Posts Tagged ‘Dawkins’

Robert Boyle, Atheism and Christians in Science

May 8, 2013

Robert Boyle was one of the founder of modern experimental science in the 17th century. His book, the Sceptical Chymist, broke with medieval alchemy to lay the foundations for modern chemistry. Unlike previous, Aristotelian Natural Philosophers, Boyle believed that the universe was composed of atoms. This theory was viewed with great suspicion in the 16th and 17th centuries, as it had originated with the ancient Epicureans. These considered that the universe had been created by chance without the intervention by the gods, although they did not deny their existence completely. It was thus considered an atheist doctrine. Boyle himself was deeply religious, and bequeathed a legacy to set up a series of annual lectures arguing for and promoting Christianity. He also attempted to argue for Christianity and the compatibility of the Christian faith with the new science in his book, The Christian Virtuoso. Many of the arguments he advanced there are still valid today.

In the book’s preface, Boyle states that

‘I could scarce avoid taking notice of the great and deplorable growth of irreligion, especially among those, that aspired to pass for wits, and several of them too for philosophers. And on the other side it was obvious, that diverse learned men, as well as others, partly upon the score of their abhorrence of these infidels and libertines, and partly upon that of a well-meaning but ill-formed zeal, had brought many good men to think, that religon and philosophy were incompatible; both parties contributing to the vulgar error, but with this difference, that the libertines thought a virguoso ought not be a Christian, and the others, that he could not be a true one’.

He then argued that, whilst some atheists used science to oppose religion and Christianity, truly devout people would find in science even greater reasons to believe and praise the Lord:

‘And I deny not, but that, if the knowledge of nature falls into the hands of a resolved atheist, or a sensual libertine, he may misemploy it to oppugn the grounds, or discredit the practice of religion. But it will far much otherwise, if a deep insight into nature be acquired by a man of probity and ingenuity, or at least free from prejudices and vices, that may indispose him to entertain and improve those truths of philosophy, that would naturally lead him to sentiments of religion. For, if a person thus qualified in his morals, and thereby disposed to make use of of the knowledge of the creatures to confirm his belief, and increase his veneration of the Creator (and such a person I here again advertise you, and desire you would not forget it, I suppose the virtuoso, this papers is concerned in, to be) shall make a great progress in real philosophy; I am persuaded, that nature will be found very loyal to her author; and instead of alienating his mind from making religious acknowledgements, will furnish him with weighty and uncommon motives, to conclude, such sentiments to be rational and just’.

Boyle then goes on to quote the founder of the experimental method, Francis Bacon, whom he acclaims as the ‘first and greatest experimental philosopher of our age’

‘that God never wrought a miracle to convince atheists; because in his visible works he had placed enough to do it, if they were not wanting to themselves’.

Boyle himself was not impressed either by contemporary atheists’ grasp of the new science, or their arguments in favour of atheism. He states

‘I must own to you, that I do not think there are so many speculative atheists, as men are wont to imagine. And though my conversation has been pretty free and general among naturalists, yet I have met with so few true atheists, that I am very apt to think, that men’s want of due information, or their uncharitable zeal, has made them mistake or misrepresent many for deniers of God, that are thought such, chiefly because they take uncommon methods in in studying his works, and have other sentiments of them, than those of vulgar philosophers. And in the next place I must tell you, that having through the goodness of God, chosen my religion, not inconsiderately but upon mature deliberation, I do not find those virtuosi, you call atheists, such formidable adversaries, as those that are afraid to hear them do, by that apprehension, appear to think them. And indeed I have observed the physical arguments of the atheists to be but very few, and those far enough from being unanswerable.’

These arguments still apply today. From the statements made by very vociferous atheist scientists like Dawkins and Steven Weinberg, you could be mistaken for believing that all scientists were atheists, and indeed true scientists could only be atheists. Yet a Gallup poll made nearly a decade or so ago recorded that the proportion of religious and atheist scientists had not changed since the poll was first made a hundred years previously. Even then the number of theist scientists had surprised the researchers, who had confidently expected all the scientists to be atheists. Now the religious scientists are not in the majority, but they still form a sizable number equal to the number of atheists in science. There is a group, Christians in Science. James Hallam, the Roman Catholic historian of science who blogs as ‘Bede’ in Bede’s Library and the Adlibitum website, was an atheist until he studied physics and university and found just how unlikely it is that the cosmos does exist by chance. It can astonish you just how scientifically active and accomplished some of these religious scientists are. Yet you mostly don’t hear about them, because they’re mostly just interested in doing science, rather than using it like Dawkins and co. to promote atheism. So it’s important to bear Robert Boyle’s comments in mind the next time Dawkins or the comedian Robin Ince try claiming science for atheism.


Robert Boyle, The Christian Virtuoso, in D.C. Goodman, ed., Science and Religious Belief 1600-1900: Selection of Primary Sources (Dorchester: John Wright and Sons/ The Open University 1973) 119-29.


Dawkins’ Atheist Bus Service

February 7, 2009

Richard Dawkins has been in the news a bit recently. Firstly, about a fortnight ago the buses in various cities in Britain started running his adverts for atheism. The slogan adopted by Dawkins and his fellows for attacking religious belief is ‘God probably doesn’t exist, so be happy.’ This has prompted its share of comment and controversy. According to the British papers, one Christian bus driver in Southampton, Ron Flowers, refused to drive one of the buses with the slogan. Apparently he turned up for work one Friday, saw that he was supposed to drive that bus, and went home instead. According to the bus company, when he turned up for work on Monday the company decided instead to reach some kind of arrangement with him so that he could drive another vehicle instead. A spokesman for the Humanist Society declared that they couldn’t understand why someone would be offended by someone else’s statement of belief, while a spokesman for the Methodist Society stated that they had no problems with atheists sticking the slogan on buses, as this encouraged people to think about these important issues.

Now my own point of view is that atheists like Dawkins and the Humanist Society have every right to have their adverts carried on buses and other places. It’s a free society, and so they should have the right to express and try to promote their views, just like people of faith. However, I also consider that Dawkins’ atheist bus campaign presents far more problems for atheism, and indeed itself constitutes a rebuttal of some of their arguments, than it does for people of faith.

Firstly, it bears out Aleister McGrath’s view in The Twilight of Atheism that much of the New Atheist attack on religion is due to religion not declining as was expected by atheists in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Also, the content of the slogan itself has managed to offend many people regardless of their own personal stance on religion or political affiliation. The advert was briefly discussed this past week on the BBC magazine programme, The One Show, broadcast on BBC 1. One of the presenters, Christine Blakeley, felt it was arrogant for Dawkins to state that religious believers were miserable. They had as one of their guests on their show the fertility expert, Dr. Robert Winston, who has himself presented a number of science programmes on the Beeb. Winston’s very definitely a supporter of Charles Darwin, and was talking about a children’s book he’s written about evolution. He also made it clear that he was a friend of Dawkins, but objected to the buses’ slogan and stated that he also found Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, also to be arrogant in its choice of title. In fact, Winston gave a speech at the Edinburgh branch of the British Association for the Advancement of Science a few years ago where he stated that, as much as he liked Dawkins’ personally, Dawkins’ attempts to promote atheism in the name of science was itself unscientific and indeed damaging to science.

There are also a number of non-scientists who were similarly unimpressed with the adverts. They were discussed a few weeks on BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz, which, like Have I Got News For You on TV, takes a satirical look at the week’s news. One of the regular guests on the programme is Jeremy Hardy, a man of strong left-wing opinions, who isn’t afraid to criticise organise religion. However, he described Dawkins as ‘one of those irritating professional atheists’. This seems to indicate that Dawkins’ campaign has managed to annoy a lot of people regardless of their personal views on the existence of God or religion. This might be because people generally don’t like to be told what to believe or how to vote by others. Now one of the most frequent objections to organised religion is that it tells people what to believe. But this is exactly what Dawkins and his fellows have done with their bus slogan: they are telling people not to believe in God. The slogan is not ‘We believe that there is probably no God, and recommend that you be happy’, but ‘There is probably no God, so be happy’. Now I’ve no objection to people being told to be happy, but there is clearly a problem in that the posters are telling people ‘there is probably no God’.

In fact there are further, more profound objections to Dawkins’ slogan. There’s the question of how Dawkins can say authoritatively that ‘there is probably no God.’ One can question not just the validity of the statement, but the logic and arguments that support it. However, the slogan doesn’t present any: it’s just an assertion, a statement of belief purporting to be fact.

There is also the problem that the non-existence of God does not necessarily lead to happiness. For atheist existentialists such as Camus and Sartre, the non-existence of God meant that man was free, but also condemned to a meaningless existence, and much atheist, existentialist literature is occupied by the anxiety and despair that created by this lack of transcendental meaning. So, rather than atheism leading necessarily to happiness, it may also lead to misery and despair. Indeed, Hume, the great founder of modern Scepticism, himself declared that at times his rational investigation of the cosmos filled him with such despair that he had to take a break from his philosophical activities and amuse himself for a few hours. Nevertheless, when he returned to his philosophical analyses once again, they appeared so cold, strained and ridiculous, that he didn’t want to go any further with them.

Many religions, by contrast, offer the joy of a truly meaningful universe in which humanity can find fulfilment both as a creature in the cosmos, and through contact with the gods and deeper realities that give that cosmos meaning. In Christianity, humanity was created by the Lord for fellowship with Him, and so has a profound meaning and dignity. People of faith are not necessarily miserable, and indeed there is considerable evidence that they are happier and enjoy better mental health than other, secular individuals. Religion, and Christianity, can therefore be seen as far more optimistic than the atheism that Dawkins seeks to promote.

Dawkins, ID and Forteanism

June 9, 2008

Looking through this month’s copy of the Fortean Times, a monthly dedicated to reporting the weird and bizarre, I was particularly struck by two letters to the magazine from readers defending Dawkins from criticisms made by two of the FT’s long-term columnists, Noel Rooney and The Hierophant’s Apprentice, and the columnists’ replies to the letters. What I found particularly remarkable about the comments of Dawkins supporters wasn’t their defence of Dawkins’ attacks on religion, but the fact that they found his views Fortean. The author of one of the letters stated that ‘I consider Dawkins to be most ably informed on the excesses of religion and the myth of belief and to be doing a particularly fortean job in exposing the fallacies of religions, the religious and the religious principle in all its forms’. 1Now there is some similarity between Dawkins’ views on the paranormal and the type of philosophical scepticism adopted and recommended by Charles Fort, the compiler and publisher of weird and scientifically inexplicable facts after whom the Fortean Times is named. Dawkins’ view that if the paranormal exists, then it is ‘perinormal’, that is, it is not totally outside science but will eventually become incorporated into a scientific paradigm when enough evidence is accumulated to allow this, is close to Fort’s own observations that previously damned data – facts ignored or denied by conventional science – may become accepted by science through a change in the scientific paradigm, or the Dominant as Fort himself termed it. Nevertheless, at the risk of slavishly defining Forteanism according to Fort’s own personal philosophy, something that Fort himself did not want and which Noel Rooney in his reply also criticises, there’s a big difference between Dawkins’ scepticism towards the supernatural and Forteanism.

Dawkins own scepticism is very much that of 19th century Positivism, which believed, following the theories of Auguste Comte, that religion and metaphysics had been superseded by science. Indeed the university chair Dawkins holds, that of Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, has a strongly Positivist tone, suggesting that there is a single, absolutely authoritative view of science about which the public must be informed, but must not question. This is not an ‘anti-science’ view. I recall one scientist, who certainly showed Dawkins’ concern for better communication of science, making the same arguments in an opinion article published in the ‘Forum’ column of New Scientist in the 1990s. Fort, on the other hand, while not religious, directed his scepticism very much at science and the claims of scientists who presented as objective fact a view of reality based not so much on evidence as on their own, personal beliefs, in defence of which they excluded and suppressed any scientific data that could not be fitted into it, or which actively appeared to contradict it. Fort’s Book of the Damned begins by stating this very clearly:

‘A procession of the damned.

By the damned, I mean the excluded.

We shall have a procession of data that science has excluded.’ 2

Fort’s scepticism, rather than being Positivist, appears to be closer to that of the ancient Greek Sceptics like Pyrrho and Heraclites. These ancient Greek Sceptics believed that reality was fundamentally unknowable, in that nothing definite could be said about it, and so argued for a complete detachment from belief. 3 The great Sceptical philosophers, Carneades, was notorious for being able to argue both for and against a given position with equal force. While he also considered that reality was fundamentally unknowable, he considered that some impressions were more persuasive than others, and more servicable through closer inspection and corroborating impressions. They were thus more credible, though not more certain. 4 Fort’s view that everything was in a state of intermediacy, and striving to become ‘more nearly real’ while gradually blurring into everything else, was also similar to the view of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus that everything was in a state of flux, and that nature operated through the union of opposites, stating that ‘Combinations – wholes and not wholes, concurring differing, concordant discordant, from all things one and from one all things’. 5 Fort’s scepticism towards dogmatic science was also shared by the militantly atheist Nietzsche, who also considered reality to be a flux that was only imperfectly caught and described in the net of language, and declared that any view that claimed objective validity was a ‘shadow of God’ that oppressed humanity.

Alhtough they aren’t Sceptics, in many ways the adherents of Intelligent Design have a far more Fortean approach to science than Dawkins. As Intelligent Design, by suggesting that living creatures are the product of an intelligent designer rather than chance Natural Selection, is very much contrary to existing orthodox evolutionary science, its supporters are, like Fort, critical of the claims of scientists to proceed through the dispassionate evaluation of objective evidence. Philip Johnson, one of the leading proponents of Intelligent Design, has supported his arguments in this regard using the views of the physicist and philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend, like Thomas Kuhn, considered that scientific progress largely consisted of the change of one set of self-consistent scientific concepts with another, only marginally based on the empirical evidence and not really constituting anything like progress in knowledge. 6 Although a controversial view, the history of science does provide examples of the way scientists have acted to suppress facts that do not support their current paradigm, and supporters of Intelligent Design have documented and publicised these incidents. For example, a recent post for the 26th May, ‘Can Science be Unbaised’, at the Intelligent Design site, The Design of Life, by Jane Harris Zsovan noted the intense controversy surrounding the views of Steven Shapin and Simon Shaffer in their book, Leviathan and the Air Pump. Examing the debate about the usefulness of experimental in constructing a true model of the world between Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, Shapin and Shaffer concluded that scientists were no more objective in their view of the world than other people. In November 2007, Shapin and Shaffer in an edition of the Canadian TV science programme, Ideas, that after their book came out they suffered personal abuse and even threats of sacking from their colleagues, because of their rejection of the claim that science proceeds through complete objectivity. Thus, Denyse O’Leary, another leading supporter of Intelligent Design, has stated on her blog that ID is not the first or even the only scientific debate in which one side has been attacked and declared to be ‘anti-science’ by another.

Now this does not mean that Dawkins’ view of evolution is necessarily incorrect. It just means that in this instance, his view of science is less Fortean than that of the supporters of Intelligent Design, even though they aren’t sceptics like Fort himself. However, I do find interesting the recommendation of one of Dawkins’ defenders in their letter that Dawkins’ successor as Professor for the Public Understanding of Science should be invited to take part in the Fortean Times’ annual Unconvention and debate the motion ‘this house believes that all science undergraduates should be made to read Charles Fort’s The Book of the Damned’. 7 My guess is that they wouldn’t, especially if the similarity between Fort’s views appeared to support the wider philosophy of science expressed by Intelligent Design.


1. Philip Bolt, ‘Dissing Dawkins’, in Fortean Times, no. 237, (2008), p. 74.

2. X, ed., with introduction by Bob Rickard, Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned (London, John Brown Publishing 1995), p. 1.

3. ‘Scepticism’ in J. Speake, ed., A Dictionary of Philosophy (London, Pan Books 1979), p. 314.

4. ‘Scepticism’, in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 314, and ‘Carneades’ in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 56.

5. Aristotle, On the World, 396b7-8, 20-25, cited in Jonathan Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1987), p. 114.

6. ‘Science, Philosophy of’, in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 320.

7. ‘Dissing Dawkins’, Jason Mills, Fortean Times, no. 237, (2008, p. 74.