God need not be the enemy of science, claims Mehdi Hasan

“New atheists” like Richard Dawkins are wrong to insist that modern science can no longer be reconciled with relegion.

Can you believe in God and science? Or has science made belief in God obsolete? I, for one, find such questions tiresome. Yet a growing army of new atheists, led by Richard Dawkins, guest editor of the last NS special issue (19 December 2011), wants to snatch science away from religious believers; science, they claim, belongs to atheism. Listen to their divisive rhetoric. "Religion and science will always clash," argues the Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom. "The real war is between rationalism and superstition," says the University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne. "Science is but one form of rationalism, while religion is the most common form of superstition."

Dear reader - whether you happen to be a theist or an atheist - where do you stand in this cosmic battle between science and faith? I refuse to take sides. I happen to be a believer in God and a believer in scientific method. In fact, to claim that science is incompatible with religion is a historical nonsense. Religious faith has inspired and bolstered advances in science throughout human history.

Many scientists have considered the study of the natural world an important method of observing and documenting the majestic and detailed structure of God's creation. During the so-called Golden Age of Islamic history, between roughly 750AD and 1250AD, the rise of faith and scientific progress went hand in hand. One of the earliest theories of natural selection was developed by the 9th-century Iraqi zoologist (and Islamic theologian) al-Jahiz, a thousand years before Charles Darwin. Ibn al-Haytham, a devout Iraqi Muslim who lived in 11th-century Egypt, was the father of modern optics and is often described as "the first scientist".

Satisfying harmony

Turn to Europe, and the story is the same. Guess who proposed both the Hubble constant and the hypothesis behind the Big Bang theory? A Catholic priest named Georges Lemaître. How about the heliocentric theory, which said the earth rotated around the sun (rather than the sun around the earth)? A canon of the Catholic Church named Nicolaus Copernicus. What about the founder of modern genetics? An Augustinian friar named Gregor Mendel.

The list of historically renowned scientists from western countries who believed in God and/or Christianity is extensive and includes Galileo ("To me the works of nature and of God are miraculous"), despite his persecution by the Catholic Church; Isaac Newton ("I have a fundamental belief in the Bible as the Word of God"); the German astronomer Johannes Kepler ("Geometry is unique and eternal, a reflection from the mind of God"); and the father of quantum physics, Max Planck ("Both religion and science require a belief in God").

So, how does it make sense to speak of a clash between religion and science? Should we pretend these scientists did not exist? Or that they weren't believers?

Wait, says the new atheist. That's all in the past. Scientists today, in the long aftermath of Darwin, are a different, more disbelieving breed. Yet one of the world's leading physicists, John Polkinghorne, formerly of Cambridge University, is an ordained Anglican priest. So, too, is the Cambridge neurologist Alasdair Coles.

In 2006 - the same year as Dawkins published his bestselling book The God Delusion - Owen Gingerich, emeritus professor of astronomy at Harvard, published God's Universe, in which he defended the argument that "the universe has been created with intention and purpose, and . . . this belief does not interfere with the scientific enterprise".

Then there is the award-winning geneticist who led the Human Genome Project, Francis S Collins, appointed by Barack Obama to be the director of the US National Institutes of Health in 2009. Collins happens to think that there is no incompatibility between his belief in evangelical Christianity, on the one hand, and his groundbreaking scientific research, on the other. For this atheist-turned-theist, there is a "richly satisfying harmony between the scientific and spiritual world-views".

Not either, but both

In 1916, the Swiss-American psychologist James Leuba conducted a survey of 1,000 scientists in the US to find out their views on a personal God. The survey showed a profession divided: 42 per cent said they did believe in God but the same proportion said they did not (17 per cent weren't sure). Leuba, an atheist, predicted that the number of God-fearers would plummet because of the march of science and the rapid spread of scientific education.

It hasn't. In 1997, the University of Georgia historian Edward Larson and Larry Witham of Seattle's Discovery Centre replicated Leuba's survey, posing exactly the same question to a similar number of randomly selected physicists, biologists and chemists. They found that the proportion of disbelieving scientists had increased only slightly (to 45 per cent) and those who believed in a personal God had stayed stable at 40 per cent.

As the great American paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould once wrote: "Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs - and equally compatible with atheism."

The inconvenient truth is that science belongs to us all. The biggest threat to science and scientific progress is not religion or religious believers, with our superstitious or supernatural beliefs, but the arrogance of those atheist fundamentalists among the scientific community who believe that science is the only legitimate and conceivable way to explain or understand the world - and who antagonise a sceptical public in the process.

Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the New Statesman

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama