I Have No Religious Belief and Yet I Am a Tribal Christian

By Rees, Martin | New Statesman (1996), April 25, 2011 | Go to article overview

I Have No Religious Belief and Yet I Am a Tribal Christian


Rees, Martin, New Statesman (1996)


It was a surprise to me to be awarded the Templeton Prize, joining an eclectic roll-call of scientists, philosophers, theologians and public figures among the previous winners. I feel I tick only one of the relevant boxes: like other scientists who have won it in recent years, I focus on "big questions" (in my case, cosmology) and have made efforts to communicate the essence of my work to a wide public.

I don't do this well, but that skilled expositors such as the physicists Brian Cox and Jim al-Khalili attract such large television audiences indicates the broad fascination with questions about our origins, life in space, our long-range destiny and the laws of nature.

Most practising scientists focus on "bite-sized" problems that are timely and tractable. The occupational risk is then to lose sight of the big picture. The words of A N Whitehead are as true today as ever: "Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains."

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Darwinist discontents

It is astonishing that human brains, which evolved to cope with the everyday world, have been able to grasp the counterintuitive mysteries of the cosmos and the quantum. But there seems no reason why they should be matched to every intellectual quest - we could easily be as unaware of crucial aspects of reality as a monkey is of the theory of relativity.

This seems to have been Charles Darwin's attitude to religion, at least at some stage in his life. In a letter to the Swiss-American biologist Louis Agassiz, he said: "The whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe as he can."

This is a glaringly different stance from that adopted by some of Darwinism's high-profile proponents today. We should all oppose - as Darwin did - views manifestly in conflict with the evidence, such as creationism. (Last year's Templeton winner, Francisco Ayala, has been in the forefront of that campaign in the US.) But we shouldn't set up this debate as "religion v science"; instead, we should strive for peaceful coexistence with at least the less dogmatic strands of mainstream religions, which number many excellent scientists among their adherents. This, at least, is my view - a pallid and boring one, both for those who wish to promote constructive engagement between science and religion, and for those who prefer antagonistic debate. I am, I suppose, an "accommodationist" - a disparaging epithet used by anti-religion campaigners to describe those who don't share their fervour. Richard Dawkins described me as a "compliant quisling".

But I am a sceptic. If we learn anything from the pursuit of science, it is that even something as basic as an atom is quite hard to understand. We should be unsurprised that many phenomena remain unexplained, and dubious of any claim to have achieved more than a very incomplete and metaphorical insight into any profound aspect of our existence - and, especially, we should be sceptical of dogma. …

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