Despite the fact that we live in a world enlightened by scientific discovery, the supernatural and the superstitious are still dominating the lives of people who seem to despise truth unless it panders to conspiracy or fantasy.
Those who are purposely insular in order to convince like-minded individuals to believe in the supernatural are frustrating but not overtly sinister. It is the defamation of scientific iconoclasts which is unacceptable.
A common theme in the latest exchange between religion and science is the enlistment of scientists, dead or alive, through misquotation, in the fight against the trendy sport of God-bashing. ‘Darwin didn’t even believe in evolution, and he prayed whilst on his death bed!’ argue believers.
But this week a letter from Albert Einstein sold for $404,000 at auction.
It laid bare Einstein’s true thoughts on the supernatural: ‘The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.’
Einstein is often cited as a deist by a number of religious apologists looking for support from someone who knows what he’s talking about.
Those looking for a romantic, tantric love-in between religion and science are always reminding us that Einstein once said, ‘science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.’
Similarly, we are reminded that Hawking ended ‘A Brief History of Time’ with, ‘for then we should know the mind of God’ and that Darwin said, ‘to suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances…could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.’
Some readers were very excited indeed by these passages. With Richard Dawkins being somewhat like Marmite in this conflict – love him or hate him – there were many pleased that three of the most famous scientists of all time disagreed with him.
In reverse order then. Immediately after Darwin suggested doubt in his own theories, he wrote, ‘When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false… reason tells me… the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.’
As for Einstein and Hawking, the concept of Einsteinian religion is well understood. ‘God’ and ‘religion’ are certainly being used as metaphors to explain the deep mysteries of the universe and the enticing nature of science, not a supernatural creator.
In fairness, there are a number of very famous scientific icons who were deeply religious: Newton, Faraday and Kelvin for example.
However, a 1998 Nature article by Larson and Witham showed that only 7% of members of the National Academy for Sciences believed in God.
Eminent modern day scientists who do believe in a personal God (such as Francis Collins, a leading figure in the human genome project) are anomalous and often the subject of bemusement.
This would suggest Newton et al were products of their time, while their contemporaries today are by and large liberated by scientific understanding.
To conclude, then, I leave you with one last quotation, this time from former Editor-in-Chief and Publishing Director of New Scientist Alun Anderson: ‘What’s happening in science is the most interesting thing in the world, and if you don’t agree with me just fuck off.’