Of Leeds, life and religion in science

Yesterday, my grandmother passed away at the splendid age of 94. She was a committed Christian, and one of my strongest memories of her is the time when she took me to buy a Bible.

Her daughter – my mother – rebelled against her Christian upbringing. I remember being about 7 when my mother warned me off religion: one Sunday morning, I wanted to play football with my friends in the park, but found they were all going to Sunday School. I went home and asked if I could go too. I have a strong recollection of standing at the back door in my primrose yellow Leeds United away kit (1977/8 season) while my mother told me “you don’t want to get involved with all that”. But go if you want to. I did want to, and I went – in my football kit. I think I only went once, in the end – I found it dull.

During my early teenage years, though, my mother found God. She dragged me to church and people told me, with the best possible intentions, that I was going to hell and needed to join them on the path to heaven. Eventually I did – for more than 20 years.

It was shortly after I joined the church that my grandmother took me to buy that Bible (I still have it). She had been praying for this moment to come for my whole life, she told me. There was nothing sinister about it, nothing coercive. It was a significant, joyful moment of family bonding.

My grandmother believed in all the myths that Peter Atkins derides in his new book On Being. I was quite relieved at the weekend to see that it wasn’t just me that felt the book was rather hit and miss. In the Guardian , Steven Poole said it delivered “snide and pointless tirades against religion” and a claim to eventual decay and pointlessness that “oversteps the bounds of dispassionate scientific description”.

For my part, while some of Atkins’ writing is terrific, he wastes far too many pages of what is already a slim volume ripping various straw men to shreds. In my New Scientist review (paywall), I point out that “few of his readers will need persuading of the silliness of end-times myths or the lack of evidence for any kind of afterlife or eternal soul.”

My big problem with it is that, while sniping at religion is fun, it is scientifically dishonest. As Jesse Bering has pointed out in his excellent The God Instinct, people are naturally inclined to believe in unseen forces. There’s even good evolutionary reason to do so.

I don’t believe my grandmother’s life and outlook was any the worse for her Christian worldview. I never told her that I have given up trying to hold onto those beliefs in the light of science and scientific reasoning tells me to be true about the world. Why would I? There was nothing to be gained by either of us.

Some scientists do love to rail against those who are on the fence about the value of religion. I remember attending a conference about belief in 2006, where Steven Weinberg said he had a lot of Christian friends and wasn’t really bothered by that because, as he put it, “they don’t really believe what they say they believe.”

Some of the other panellists were almost offended by this attitude. Neil de Grasse Tyson expressed his outrage that a survey of members of the US National Academy of Sciences revealed that 85 per cent reject the notion of a ‘personal God’. He wanted to know why 15 per cent of ‘the most brilliant minds this nation has’ accept the idea of a personal God. ‘How come that number isn’t zero?’ he asked. (you can see the video here).

I mention this moment in Free Radicals, during my chapter on where creative scientific ideas come from. It comes after I point out that Michael Faraday, so celebrated by scientists, was a devout Sandemanian Christian – and not just on Sundays. His approach to science was deeply coloured by his religious views. And, fascinatingly, that was what enabled him to understand magnetic fields and the connection between electricity and magnetism before anyone else.

Atkins once said that you can’t be a real scientist ‘in the deepest sense of the word’ if you hold to religious views. To Atkins, religious belief and a scientific worldview are entirely ‘alien categories of knowledge.’ I just don’t agree. Contrary to what many people think, science requires creativity, and the evidence shows that creativity requires a wide array of sources to draw from.

While Andre Ampere laboured away with the mathematics –  to no avail – Faraday used his Biblical concepts of the Trinity and God permeating all of space to come up with his breakthroughs (the full account is in Geoffrey Cantor’s Michael Faraday, Sandemanian and scientist). While I might not believe what I used to, I do believe those beliefs held by my grandmother are not worthless. They have served useful purposes throughout human history – and that includes our scientific age.

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2 responses to “Of Leeds, life and religion in science

  1. Terrific. I will probably be using this as a reference point as you have articulated many of my own sentiments that I have as yet been unable to convincingly put into words.

    That you have been able to do so at a moment of bereavement is double touching. I hope you will not find it crass of me to say that my thoughts and prayers are with you and your family at this time.

  2. Atkins vs Midgley on the Today programme last week (probably still a podcast of it sometwhere) was one of the saddest outings of a couple of dinos beating strawmen I’ve heard in a long time. Both serious and clever people in many respects, both people I respect, and yet both woefully simplyfiying their own and each other’s positions.

    I’m sorry about your grandmother – 94 is, indeed, a fine old age though.

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