God's science project: The resurgence of religion in the United States and the cultivation of the religious vote by George Bush has given rise to a “culture war” in American intellectual life, a battle between scientific rationalism and religious faith which is focused on the theory of evolution and its implications for the existence of God.
There have been echoes of this war in the Irish press. The most ardent promoter of the scientific viewpoint has been Ian O'Doherty, the Independent's resident obnoxious columnist, while the most dedicated defender of religion has, bizzarely, been Professor William Reville, the Irish Times' science columnist.
On Thursday 5 January, Reville devoted his column, for the umpteenth time, to an attempted scientific defence of God. As usual, the demon of the piece was Richard Dawkins whose most recent book, The God Delusion, is a typically provocative and iconoclastic attack on the very basis of religious belief. Reville's article opened by noting that another well-known evolutionary theorist, Stephen Jay Gould, claimed that religion and science occupy “non-overlapping magisteria”. A questionable claim in itself, but one which Reville promptly ignored as he continued in his ill-advised quest to find scientific support for God's existence.
His second point related to the fact that a minority of scientists profess a belief in God, including some famous ones. Fortunately, however, a core principle of science is that we accept things because they are supported by logic and evidence, not because clever people say they are so. Nonetheless, if the opinions of clever people impress you, the statistics show that scientists are vastly less likely to believe in God than the populations from which they come, and this correlation increases with the length and depth of exposure to science.
Worse was to come. Reville claimed that there is “dilute scientific evidence in favour of God”, namely the fact that if the values of the universal physical constants were even slightly different, life could not have evolved, thus these constants appear to have been calibrated by an intelligent entity. This is an updated version of the infamous argument first popularised by the 19th-century theologian William Paley and today a favourite of US fundamentalists in their attempts to get a dilute form of creationism onto school syllabuses. This particular “intelligent design” argument is generally considered to be fallacious on a number of fronts – it contains the prosecutor's fallacy and the anthropocentric fallacy and depends upon unproven and highly questionable assumptions – but more importantly it isn't really a defence of religion. There aren't any religions which believe in a god whose sole intervention in the universe was to assign values to constants 13.7 billion years ago; religions believe in particular gods with definite attributes, none of which are remotely supported by science.
Finally, Reville's argument descended into farce as he launched into yet another assault on the “new secular religion of political correctness” – a polemical tirade completely unrelated to scientific thinking. Still, at least Reville has managed to make Ian O'Doherty seem like a shining light of rationalism – a minor miracle in itself.