Canossa revisited : Science, State, and Religion

March 31, 2010

I expect you all saw @ProfBrianCox on @Wossy. Thats Twitterspeak for Brian Cox on the Jonathan Ross show . I think. New at this stuff. Anyway, it was j.good. Everybody loved the will-he won’t-he finger in the liquid Nitrogen thing. Rather more Dr Bunhead than Carl Sagan if you know what I mean, but hey that’s good. My favourite moment was a little more serious. Ross suddenly asked Cox whether he was atheist, religious, agnostic or what. Brian paused slightly and then stated that personally he was comfortable living with uncertainty, and that was what science gave you. Well, spot on, but of course he didn’t actually answer the question. Part of me thought this was chickening out, and part of me thought it was very wise. It didn’t rule out Einstein style cosmic pantheism, and didn’t criticise anybody’s personal choices, but left you to work out for yourself that religion is a crutch you don’t need. But do we need to take sides ? A year in the USA reminded me that millions of people believe that science is the enemy of religion; not because science is intrinsically evil, but because it is part of a secular state which limits their freedom to teach their children what they wish.

My Christmas reading included Millenium by Tom Holland. Set at a time when people were deeply religious and thought the world was about to end, the central story is about the battle for authority between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope. The turning point was when the excommunicated Henry IV crawled to the castle at Canossa in 1077 to do penance. Pope Clement kept him waiting outside the gate, in his hair shirt, for several days before admitting him to an audience. This established papal supremacy. At least thats what Mr Holland told me.

I thought of this as the Catholic Church child abuse scandal kept rolling on. The jaw dropping thing is not that priests did those awful things, but that the Church felt it was above the law, and had no need to hand the guilty over to Caesar. For a while it looked like Pope Benedict would have his Canossa-in-reverse in Ireland, as the pressure grew for him to publicly grovel. But the result was still an expression of regret for the crimes committed by others, and sympathy for the pain felt by victims – not an apology for covering everything up.

Meanwhile it seems, the same US states that legislate for a requirement to teach religious scepticism concerning evolution, also wish to insist on scepticism concerning global warming. (See this NY Times article.) Why ? Does the Bible say that changes in climate are not anthropogenic ? Don’t think so. I think its because in Christian minds, science is at the core of a rational secular state which wishes to squash their culture and remove their freedom to believe. Even our academic humanist colleagues think there is an unhealthy bias towards the state funding of science.

Right now many physicists are tempted to see the State as a barbarian force intent on squeezing out the pursuit of truth and replacing it with the pursuit of gold, even making the production of gold the test of value for scientific activity. Well we all know the dangers, but its really only fine tuning. The religious zealots are right. We are at the heart of the military industrial complex.  Government knows the value of science. Since radar and the bomb, we get lots of money. You think thats because the goverment think we are fine men and women and deserve to have an undisturbed life of enquiry ?   We are public servants. Our paymasters want as much as they can for their money. Whats more, they are not obliged to see science as a single block.

The Government is minded to appoint a Minister for Life Sciences. Now stop obsessing about UKSA and worry about that instead.

Minister for Space anyone ?