Dr Mann’s essay in this issue will annoy some readers, but it belongs here because it deals with one of the key debates of our time.

A recent edition of the Times Literary Supplement carried essays titled “Science and the Victorians”, “Lessons of the Sokal Hoax” and “Some slippery encounters between Science and Literature.” The Spectator carried a review of Life’s Grandeur by Stephen Jay Gould. Even the New Zealand Herald ran a lengthy article defending science against non-scientific attack.

But Dr Mann and his colleagues are on quite solid ground when they remind us of the historical relationship between science and Christian belief. Gellner and others suggest that a religious belief which describes the creation of the universe as a deliberate innovative act, and which opposes fatalism in favour of free will which can shape the future, probably provides a benign incubator for the scientific culture.

One popular perception of the Skeptics is that we are a group of “scientific types” who believe that “science can explain everything” and that if it is not scientific then it is not worth thinking about. We are perceived to be Mozart’s Serastros who believe in nothing which they cannot measure with a ruler.

Of course some of our more rankling claims are a natural response to the systematic attack which science is being subjected to from all sides. It is only too easy to move from the sensible argument that it is not possible to be both a scientist and a Christian-creationist, to the less sensible position that it is not possible to be both a scientist and a Christian. The very existence of Dr Mann refutes this stance.

We need to recognize that science may have been winning a pyrrhic victory. Michael Bywater’s review of Gould’s Life’s Grandeur reminds us that:

All the technologies of the century are nothing compared to the tremendous dethronement of mankind which began with the birth of heliocentricity, which was continued through Newton, Darwin, Einstein and Heisenberg and which has been more or less completed by the geneticists, palaeontologists and geologists of the last 30 years.

Gould’s book finishes the process by undermining the last source of our species’ traditional self-respect. We thought we could luxuriate in the knowledge that at least we humans are an inherent consequence of an evolutionary system which, by its nature, tends to produce ever more complex species culminating with ourselves at the top of the tree. We humans are, in short “still special.” Gould has none of it. His statistical approach to the world concludes that we occupy the extreme right hand tail of the complexity bell curve simply because “somebody has to”. Evolution starts at minimum complexity because it must, and appears to be driven towards greater complexity only because it has nowhere else to go.

Designing a world view, and a public and private morality, to deal with this chastening reality is surely the great challenge of these interesting times.

I am a reasonably comfortable atheist. I also happen to believe, along with a few others, that our great achievement has been to move towards Popper’s Open Society drawing on the great trilogy of freedom, science and technology along the way.

I believe freedom is a good in its own right. I am no utilitarian, promoting freedom only because it makes us richer than slavery. I appear to have good company. The famous paragraph within the American Declaration of Independence reads:

We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The writers of the Declaration find these beliefs self-evident, as I would like to. But they found them so because they were Christians. They declared that men are created equal — not born so. They were inherently more sensible because, of course, we are not born equal.

We are all born different and unequal on all manner of scales. But those who coined this phrase were talking about being equal before God — not before men.

Similarly, the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are “endowed by our Creator”.

As an atheist I have to mentally erase all references to the Creator. But what am I left with? I believe these truths to be self-evident. But how so? Does science help? Can science help? What foundations support my belief in freedom? Can it be true that Stalin was not evil, but simply “lived by different values”? There are now Anglican Bishops in New Zealand who tell us so in the Herald, so where does that leave us atheists?

Whether we like it not, the great achievements of science have created a profound need out there for some belief system which supports such simple axioms as “freedom good — slavery bad”. I do not believe that the “established religions” will be able to re-fill it. But we must all be wondering what will, and whether we shall discover it in time before our own great trilogy lies in ruins.

The barbarians are not only at the gate. Sokal reminds us that they are trampling about within.

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