There are two ways of reacting to the Royal Society’s claim that its education director Michael Reiss was misrepresented in reports alleging he thought creationism should be taught in science classrooms. Either journalists got it wrong or Reiss - an ordained Church of England clergyman - did indeed suggest religious dogma be mixed with science teaching. I tend very much to the latter view.
As Sir Harry Kroto, a society fellow, and a Nobel prize winner, pointed out in a letter to the Royal Society, Reiss was an accident waiting to happen: ‘I warned the president … that his was a dangerous appointment. I did not realise just how dangerous it would turn out to be.’
Now the society has been caught out, though in the short term it may ride out the current controversy. In the wake of Reiss’s remarks, most commentaries have focused, quite reasonably, on the issue of how science and religion should be taught at school. At the same time, the Royal Society has rushed to assure scientists that it still believes creationism has no place in school laboratories.
There is a second, more important issue at stake, however. How should the Royal Society, the world’s oldest and most prestigious scientific organisation, treat religion within the confines of its own headquarters?
Science and religion do mix, though the combination is often volatile - the reaction often depending, intriguingly, on the discipline studied by a particular researcher, according to Sir Tim Hunt, winner of the 2001 Nobel prize for medicine. ‘Cosmologists and physicists dwell on cosmic forces which - if altered only slightly - would prevent many chemical reactions, and life, from occurring. The sheer improbability of our universe makes them all a bit spiritual and soft on religion. By contrast, biologists see evolution constantly at work in their research and are more hard-nosed about God.’
The idea is not without exceptions, of course. Hunt, a biologist, is scarcely hardline about Reiss’s creationism call, for example. ‘I am not worried about this one, though I am definitely anti-religious.’
But if he is unworried about God getting a foot in the Royal Society’s door, many other fellows find recent developments troubling. Scientists such as Kroto, Sir Richard Roberts (another UK Nobel winner), and Richard Dawkins look with horror upon the spread of faith schools; the growing influence of bodies such as the Templeton Foundation, a conservative US organisation which constantly seeks to establish links between science and religion; and the prospect of creationism being taught in Britain’s science classrooms. They expect the Royal Society to take a tough stand on these issues.
Many of their fears are based on their American experiences, it should be noted. Kroto and Richards now work there while Dawkins is a frequent visitor on the US lecture circuit. And what they see in America unnerves them: school science teachers who firmly believe the world and humanity are the 6,000-year-old handiwork of God and who cannot accept what DNA tells us about our close relationships with the animal world, what isotope research reveals about the deep antiquity of our planet, what astronomical studies tell us about the size and age of the universe; and what fossils reveal about our own species’ multimillion-year lineage. The prospect of such ignorance spreading to Britain quite rightly appals them.
‘I don’t know if it is too late to stop the slide in Britain but I think it is in the US where they [the religious right] have now almost complete control over politics, the judiciary, education, business, journalism and television,’ says Kroto. ‘And it will only take a presidential victory by McCain, followed by him having a heart attack weeks later, and Sarah Palin, a creationist supporter, will become head of the world’s most powerful country.’
It is the duty of scientists to fight such onslaughts and be examples of rationality in a darkening world, it is argued. Hence the anger at the Royal Society for failing to firmly nail its colours to its mast. The organisation has a motto: ‘Nullius in verba’ (roughly, ‘Take nobody’s word for it’). In other words, verify everything by experiment and think for yourself. Both are noble aspirations. It is therefore baffling how an ordained minister - a man committed to believing the word of God without question - could have been asked to play a senior role in the society. Equally, the society’s acceptance of money from the Templeton Foundation raises further concerns.
The Royal Society - which should set the fiercest of examples in its commitment to rationality - has shown worrying signs of spiritual sloppiness. (Its current president, Lord Rees, is a cosmologist who attends church ‘as an unbelieving Anglican’, it should be noted.) Those of a religious persuasion might welcome this softening. I would sound a note of caution, however. Britain is still a broadly secular society which guarantees freedoms not just to atheists but to all religions, no matter how few its adherents. If we follow the example of America then all are threatened by the rise of a powerful Christian right.
We badly need our premier scientific society to stand firm and present a clear vision of how our planet, our species, and the cosmos came into existence. It needs to be unequivocal about the wonders of nature as revealed through rational, scientific investigation. As Douglas Adams put it: ‘Isn’t enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe there are fairies at the bottom of it too?’