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Blinded by a divine light

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Blinded by a divine light
Creationists such as the Rev Reiss don't have the intellectual integrity to teach science
By Harry Kroto

The editorial in the Guardian and various letters, such as that from the Bishop of Lincoln, contain a significant amount of self-righteous criticism of the Royal Society's decision to ask the Rev Michael Reiss to resign from his position as Director of Science Education. It is clear that there is almost total ignorance about the real issues involved and a truly pathetic understanding of science — the culture that created the modern world — from anaesthetics and penicillin to jet engines and the internet. Of course "The origin of the universe and living organisms" is a perfectly respectable question for the science lesson (perhaps the most exciting and fundamental one), as long as someone with intellectual integrity is there to answer it. There is a major problem however for the religious person, scientist or otherwise, in answering this question and it involves, first and foremost, intellectual integrity.

Let me clarify the fundamental philosophical issue: the scientific mindset. Science is based solely on doubt-based, disinterested examination of the natural and physical world. It is entirely independent of personal belief. There is a very important, fundamental concomitant — that is to accept absolutely nothing whatsoever, for which there is no evidence, as having any fundamental validity. A lemma: one can of course have an infinite number of questions but only those questions that can be formulated in such a way that they can be subjected to detailed disinterested examination, and when so subjected reveal unequivocally and ubiquitously accepted data, may be significant.

The plethora of more-or-less incompatible religious concepts that mankind has invented from Creationism and intelligent design to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Mormonism, Scientology, Hinduism, Shinto, Shamanism etc, are all basically indistinguishable, from the freethinkers perspective. It really does not matter whether one believes a mystical entity created the universe 5,000 or 10,000 million years ago — both are equally irrational unsubstantiated claims of no fundamental validity. Unfortunately Reiss, who is, apparently, a very nice guy, was in the wrong job. He, together with all religious people — whether they like it or not, whether they accept it or not — fall at the first hurdle of the main requirement for honest scientific discussion because they accept unfound dogma as having fundamental significance — note that I did not say value (positive or negative). In the Jeffersonian sense church and state (including education especially on Sundays) must be separated — otherwise our democratic freedoms are undermined. A secular socio-political framework is an absolutely necessary (though unfortunately, not always sufficient) condition to guarantee freedom of religion — as well as non-religion.

I do not have a particularly big problem with scientists who may have some personal mystical beliefs — for all I know the President of the Royal Society may be religious. However, I, and many of my Royal Society colleagues, do have a problem with an ordained minister as Director of Science Education — this is a totally different matter. An ordained minister must have accepted that there was a creator (presumably more intelligent than he is?) thus many of us (maybe 90% of FRSs) cannot see how such a person can pontificate on how to tackle this fundamentally unresolvable conflict at the science/religion interface. Reiss cannot have his religious cake in church and eat the scientific one in the classroom. This is where the intellectual integrity issue arises — and it is the crucial issue in the Reiss affair.

I suggest that Reiss, the Bishop of Lincoln and any other ministers who presume the authority to dictate how religious issues should be handled in the science classroom read from Sam Harris's book "Letter to a Christian Nation" at their Sunday sermons. Then perhaps some of their flock may understand what intellectual integrity and true humanity actually involve. Furthermore I suggest that this wonderful little book be a set text for young people at Sunday School, so they do not grow up like Don Manley who cannot see that the really "vicious" people are the religious ones who are dragging us back into the dark ages, rather than humanists struggling to save the Enlightenment. Manley and the pope are basically 21st century descendents of Cardinal Bellarmine.



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