Microscopes have no Morals

Science needs the ethical underpinning that religion can best provide


James Watson, co-unraveller of DNA, told television viewers recently how "embarrassed" he is to meet scientists who believe in God, or indeed who take religion seriously. He was talking to his chum and fellow atheist Richard Dawkins. Both are outstanding and prominent spokesmen for their trade - Dawkins a professor of science communication at Oxford. The message from on high seems clear. Religion is dead. Long live science.


But religion has been entwined in science from its beginnings, and has never gone away. Many scientists today are devout. Some, including some who are highly competent, are as committedly Christian or Muslim or Jewish as Watson and Dawkins are atheist. One of the highlights of this week's meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was a discussion on why, although the existing religions do not capture all of what's out there in the universe, some at least of their endeavours must be taken seriously.


Watson's and Dawkins's atheism is rooted at least in part in a mistake. They seem to assume that serious interest in religion must be fundamentalist. They take as their exemplar (in effect their Aunt Sally) the creationists who, in the United States, Australia and South Africa in particular, claim that Genesis is a literal account of life's beginnings, and that Darwin's ideas are a blasphemous untruth.


They should find new ground, for this particular battle is surely played out. Even in the 18th century some biologists proposed that creatures adapt to their surroundings through gradual change: evolution. Darwin was the first, in Origin of Species in 1859, to establish a plausible mechanism for such adaptation - evolution by natural selection: summarised later by Herbert Spencer (in a phrase Darwin then adopted himself) as "survival of the fittest" (where "fittest" seems to have the Victorian sense of "most apt"). It was, as the American philosopher Dan Dennett has put the matter, a very "dangerous idea". Until the mid-19th century, the fact that polar bears are so supremely at home in the Arctic and camels in the desert was taken as a proof that God the creator must exist; for how could they be so "fitted" if they not been expressly designed? As the theologian William Paley argued, there can be no watch without a watchmaker. Yet natural selection showed, apparently against common sense, how the intelligent putative "watchmaker" was blind.


Genesis, the first book in the most influential text in western civilisation, was thus left high and dry. By the mid-19th century, geologists had already shown that the world took millions of years to unfold - not the seven days that God seemed to require in the Biblical account. Now Darwin showed that its unfolding needed no God at all. Here was the greatest heresy imaginable. It led to terrible spats, most famously at the British Association's meeting of 1860 - just a year after Origin - when Bishop "Soapy" Sam Wilberforce (famous son of the famous reformer William) defended God the creator against the fiery Thomas Henry Huxley (Darwin's self-appointed "bulldog") and the more restrained but equally eloquent Joseph Hooker.


But these early conflicts have now been resolved. Some see Genesis as a metaphor, not a literal but a poetical account. Some suggest it was a brave attempt to provide a literal account, flawed only because its ancient authors had no hard data; but if they were true scholars, they would welcome some updating. Some say that if God wanted to work via evolution, then that is his choice. Others (like the Oxford mathematician John Lennox) argue with wonderful subtlety that we should not so readily brush aside the general idea of miracles and, besides, the seven days of the creation need not have come one after the other. The point is that theology can cope (and Darwin lies in Westminster Abbey).


Religion of course can be discussed from many angles, but the absolute and immediate importance of religion lies in its contribution to morality. The point was made at least indirectly by 18th-century philosopher David Hume - oddly, perhaps, since he is commonly perceived as an atheist. For Hume pointed out that all morality, in the end, is rooted in feeling (what he called "passion"). The long and convoluted arguments of moral philosophers (now often barbarously called "ethicists") are merely explications of their underlying feeling. But modern ethical committees focus on the explication; and this, in our secular age, too often resolves into an exercise in cost-effectiveness. This may be necessary, but it's not enough.


The great ethical issues of our day cannot be decided simply by totting up the pros and cons. Without emotional underpinning, the totting is vacuous. The conservation of wildlife, for example, must be an economic exercise, but it cannot be just that. Above all, we have to give a damn. The cloning of babies is not just a matter of risk, or even of possible happiness versus possible unhappiness. Inter alia, we should never stop asking whether and why such cloning might be wrong even if some people were made happy by it; asking if, behind expediency, lie moral absolutes.


The search for such absolutes is the domain of religion. In particular, only religion focuses directly on the component that Hume took to be the most important: the emotional response. This by itself should cause us to take religion seriously. Arguments over what is "true" are endlessly interesting, but for many people they seem an intellectual luxury. The moral underpinning we can't do without.


Darwin was not an out-and-out atheist. At one time he was intended for the church but - like so many of his contemporaries, including George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and Dostoyevsky, and quite independently of his own biological musing - he lost such simple faith as he might once have had. He was content (up to a point) to adopt TH Huxley's epithet, "agnostic": holding no opinion on what could not be known.


The continuing fight is an anachronism. It is rooted in misunderstanding both of religion and (oddly, since it is fought by some outstanding scientists) of science. It is often said that science answers "how" questions while religion asks "why", but that is simplistic. The greater point lies in their scope. Religion, properly conceived, attempts to provide an account of all there is: the most complete narrative that human beings are capable of. Science, by contrast, is - as the British zoologist Sir Peter Medawar put the matter - "the art of the soluble". It addresses only those questions that it occurs to scientists to ask, and feel they have a chance of answering. The account it provides is wonderful. It has shown that the universe is incomparably more extraordinary, and altogether more glorious, than could ever be conceived by the unaided imagination. Yet it succeeds by narrowing its focus, as a matter of strategy. The story that science tells us, then, does not stand in contrast to that of religion.


Colin Tudge, Friday September 12 2003, The Guardian