The Great Convergence

Rite and Reason:  Science and religious faith remain the great irreconcilables, writes Richard Dawkins "There may be some deep…

Rite and Reason:  Science and religious faith remain the great irreconcilables, writes Richard Dawkins"There may be some deep questions about the cosmos that are forever beyondscience. The mistake is to think that they are therefore not beyond religiontoo"

Are science and religion converging? No. There are modern scientists whose words sound religious but whose beliefs, on close examination, turn out to be identical to those of other scientists who straightforwardly call themselves atheists.

Ursula Goodenough's lyrical book, The Sacred Depths of Nature, is sold as a religious book, is endorsed by theologians on the back cover, and its chapters are liberally laced with prayers and devotional meditations. Yet, by the book's own account, Dr Goodenough does not believe in any sort of supreme being, does not believe in any sort of life after death; on any normal understanding of the English language, she is no more religious than I am. She shares with other atheist scientists a feeling of awe at the majesty of the universe and the intricate complexity of life.

Indeed, the jacket copy for her book - the message that science does not "point to an existence that is bleak, devoid of meaning, pointless ..." but on the contrary "can be a wellspring of solace and hope" - would have been equally suitable for my own Unweaving the Rainbow, or Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot. If that is religion, then I am a deeply religious man.

But it isn't. As far as I can tell, my "atheistic" views are identical to Ursula Goodenough's "religious" ones. One of us is misusing the English language, and I don't think it's me.

She happens to be a biologist, but this kind of neo-deistic pseudo-religion is more often associated with physicists. In Stephen Hawking's case, I hasten to insist, the accusation is unjust. His much quoted phrase "the Mind of God" no more indicates belief in God than does my "God knows!" (as a way of saying that I don't).

I suspect the same of Einstein's picturesque invoking of the "Dear Lord" to personify the laws of physics.

Paul Davies, however, adopted Hawking's phrase as the title of a book which went on to earn the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, the most lucrative prize in the world today, and prestigious enough to be presented in Westminster Abbey by royalty. Daniel Dennett once remarked to me in Faustian vein: "Richard, if ever you fall on hard times ..."

The latter-day deists have moved on from their 18th-century counterparts who, for all that they eschewed revelation and espoused no particular denomination, still believed in some sort of supreme intelligence. If you count Einstein and Hawking as religious, if you allow the cosmic awe of Ursula Goodenough, Paul Davies, Carl Sagan and me as true religion, then religion and science have indeed converged, especially when you factor in such atheist priests as Don Cupitt and many university chaplains.

But if "religion" is allowed such a flabbily elastic definition, what word is left for real religion, religion as the ordinary person in the pew or on the prayer-mat understands it today; religion, indeed, as any intellectual would have understood it in previous centuries, when intellectuals were religious like everybody else?

If God is a synonym for the deepest principles of physics, what word is left for a hypothetical being who answers prayers; intervenes to save cancer patients or help evolution over difficult jumps; forgives sins or dies for them? If we are allowed to relabel scientific awe as a religious impulse, the case goes through on the nod. You have redefined science as religion, so it's hardly surprising if they turn out to "converge".

Another kind of convergence has been alleged between modern physics and eastern mysticism. The argument goes essentially as follows: quantum mechanics, that brilliantly successful flagship theory of modern science, is deeply mysterious and hard to understand. Eastern mystics have always been deeply mysterious and hard to understand. Therefore eastern mystics must have been talking about quantum theory all along.

Similar mileage is made of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle ("Aren't we all, in a very real sense, uncertain?"), Fuzzy Logic ("Yes, it's OK for you to be fuzzy too"), Chaos and Complexity Theory (the butterfly effect, the platonic, hidden beauty of the Mandelbrot Set - you name it, somebody has mysticised it and turned it into dollars).

You can buy any number of books on "quantum healing", not to mention quantum psychology, quantum responsibility, quantum morality, quantum aesthetics, quantum immortality and quantum theology. I haven't found a book on quantum feminism, quantum financial management or Afro-quantum theory, but give it time.

The whole dippy business is ably exposed by the physicist Victor Stenger in his book The Unconscious Quantum, from which the following gem is taken. In a lecture on "Afrocentric healing", the psychiatrist Patricia Newton said that traditional healers: "...are able to tap that other realm of negative entropy - that superquantum velocity and frequency of electromagnetic energy and bring them as conduits down to our level. It's not magic. It's not mumbo-jumbo. You will see the dawn of the 21st century, the new medical quantum physics really distributing these energies and what they are doing."

Sorry, mumbo-jumbo is precisely what it is. Not African mumbo-jumbo but pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo, even down to the trademark misuse of "energy". It is also religion, masquerading as science in a cloying love-feast of bogus convergence.

In 1996 the Vatican, fresh from its magnanimous reconciliation with Galileo, a mere 350 years after his death, publicly announced that evolution had been promoted from tentative hypothesis to accepted theory of science. This is less dramatic than many American Protestants think it is, for the Roman Church, whatever its faults, has never been noted for biblical literalism. On the contrary, it has treated the Bible with suspicion, as something close to a subversive document, needing to be carefully filtered through priests rather than given raw to congregations.

The Pope's recent message on evolution has, nevertheless, been hailed as another example of late 20th-century convergence between science and religion. Responses to the Pope's message exhibited liberal intellectuals at their worst, falling over themselves in their agnostic eagerness to concede to religion its own "magisterium", of equal importance to that of science, but not opposed to it, not even overlapping it. Such agnostic conciliation is, once again, easy to mistake for genuine convergence, a true meeting of minds.

At its most naive, this intellectual appeasement policy partitions up the intellectual territory into "how questions" (science) and "why questions" (religion). What are "why questions", and why should we feel entitled to think they deserve an answer?

THERE may be some deep questions about the cosmos that are forever beyond science. The mistake is to think that they are therefore not beyond religion too.

I once asked a distinguished astronomer, a fellow of my college, to explain the Big Bang to me. He did so to the best of his (and my) ability, and I then asked what it was about the fundamental laws of physics that made the spontaneous origin of space and time possible. "Ah," he smiled, "Now we move beyond the realm of science. This is where I have to hand over to our good friend the chaplain."

But why the chaplain? Why not the gardener or the chef? Of course chaplains, unlike chefs and gardeners, claim to have some insight into ultimate questions. But what reason have we ever been given for taking their claim seriously?

Once again, I suspect that my friend the Professor of Astronomy was using the Einstein/Hawking trick of letting "God" stand for "That which we don't understand". It would be a harmless trick if it were not continually misunderstood by those hungry to misunderstand it. In any case, optimists among scientists, of whom I am one, will insist that "That which wedon't understand" means only "That which we don't yet understand". Science is still working on the problem. We don't know where, or even whether, we shall ultimately be brought up short.

Agnostic conciliation, the decent liberal bending over backwards to concede as much as possible to anybody who shouts loudly enough, reaches ludicrous lengths in the following common piece of sloppy thinking.

It goes roughly like this. You can't prove a negative (so far so good). Science has no way to disprove the existence of a supreme being (this is strictly true). So belief (or disbelief) in a supreme being is a matter of pure individual inclination, and they are therefore both equally deserving of respectful attention!

When you say it like that the fallacy is almost self-evident: we hardly need spell out the reductio ad absurdum. To borrow a point from Bertrand Russell, we must be equally agnostic about the theory that there is a china teapot in elliptical orbit around the Sun. We can't disprove it. But that doesn't mean the theory that there is a teapot is on level terms with the theory that there isn't.

Now, if it be retorted that there actually are reasons X, Y and Z for finding a supreme being more plausible than a celestial teapot, then X scientific arguments, which should be evaluated on their merits, don't protect them from scrutiny behind a screen of agnostic tolerance. If religious arguments are actually better than Russell's teapot, let us hear the case. Otherwise, let those who call themselves agnostic with respect to religion add that they are equally agnostic about orbiting teapots.

At the same time, modern theists might acknowledge that, when it comes to Baal and the Golden Calf, Thor and Wotan, Poseidon and Apollo, Mithras and Ammon Ra, they are actually atheists.

We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.

In any case, the belief that religion and science occupy separate magisteria is dishonest. It founders on the undeniable fact that religions still make claims about the world which, on analysis, turn out to be scientific claims. Moreover, religious apologists try to have it both ways, to eat their cake and have it.

When talking to intellectuals, they carefully keep off science's turf, safe inside the separate and invulnerable religious magisterium. But when talking to a non-intellectual mass audience they make wanton use of miracle stories, which are blatant intrusions into scientific territory. The Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Raising of Lazarus, the manifestations of Mary and the Saints around the Catholic world, even the Old Testament miracles, all are freely used for religious propaganda, and very effective they are with an audience of unsophisticates and children.

Every one of these miracles amounts to a scientific claim, a violation of the normal running of the natural world.

Theologians, if they want to remain honest, should make a choice. You can claim your own magisterium, separate from science's but still deserving of respect. But in that case you have to renounce miracles. Or you can keep your Lourdes and your miracles, and enjoy their huge recruiting potential among the uneducated. But then you must kiss goodbye to separate magisteria and your high-minded aspiration to converge on science.

The desire to have it both ways is not surprising in a good propagandist.

What is surprising is the readiness of liberal agnostics to go along with it; and their readiness to write off, as simplistic, insensitive extremists, those of us with the temerity to blow the whistle. The whistle-blowers are accused of flogging a dead horse, of imagining an outdated caricature of religion in which God has a long white beard and lives in a physical place called Heaven.

Nowadays, we are told, religion has moved on. Heaven is not a physical place, and God does not have a physical body where a beard might sit. Well, yes, admirable: separate magisteria, real convergence.

But the doctrine of the Assumption was defined as an Article of Faith by Pope Pius XII as recently as November 1st, 1950, and is binding on all Catholics. It clearly states that the body of Mary was taken into Heaven and reunited with her soul. What can that mean, if not that Heaven is a physical place, physical enough to contain bodies?

To repeat, this is not some quaint and obsolete tradition, with nowadays a purely symbolic significance. It was in the 20th century that (to quote the 1996 Catholic Encyclopedia) "Pope Pius XII declared infallibly that the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was a dogma of the Catholic Faith", thereby upgrading to the status of official dogma what his predecessor, Benedict XIV, also in the 20th century, had called "a probable opinion, which to deny were impious and blasphemous".

Convergence? Only when it suits. To an honest judge, the alleged convergence between religion and science is a shallow, empty, hollow, spin-doctored sham.

Copyright (c) Richard Dawkins, 2003. Extracted from A Devil's Chaplain, by Richard Dawkins, published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson at €27.00

Richard Dawkins (left), the eminent research biologist and noted author, is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.

Tonight at 7 p.m. he delivers an Irish Times/Royal Dublin Society Science Today lecture, reading from his new collection of essays , A Devil's Chaplain. (All tickets to the event have been taken up.)

The collection reflects Prof Dawkins's wide-ranging interests from science to philosophy, ethics and religion. Its title is taken from a phrase penned by Charles Darwin in a letter written to his friend Hooker in 1856. "What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature," he wrote.

It is a reference to evolution, the process of trial and error inherent in natural selection, which, says Dawkins, "can be expected to be clumsy, wasteful and blundering", but, he argues, nature's brutal ways need not be the basis of human morality.

A Devil's Chaplain, selected essays by Richard Dawkins, edited by Latha Menon, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, price €27.