Awesome Versus Adipose
Who Really Works Hardest to Banish Ignorance?
by Peter Atkins
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 2.
Science is almost totally incompatible with religion. I say "almost," but I
do not wish that weasel word to be construed as weakness. The only point of compatibility
is that there are well-meaning, honest people on both sides who are genuinely and deeply
concerned with discovering the truth about this wonderful world. That having been said,
there is no actual compatibility between science and religion.
Science's dispassionate stare examines issues publicly, exchanges information openly,
discusses awkward points objectively, and builds up a network of interdependent ideas and
theories that progressively expose the complex as an outcome of the simple. Religion's
inwardly directed sentimental glow reflects on issues privately, exchanges information by
assurance and assertion, discusses awkward points by warfare, terror, and coercion, and
builds up a network of conflicting ideas that conceal ignorance under a cloak of
high-flown yet empty prose.
Science reveals where religion conceals. Where religion purports to explain, it
actually resorts to tautology. To assert that "God did it" is no more than an
admission of ignorance dressed deceitfully as an explanation. Science, with its publicly
accessible corpus of information and its open, scrutable arguments, can lead the wondering
to an understanding of the entire physical world. (Below, of course, I shall have to argue
that that is the entire world.)
Science respects the power of the human intellect; religion belittles it. Science gives
us the prospect of full understanding, for it continues to show that, given time, there is
no aspect of the world that is closed to its scrutiny and explanation. Religion
disarmingly avers that human brains are too puny to achieve full comprehension. Yet
science is progressively advancing toward complete knowledge, leaving religions bobbing
about in its wake.
Science is hard work, but the answers it hews from the rock face of ignorance are
reliable. Religion is armchair speculation well fitted to adipose brains. Science cannot
answer deep questions by words alone: it draws on the perspiration of countless
experimenters and the struggles of theoreticians to make sense of the data. Religion can
speculate wildly, and therefore uselessly, from flabby, personal opinion and never be put
to the test, except perhaps beyond the grave. There is, of course, no beyond the grave
except in the minds of those who cannot come to terms with the prospect of their own
Science searches for the underlying simplicity from which springs the astounding
complexity that surrounds and delights us. Science is quarrying observations and seeking
the ultimate simplicity of existence. Ultimate truth will be of awesome simplicity;
tracing that simplicity up into the world of phenomena may well prove to be more demanding
than the exposure of the simplicity. But that difficulty will not mean that the discovery
of the simplicity is a false foundation. Religion searches for the all-embracing
complexity - God - that somehow, and in an intrinsically inscrutable way, accounts for all
that there is. The explanation of a lesser entity in terms of a greater one is a
perversion of what it means to explain.
But the crux of the argument is not wholly the superiority of science as a mode of
understanding the physical world: it is whether that physical world is the entire world,
and whether there is any aspect of existence that necessarily lies outside the kingdom of
science. If there is, then science cannot claim to be anything more than a partial
contributor to global understanding. If there is not, then science is at least potentially
capable of providing complete understanding of all there is.
Here, though, we must be very careful to distinguish between questions that have been
invented and questions that at least seem to be real. Only the latter are likely to lead
to true understanding of the world; the former merely expose the psychological condition
of individuals and societies who invent them. I am afraid that, in my view, most of the
questions that so exercise the religious are of the former, empty kind. Thus, whereas it
may seem to be a perfectly legitimate question to ask, What is the purpose of this
universe?, in fact that question is a transposition from everyday life. There is no need
for this universe to have a purpose: it could be a wholly purposeless accidental entity.
Because religion implicitly asserts that science cannot divine the purpose of the
universe, the religious conclude that science's orb is incomplete. That, of course is
illogical, for religion cannot be allowed to invent illusory hoops for its adversaries to
leap through: hoops, yes; illusory hoops, no. There are several examples of the invention
of such hoops, including life after death (not a jot of evidence, if wishful thinking is
excluded), the soul (ditto), and the existence of evil in a world created by an infinitely
loving God (a trivial problem if there is no such God).
Somewhere on the borderline between the invented and the real lies the question of the
human spirit and its associated qualities, such as love and aesthetic appreciation. I
grant that these qualities, or at least their physiological appurtenances, exist. The
question, then, is whether science can elucidate them.
There is no evidence that it cannot, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that it can
without resorting to supernatural importations. Love is a complex emotion, involving
genetically controlled responses, hormonal excretions, and intellectual reflections and
considerations. Science can elucidate such a condition, even though it will probably never
purport to be able to predict whether one individual will fall in love with another
(although even dating agencies have some success in that field). Mysterious and complex
love may be, but it certainly holds open the prospect of elucidation. Aesthetics, too, is
not inconceivably comprehensible. Acts of valor, heroism, creativity, grandeur, and
criminality all lie within the domain of psychology, and psychology is at least a twig if
not a full-blown branch of science. Complex, agreed; unpredictable, maybe; but not closed
There is of course one big, cosmically big, seemingly real question: Where did it all
come from? Here we see most sharply the distinction between the methods. Religion adopts
the adipose answer: God made it - for reasons that will forever remain inscrutable until,
perhaps, we become one with Him (that is, until we are dead). Such an answer, while
intrinsically absurd and evil in its implications, appears to satisfy those for whom God
is a significant part of their existence. Science, in contrast, is steadily and
strenuously working toward a comprehensible explanation. Witness the extraordinary
progress that has been made since the development of general relativity at the beginning
of the twentieth century. Though difficult, and still incomplete, there is no reason to
believe that the great problem, how the universe came into being, and what it is, will not
be solved; we can safely presume that the solution will be comprehensible to human minds.
Moreover, that understanding will be achieved this side of the grave.
In short, whereas religion scorns the power of human comprehension, science, the nobler
pursuit, respects it.
Peter Atkins is Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Lincoln College. His books include Creation Revisited (W.
H. Freeman, 1992)