all kinds, symphonies and song, painting and philosophy, family, friendship and fellowship, ordinary conversations, scientific theories from relativity to plate tectonics to evolution by natural selection, all of what Karl Popper called World III, the “world” invented by mankind, and yes, religion, are part of the humanist world. If we did not exist, none of these would exist. All these can be experienced and tested for their value in our efforts to lead contented and good lives. But everything invented by people – people made God, not vice versa – should be tested for its reasonableness and value. God may be a valuable idea to many people but not to humanists, and we do not think it is fair for those who believe in God, to insist that God should intrude into their lives.

Dr O’Leary (October 2nd) suggests we humanists should recognise the “phenomena of truth and falsehood, good and evil”.

Well of course we do recognise these, but in the end, while obeying the laws of democratic society, we decide for ourselves what is true or false, good or evil, doing our best to follow the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We do not unthinkingly follow the rules of any religion, and certainly not one which claimed it was heretical to say that the Earth went round the Sun, a church which burned (1600) the Dominican theologian Bruno because among other reasonable suggestions he thought there was life elsewhere in the universe (nearly 2,000 exoplanets have been discovered since 1995), a church which threatened the founder of modern science, Galileo, with execution, a church which still today says it is evil to use contraceptives (1968), a church whose leading bishops continue to claim that humanists are not fully human (Archbishop Murphy, 1968; Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor 2009), a church which assures us that women are lesser creatures than men. This is a church which, as an institution imbued with faith in the supernatural, on so many issues has not been able to distinguish truth and falsity, good and evil.

Please do not misunderstand me. The great majority of religious people have nothing to do with these views, and they have quietly rejected them. Many people find solace in religion and the goodness and decency of the great majority of our citizens has been influenced by their religious beliefs. I respect the many thoughtful contributions of religious people to our efforts to resolve the daunting moral dilemmas we face in the modern world, especially in my own field of genetics.

But fewer and fewer people believe in the place or need for supernatural guidance. They have learned that the supernatural is not reliable and not necessary.

If you have no faith in the supernatural, and if you believe in your own capacity to decide on what is true or false, good or evil, guided by your own experience and the verifiable experience and reasonable ideas of other obviously thoughtful people, you are to all intents and purposes a humanist.

As one good friend, a pillar of our society, said to me 30 years ago – “Sure lots of us are like that but we just don’t say so”. – Yours, etc,



Co Dublin.