October 04, 2008

It has long been known that the Nobel Prizes in Peace and Literature are sometimes awarded to questionable characters such as Le Duc Tho, Yasser Arafat, and Dario Fo.  But even Nobel laureates in the hard sciences can make stupid pronouncements when they step outside their disciplines, as Chemistry laureate Harry Kroto recently proved in a broadside against religion published in the Guardian.  The occasion for Kroto’s outburst was the Royal Society’s recent dismissal of its Director of Science Education, the Reverend Michael Reiss, who gave a speech saying that students with creationist beliefs should not be dismissed out of hand, but that science teachers should instead “take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis.”

According to Kroto, the fundamental problem with Reiss is that “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 unfounded dogma as having fundamental significance.”   Any belief that God had any role in the creation of the universe is an “irrational unsubstantiated claim of no fundamental validity.”   And while Kroto generously allows that “I do not have a particularly big problem with scientists who may have some personal mystical beliefs,” he does have a “problem with an ordained minister as Director of Science Education” because “An ordained minister must have accepted that there was a creator.”  In other words, only atheists can teach science, and only atheists, or those whose “personal mystical beliefs” do not entail belief in a creator, may really practice science.  Indeed, Kroto warned against Reiss’ appointment in the first place because of his religious views.

Kroto apparently has little knowledge or understanding of the history of Western civilization.  The scientific enterprise to which Kroto has contributed in his work was begun by believers and the most distinguished historical contributors to the scientific enterprise have been believers.  In his study of human accomplishment, Charles Murray lists the ten most important figures in the category of general science as Newton, Galileo, Aristotle, Kepler, Lavoisier, Descartes, Huygens, Laplace, Einstein, and Faraday, only one of whom, Einstein, was likely an atheist.  (There is some doubt about Laplace’s views, but he received the Last Sacrament and was buried in his parish church).  And the only figure on this list whose principal achievements were in Kroto’s discipline of chemistry, Lavoisier, wrote to an English colleague who defended religion, “You have done a noble thing in upholding revelation and the authenticity of the Holy Scripture, and it is remarkable that you are using for the defence precisely the same weapons which were once used for the attack.”  In what way did these scientists’ belief in God impede them from advancing human understanding?

Even more problematic for Kroto is the existence of distinguished scientists who were also clergymen, including Gregor Mendel, who was both the father of genetics and the abbot of the monastery where he conducted his experiments, and Geroges Lemaitre, the Belgian priest-scientist credited with the discovery of the Big Bang.  Some 35 features on the moon are named after Jesuit scientists and mathematicians, and Jesuits (and other Western missionaries) were instrumental in spreading science throughout the world.  Would Kroto deign to have students taught science by the likes of Mendel and Lemaitre?

Then there are the inconsistencies in Kroto’s own views.  Kroto dismisses persons with religious belief as irrational because the existence of God cannot be demonstrated using the scientific method; indeed, he writes that “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.”  Yet he frets about ways in which “our democratic freedoms are undermined” and asks that Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation be used to form the basis of sermons at church, so that “perhaps some of their flock may understand what intellectual intergrity and true humanity actually involve.”   Is Kroto also irrational for giving weight to such concepts as “our democratic freedoms,” “intellectual integrity,” and “true humanity,” none of which are subject to the sort of scientific inquiry Kroto sets up as the sole basis of rationality?   Using the criteria for rationality set up by Kroto, how could he hope to convince others to give importance to such concepts?  And what would Kroto say of people who share his belief in “democratic freedoms” and “true humanity” on the basis of their own religious beliefs, beliefs that helped to create Western civilization, whether Kroto wishes to acknowledge that fact or not?  The campaign of the new atheists against religion is both short-sighted and foolish, as Harry Kroto has once again proven.


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