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21/04/2014

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Teetotaller in an off-licence

Anjana Ahuja finds religion’s arrogance hard to swallow

Last month, I went to Lambeth Palace to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury and other speakers deliver some weighty opinions on science and faith. Rowan Williams’s central thesis was that there are different ways of ‘knowing’; science and religion are two flavours, and neither reigns supreme over the other. And yet it felt as though some speakers were arguing exactly that: that religion is a superior form of ‘knowing’.

And, as they spoke, the face of Ellen Gould White kept popping into my head. I wondered how much Rowan Williams et al knew about the founder of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, which boasts 12m followers worldwide.

Brain created God

Many years ago, I interviewed a scientist who believed that Ellen Gould White was no prophet of God, but an epileptic. Her vivid visions, her jerky movements during these sacred moments and her copious note-taking all signified, to neurologist Gregory Holmes, the presence of temporal lobe epilepsy. His thesis ran along the same lines as Richard Dawkins’s book, The God Delusion: your brain created God, not the other way around.

No, of course I didn’t stick up my hand and tell Rowan that. I was too scared, because I was just about the only non-believer who had bothered to attend ‘Inspiration, Truth and the Search for Understanding’ (or who had been invited). I felt like a teetotaller in an off-licence.

I ended up making a wishy-washy point instead, about how the scientific method was accessible to all, unlike religious experience. I also took issue, I announced, with the idea that it is somehow bad for science to be reductionist and materialist.

Moral superiority

In order to understand complex things, you have to carve them into their constituent parts: you can’t figure out how a spark plug works by repeatedly staring at a moving car. The whole tone of the seminar, I ventured, was one of religion-derived moral superiority over science (for example, Simon Conway Morris appeared to draw a direct line between Darwin and Hitler’s persecution of the Jews). When I finished making my point, I was accused of not having listened.

I didn’t mind the put-down. But I do mind that science is caricatured as a rather empty way of ‘knowing’, lacking humanity, humility or morality. I mind that reductionism - a necessary part of the scientific process - is ridiculed as a method of understanding the world. And I mind it especially when believers say that science cannot explain such wonderful human virtues as altruism and morality. Evolution does a fine job, thank you (it suggests we evolved mechanisms for altruism and morality, because these raised our chances of survival).

Perhaps most of all, I mind that the panel convened at Lambeth Palace to discuss science and faith included only believers. Where was the token humanist? Richard Dawkins wasn’t there in body but he seemed to hover over the proceedings like a demonic spirit.

Argue for tolerance

Wrangling over whether science or religion constitutes true knowledge, is the wrong debate to be having. They exist in different, incomparable, irreconcilable realms (except where one might shed light on the other, for example the case of Ellen Gould White). Shouldn’t we be arguing for tolerance instead?

En passant, my dictionary gives several definitions of what ‘to know’ means. To know means to ‘be aware of something through observation, inquiry or information’, which sounds very much like the empirical, trial-and-error, suck-it-and-see nature of the scientific method.

The dictionary also revealed an alternative meaning of ‘to know’: ‘to be absolutely sure of something’. Which sounded rather like the speakers at the seminar.
So yes, the OED does validate science and religion as different forms of ‘knowing’. Except, I’m not sure that it’s always science that lacks humility.

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Anjana Ahuja
Anjana Ahuja is a feature writer and science columnist for the Times
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