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Science and religion don't have to be enemies

Richard Dawkins called him a "compliant quisling" for accepting the Templeton Prize. Here, Martin Re

It was a surprise to me to be awarded the Templeton Prize, joining an eclectic roll-call of scientists, philosophers, theologians and public figures among the previous winners. I feel I tick only one of the relevant boxes: like other scientists who have won it in recent years, I focus on "big questions" (in my case, cosmology) and have made efforts to communicate the essence of my work to a wide public.

I don't do this well, but that skilled expositors such as the physicists Brian Cox and Jim al-Khalili attract such large television audiences indicates the broad fascination with questions about our origins, life in space, our long-range destiny and the laws of nature.

Most practising scientists focus on "bite-sized" problems that are timely and tractable. The occupational risk is then to lose sight of the big picture. The words of A N Whitehead are as true today as ever: "Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains."

Darwinist discontents

It is astonishing that human brains, which evolved to cope with the everyday world, have been able to grasp the counterintuitive mysteries of the cosmos and the quantum. But there seems no reason why they should be matched to every intellectual quest - we could easily be as unaware of crucial aspects of reality as a monkey is of the theory of relativity.

This seems to have been Charles Darwin's attitude to religion, at least at some stage in his life. In a letter to the Swiss-American biologist Louis Agassiz, he said: "The whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe as he can."

This is a glaringly different stance from that adopted by some of Darwinism's high-profile proponents today. We should all oppose - as Darwin did - views manifestly in conflict with the evidence, such as creationism. (Last year's Templeton winner, Francisco Ayala, has been in the forefront of that campaign in the US.) But we shouldn't set up this debate as "religion v science"; instead, we should strive for peaceful coexistence with at least the less dogmatic strands of mainstream religions, which number many excellent scientists among their adherents.

This, at least, is my view - a pallid and boring one, both for those who wish to promote constructive engagement between science and religion, and for those who prefer antagonistic debate. I am, I suppose, an "accommodationist" - a disparaging epithet used by anti-religion campaigners to describe those who don't share their fervour. Richard Dawkins described me as a "compliant quisling".

But I am a sceptic. If we learn anything from the pursuit of science, it is that even something as basic as an atom is quite hard to understand. We should be unsurprised that many phenomena remain unexplained, and dubious of any claim to have achieved more than a very incomplete and metaphorical insight into any profound aspect of our existence - and, especially, we should be sceptical of dogma. This is certainly why I have no religious belief.

Despite this, I continue to be nourished by the music and liturgy of the Church in which I was brought up. Just as there are many Jews who keep the Friday ritual in their home despite describing themselves as atheists, I am a "tribal Christian", happy to attend church services.

Campaigning against religion can be socially counterproductive. If teachers take the uncompromising line that God and Darwinism are irreconcilable, many young people raised in a faith-based culture will stick with their religion and be lost to science. Moreover, we need all the allies we can muster against fundamentalism - a palpable, perhaps growing concern.

Mainstream religions - such as the Anglican Church - should be welcomed as being on our side in any such confrontation. (Indeed, one reason I would like to see them stronger is that the archbishops who lead the Church of England, Rowan Williams and John Sentamu, two remarkable but utterly different personalities, both elevate the tone of our public life.)

Pale blue dot

And not even the most secular among us can fail to be uplifted by Christianity's architectural legacy - the great cathedrals. These immense and glorious buildings were erected in an era of constricted horizons, both in time and in space. Even the most educated knew of essentially nothing beyond Europe; they thought the world was a few thousand years old, and that it might not last another thousand.

Unlike the cathedral-builders, we know a great deal about our world - and, indeed, about what lies beyond. Technologies that our ancestors couldn't have conceived of enrich our lives and our understanding. Many phenomena still make us fearful, but the advance of science spares us from irrational dread.

Some might think that intellectual immersion in vast expanses of space and time would render cosmologists serene and uncaring about what happens next year, next week, or tomorrow. For me, however, the opposite is the case. We know we are stewards of a precious "pale blue dot", a planet with a future measured in billions of years, whose fate depends on humanity's collective actions this century.

In today's fast-changing world, we can't aspire to leave a monument lasting 1,000 years, but it would be shameful if our focus remained short term and parochial, and we thereby denied future generations a fair inheritance. Wise choices will require the effective efforts of natural scientists, environmentalists, social scientists and humanists. All must be guided by the knowledge that 21st-century science can offer - but inspired by an idealism, vision and commitment that science alone can't provide.

Martin Rees is Astronomer Royal and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation