Peter Atkins Published: 06/09/1999
Updated: 08/24/2000

by Peter Atkins

Many consider that the conflict of religion and science is a temporary phase, and that in due course the two mighty rivers of human understanding will merge into an even mightier Amazon of comprehension. I take the opposite view, that reconciliation is impossible. I consider that Science is mightier than the Word, and that the river of religion will (or, at least, should) atrophy and die.

The basis of my belief that reconciliation is impossible is that the techniques and criteria of religion and science are so extraordinarily different. Science seeks simplicity publicly and encourages the overthrow of authority; religion accepts complexity privately and encourages deference to authority.

There are, of course, many who regard the concept of God as an exceedingly simple explanation of everything, and who regard scientific elucidations as either incomplete or ponderous. However, that is a self-delusion. Such views are generally held by people who do not understand the scientific method. Indeed, to believe that the assertion that God is an explanation (of anything, let alone everything) is intellectually contemptible, for it amounts to an admission of ignorance packaged into the pretence of an explanation. To aver that 'God did it' is worse than an admission of ignorance, for it shrouds ignorance in deceit.

We scientists know that it is immensely difficult to trace the deep, simple ideas of science out into the world of phenomena. Those ignorant of scientific procedures, or simply antagonistic to them, often mistake this for impotence. Scientists know that the complexity of the world is the outcome of huge numbers of sometimes conflicting simple events.

The biochemical mechanism of organisms is one example of how the principles at work are well known, and if not well known, determinable and expressible in principle in terms of familiar (to us chemists) processes. That is certainly true of the physiological processes that sustain us, and only the blackest of pessimists would not extend that view to the workings of our brains. Yet we also know that even the simplest organism is so extraordinarily complicated that unravelling its biochemistry is immensely difficult.

But that difficulty is not defeat. Nor should our inability to predict the course of biochemical processes, let alone build a novel organism, be construed as failure. Indeed, it should be a source of pride in the power of the human intellect that it has gone so far in understanding in such a short time.

The challenge of elucidating living processes - including consciousness and all its baggage which we bundle together as 'the human spirit' - is only one example of a challenge where hard work is paying off and science does not need to accept the false explanations peddled by religions. There are other, perhaps more challenging problems, including the origin of everything.

In no case, though, is there any indication that science is grinding to a halt and coming up against a barrier to further explanation. There is certainly no justification for asserting that the powers of science are circumscribed and that beyond the boundary the only recourse to comprehension is God.

Many will accept that science can indeed deliver on all these promises, but will maintain, nevertheless, that it provides an incomplete account of the full dimension of being human. For them, science's merciless stare is one-eyed. For them, there are aspects of the world that science, with its reliance on public examination of evidence and the affixation of number to events, can never touch. They point at joy, misery, aesthetic appreciation, love, death, and above all the sense of cosmic purpose, and feel confident that these transcendent spiritual aspects of the physical will lie for ever beyond science's reach.

I disagree with this pessimistic vision. I consider that there are two types of spiritual question. One concerns topics like joy, pertaining to physical states of the brain in conjunction with a variety of physiological states of the body, not least of our endocrine systems. I see no reason at all to regard these states as outside the boundaries of scientific discourse.

Some will regard the scientific analysis of such topics, which include bestiality as well as love, creativity and gullibility (such as so often results in religious belief), as an erosion of delight. I think the opposite is true: while scientific understanding adds depth to our delight, it does not intrude into the acts of delight. That we may understand passion, that we may understand iniquity, and that we may grope towards an understanding of what it means to be human, that we may look within ourselves with vision unclouded by mysticism, seems to me to add to our wonder at this amazing yet explicable world.

Then there is a second group of deep questions that many would wish to protect from science's glare. These questions are the more cosmic of those beloved by religion, including the purpose of our existence, the role of evil, free will and the prospect of life eternal.

I believe that such questions have been invented, and do not represent really challenging problems for us to solve. It would indeed be fascinating if the universe did have a purpose; it would probably be pleasant for there to be life after death. However, there is not one scrap of evidence in favour of either speculation. As it is easy to understand why people crave for cosmic purpose and life eternal, and there is no evidence for either, it seems to me an inescapable conclusion that neither exists. All there is for science to explain about these matters is the psychology of brains that maintain them as actualities.

My conclusion is stark and uncompromising. Religion is the antithesis of science; science is competent to illuminate all the deep questions of existence, and does so in a manner that makes full use of, and respects the human intellect. I see neither need nor sign of any future reconciliation.


Professor Atkins is a chemist at the University of Oxford.

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