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4 November 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 2:28am

It’s official: faith in science is a belief

New legal ruling places it in the same category as religion

By Sholto Byrnes

A judge has just ruled that green beliefs should be safeguarded under employment law designed to protect religious and philosophical beliefs in the workplace. Tim Nicholson, a former executive with the property firm Grainger, claimed that he was made redundant last year because of his strong environmental concerns. Mr Justice Burton has now given him the go ahead to take Grainger to an industrial tribunal on these grounds, ruling that “a belief in man-made climate change . . . is capable, if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief for the purpose of the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations”.

Nicholson was keen to say that “belief in man-made climate change is not a new religion, it is a philosophical belief that reflects my moral and ethical values and is underlined by the overwhelming scientific evidence”. But I wonder if this ruling is quite so useful to those who look to science and rationality as guides to their lives as it might on the surface appear. Let’s be clear: they could now be afforded rights under law specifically formulated to protect religion and belief. And those are two words that many scientists, rationalists and atheists don’t like to be associated with at all.

Atheists in particular hate it when they are referred to as “fundamentalist” or if they are accused of making a religion out of science. I’ve done both in the past, acts that have swiftly been followed by much foot-stamping and name-calling in the blogosphere. The reason they object was put succinctly earlier today by Ophelia Benson, co-author of Does God Hate Women?:

Atheism itself, atheism as such, isn’t and can’t be a movement, because atheism is, at a minimum, simply non-theism: non-belief in any god. Mere non-belief in any X can’t by itself constitute a movement, because it’s merely an absence (or at most a refusal) of belief.

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I’ve had some brushes with Ms Benson earlier this year, notably over my review of the book mentioned above. This is not intended as a call to resume hostilities (although “once more unto the breach” if you like, Ophelia!). Nevertheless, it seems to me that most militant atheists are characterised not just by an absence of belief in a god, but by a trust in science so certain and ardent that it is entirely akin to religious belief — and a highly devoted, if not fanatical, one at that.

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No, they say, these are not matters of belief. These are facts. Science says so. (Never mind that what looks to scientists like a fact in one era frequently turns out to appear an error in another.) Well, now a judge has opened the door to a multiplicity of such views being protected by the law. Not, however, because they’re facts — but because they’re beliefs. I do find a rather delicious irony in that.