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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

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“It's nothing radical”: Jeremy Corbyn supporters on why his politics are just common sense

The new Labour leader's backers are opposed to austerity and passionate about grassroots democracy – just don't call them “radical”.

Stand-up comedian Grainne Maguire has been a long-time supporter of the Labour party and regularly performs at their events and rallies. When Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader, she was happy to see the party take a decisive turn to the left. "We have a radically right-wing Conservative government at the moment. We need a clear left-wing alternative. Of all the candidates, Corbyn was the only one offering that,” she explains.

“It's not a bad thing that we now have a leader who is as left-wing as David Cameron is right-wing. Corbyn's been presented in the press as being radical, extremist – a placard-carrying lunatic – but putting his ideas down on paper, I don't think anybody would really think they're that crazy."

On the BBC’s recent Panorama tracking the rise of Corbyn, Maguire was presented as an almost obsessive supporter of the party’s "radical" repositioning – but like many young Labour members, she doesn’t class her views as extreme: "I find the 'radical' label patronising. It's a way of dismissing the genuine passions and issues facing a lot of young people today. What is radical about thinking we should have affordable housing? What is radical about saying we should support workers and make sure people are treated properly? On the issue of renationalising the railways, you couldn't have a more populist policy. There's nothing radical about these things. They’re common sense.”

Maguire doesn’t think of herself as a particularly active campaigner, but over recent months she has become more engaged with Labour’s movement, especially through social media, because of the party’s left-wing positioning and support for democratic principles.

“I like that Corbyn has a strong anti-cuts agenda and that he seems comfortable standing by the unions. We're supposed to be a party of the unions and of the people – there shouldn't be any squeamishness about it," she says. "The other candidates kind of said, 'We'll do the same things that the Conservatives are doing, but we'll feel really sad about it.' Corbyn offers an alternative; a real opposition."

Over the past week, I’ve spoken to dozens of Labour party members and supporters like Maguire with the aim of unearthing Corbyn’s most radical advocates. But what I found instead was a widespread movement; people drawn from a variety of backgrounds who have come together under the umbrella of Corbynism to support principles of equality, fairness and democracy.

Corbyn symbolises an issues-based politics and a cohesive vision for the country’s future that challenges the widely accepted political narratives that exist in society today. As well as engaging the young – a supposedly apathetic political demographic – Corbyn is building a widespread consensus around the issues that matter to people. In doing so, Corbyn has attracted the support of various fringe parties who are concerned with specific political and social issues.

“Corbyn’s rise as Labour leader opens up debates on the left, shows there is a mood for change and gives confidence to everyone fighting austerity and racism,” says Charlie Kimber, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). His party is thought by many to be far-left, yet there is considerable crossover between Corbyn’s principles as a social democrat and the key issues that SWP members care about.

“We oppose nuclear weapons, austerity and racism, and we are against imperialist wars. We are anti-capitalist, anti-racist and we fight for positive social change and against austerity and climate change,” Kimber explains. “We want to lay the basis of a socialist society where people come before profit. We are for socialism, and so is Corbyn. We may differ about how to achieve our ends, but we share key aims.”

Clive Heemskerk, national agent for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), agrees that the level of consensus across campaigns from unions and fringe parties shows the extent to which Corbyn has already built a new, democratic consensus around his politics. “Corbyn’s victory has the potential to completely change the terms of mainstream political debate. We fully support his anti-austerity stance, his defence of public ownership and his opposition to Trident renewal,” he says. “We are part of Corbyn’s movement. Linking together all those who oppose austerity, defend trade unionism and support socialism, regardless of whether they hold a Labour party card or not, is the model of how the Corbyn movement needs to develop in the next period.”

In its core policy statement, the TUSC indicates that it is prepared to work with any Labour candidate who shares their “socialist aspirations” and is “prepared to support measures that challenge the austerity consensus of the establishment politicians”, but Heemskerk has concerns about the undemocratic influence of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). “The 95 per cent of Labour councillors who did not back Jeremy – and the party officials nationally – have already begun to restrict his stance and undermine his leadership,” he adds. “That includes a retreat from opposing the neoliberal EU and, on rail renationalisation, waiting for the franchises to expire rather than immediately taking all the rail companies back into public ownership.”

These are examples of areas on which the fringe parties are prepared to scrutinise and even oppose Corbyn and the Labour party – surely a symptom of a healthy democratic movement, not widespread socialist "radicalisation".

“Where Labour councillors or candidates are not prepared to follow Jeremy’s stance in opposing George Osborne’s austerity agenda, the TUSC will be prepared to stand against them in local elections,” Heemskerk asserts. The SWP holds the same concerns about the PLP, and sees scrutiny and accountability as key in taking Corbyn's movement forward. “We think that these changes won’t come through parliament. We need a mass movement outside parliament and independent of Labour. The experience of Syriza and Hollande shows the problems of just winning a parliamentary majority,” Kimber adds.

Cat Conway, a PhD student in poetry, is a founding member of the Women’s Equality Party and a supporter of both Corbyn and Labour. “I am most supportive of Corbyn's policies on social issues, particularly housing, the NHS, and welfare, as well as his attitude to the economy,” she says. “I also support his re-nationalisation of public utilities and railways. Not everything has to be a for-profit enterprise: education, healthcare, utilities and public transport should earn enough to pay their staff a fair wage and maintain their services to a high standard at the lowest cost possible for the consumer.”

Like Maguire, she feels that the "radical" label is a reductive and inaccurate portrayal of the burgeoning grassroots politics that has emerged over the past few months. “I do not consider an anti-‘f**k the poor’ platform to be in the least bit radical. Radical, to me, has always been synonymous with 'irrational' and 'inflexible'. I believe in compromise. I don't believe you have to be 'centrist' to compromise,” she asserts. “The constant use of the term 'radical' is meant to frighten people, to make them feel insecure. ‘Corbyn is radical’ translates to ‘this man is out of control, hysterical, angry, and a danger to us all’, as though he's some kind of madman anarchist and not a 66-year-old man who cycles everywhere.”

Opposition to privatisation is a key part of Corbyn’s movement, and something that Jen Hamilton-Emery, director of a small literary publishing house in North Norfolk and Corbyn backer, fully supports. I believe that this is the time that people across the party, at grassroots level, will be properly listened to. It’s a great opportunity to engage with as many people as possible, both inside and outside the party,” she tells me.

Though Hamilton-Emery has always voted Labour, she only joined the party after Tony Blair stepped down. She worked in the NHS during the New Labour years and was appalled by moves to accelerate the privatisation of healthcare by a party she felt should be opposing it in principle. With changes in the Labour party’s positioning, she now intends to get more involved with issues-based campaigning: “With Corbyn encouraging local constituency parties to discuss policies and inform debate, I intend to mobilise members and get everyone more involved. It is people on the ground that we need to engage with, inform and bring on board.”

It seems to me that those supporting Corbyn are not simply naive idealists, but rather, politically-engaged citizens concerned for those who are currently losing out in British society. “I don't consider myself radical. I see myself as standing up for and supporting the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. I don't think that Corbyn is a radical either. He's a man of strong and unshakeable principles,” Hamilton-Emery says. “But I do think that labels matter – he, and his supporters, will no doubt be called 'radical' by the press and, by extension, the public. It's reductive and potentially damaging, with no room for unpacking his message. As the Tories implement their cuts to public services, Corbyn will look increasingly radical by comparison.”

The Tories can label Corbyn and his supporters radical as much as they want, but the grassroots politics of the day seems much more likely to highlight the injustice and radicalism of Cameron and Osborne’s right-wing agenda: of tax breaks to corporations and the super-rich, of attacks on civil liberties and labour rights, of broad privatisation and of soulless ideological austerity.

What "grassroots" means under Corbyn is an issues-based and highly relevant politics. And the democratic strength of his position is self-perpetuating; the more he engages with individuals, organisations and communities about their social and political desires, the more likely he is to develop solutions in terms of policy and strategy that bring about the changes people want.

Welcome to the new British politics.

Lauren Razavi is a freelance columnist and features writer. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRazavi.