Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Balanced View

If you were reading this blog earlier in the month (in the post Nothing New), you will no doubt already have gathered what my opinion is with regard to Professor Stephen Hawking's new comments about the dawn of the universe, principally his fresh assertion that God is not required in the genesis of creation.

However, yesterday the Independent contained a fascinating interview with the president of the Royal Society, Baron Rees of Ludlow. In it he criticises the one dimensional nature of Hawking's conclusions... specifically from the angle that it lacks a basic understanding of theology or philosophy.

There are a couple of points I wish to raise in turn, based on his comments. 

The first is to highlight the fact that The Independent does crank up the rhetoric by suggesting he was being scathing, whereas actually Rees is saying he knows Hawking well... and therefore in my opinion, it's unlikely he was resorting to a personal attack.

Secondly (and this is a big one), in this interview at least... he doesn't betray his own personal bias on the God issue. Further research yielded that he has described himself in several different ways... principally as a regular church-going atheist; he once clarified this in an interview with BBC Radio 3:

"I would say I don't believe any religious dogma in that if science teaches me anything, it teaches me that even simple things, like a hydrogen atom, are pretty hard to understand. And therefore I become rather sceptical of anyone who claims to have more than a very incomplete, metaphorical understanding of any deep aspects of reality. So I'm sceptical of anyone who claims confidently to believe any dogma. But nonetheless I share with religious people a concept of the mystery and wonder of the universe, and even more of human life and therefore participate in religious services. And of course those I participate in are as it were, the 'customs of my tribe', which happens to be the Church of England."

One might argue that there is little difference here to Professor Richard Dawkins' idea of "Cultural Christianity" (the idea that worship itself is meaningless, but the rituals, traditions and theatrics are endearing and harmless fun). I've been critical of this notion before but I have to say that in Baron Rees case, I don't think it applies. He strikes me as the kind of person who likes to explore theories and mysteries and doesn't take kindly to the suggestion that you should believe anything wholesale whether that be a belief in God or a position of utter godlessness. His real issue is clearly dogma and the idea of the monopoly on truth. He clearly knows his stuff and must be fairly well versed in theology and philosophy... else he'd look pretty foolish for implying Hawking isn't.

Essentially, Rees comes across as a man who has a thirst for knowledge in whatever shape it comes; a person who has a constantly evolving view of the universe based on what he learns/observes in the world around him.

Where am I going with this? Well I believe the reason Rees doesn't raise his personal beliefs in the interview... are because they aren't pertinent to his point. If he invoked his personal views, he'd be endorsing one camp over the other... and that's something in his professionalism, he won't do.

My third point is why I believe he did this. A key theme in the interview is about how science and faith do not need to be opposing forces... a view I am 100% in agreement with him on. There are many scientists (particularly in the field of astrophysics and genetics), who choose to see God in the detail... and they should be no less worthy of respect as the more secular minded. Are their doctorates and scholarships any less valid? No, of course not... only a fool would assume the "believer" label renders someone stupid by default.

I have no doubt that Professor Dawkins will respond within days in The Guardian, attacking the Rees interview... lets not forget that he condemned Rees as a "compliant Quisling" for making similar remarks before. I find this remarkably rude and uncivilised behaviour. Dawkins would be a fool to retort really, his increasingly derogatory and irrational outbursts show him up for what he really is... a bigot. A highly intellectual bigot, but a bigot nonetheless.

If Dawkins and other like-minded individuals (in both camps), were to take an attitude more akin to Baron Rees, the Earth would be a better place.  I say this not just because we'd be getting along better as a species and civilization... but also because butting heads over the issues of creationism (in its diverse forms) and evolution needlessly expends a lot of energy and intelligent thought which could be better spent elsewhere.

Baron Rees has a belief and a pessimism. His belief is that humanity has within it's means the ability to develop technologically and culturally in a manner that will preserve and prove beneficial to this humble yet beautiful rock we call home. His pessimism is that we also have the selfishness, thoughtlessness and greed to do it great harm (in fact he has placed a bet that sometime within the next twenty years, a million people will die as a result of a major, man-made, biological catastrophe. It's a chilling thought... and something he actually doesn't want to win.

In conclusion then, there are a number of paths ahead of us. We can carry on bickering like school children... about who is best or who is right. We can put all our differing views in the blender and say nobody is right and nobody is wrong... but that doesn't seem very respectful to anyone... does it? Or maybe, just maybe we can learn to accept the differences we share with one another and take comfort and encouragement in the common ground... where all of us work to better humanity together through technology, scholarship, philanthropy, or apart through theology and theory. If we truly have the best intentions of the children of tomorrow at heart, then should let our successors hear what we have to say when we are united and when we are peaceably at odds... and draw their own conclusions

I think that despite whatever differences we have, that is something both Baron Rees and I would both agree on...

What about you?

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