This is a second letter responding to articles by Ron Watts in your March edition – hopefully not stretching you, your readers’ or even Ron’s patience too far – this time with reference to his Village Soapbox. Firstly I should say that it is excellent, superb or whatever is the best adjective to use that someone like Ron is prepared to write these articles. You don’t have to agree with all he says (and I don’t – not with all), but he stimulates thought and comment and argument, which is so much better than the vague guff that politicians have to serve up to us in order to avoid falling foul of the media. One of the reasons that Ken Clark, our Minister of Justice, is such good value is that, not only does he wear awful suede shoes (and not care what I think!), not only does he really enjoy swilling a pint of beer, not only does he present a (for me boring, but I am sure for some others enthralling) Jazz programme on Radio 4 every week, but he is also not afraid to put his foot in it when he is interviewed – says what he wants to say and, so far as I can tell, never lies. You do not have to agree with him, but you do know where he is coming from. So – more power to your elbow, Ron, and keep it coming.
I am writing because what I have said before seems important to me, but more particularly because I want to have a go at a part of the March Soapbox, specifically at the 3 paragraphs staring with the reference to Richard Dawkins. He is quite good value too, very listenable to, when speaking on the TV. I understand many of his views and his books are very clever and readable and good science for non scientists. But, I do not understand the religious fervour with which he condemns religions! I am with him when he condemns the extremes (and even non-extremes) of religious behaviour which damage people, but that has nothing to do with his condemnation of religious beliefs, which, of themselves, are irrelevant to the non-believer. I think Ron may, to some extent, regret choosing to illustrate his point of view by quoting from a 1927 speech, but I have to take issue with what Paul Dirac said and what Ron presumably wished to support or uphold.
“[Scientists] must admit that religion is a jumble of false assertions”. That is itself an assertion, which is unproved. If my religion asserts that there is a God, then where is the proof that that is false? If I cannot prove to Mr Dirac (or his followers) that it is true, that does not make it ‘false’; it is merely not established to his satisfaction. That denies him (as a scientist) the right to assert that it is false! – he is being totally unscientific.
“The very idea of God is a product of the human imagination.” Unfortunately, this is subject to precisely the same objections again. I don’t believe that that is where the idea of God came from, nor do many millions of others. “The idea of God” is a hypothesis (to use scientific language and logic) that I believe is supported by a considerable body of evidence, but I will accept willingly that it is not proved or firmly established by scientific method.
“If religion is still being taught, it is by no means because its ideas still convince us, but simply because some of us want to keep the lower classes quiet. Quiet people are much easier to govern than clamorous and dissatisfied ones. They are also much easier to exploit.” Actually, it is disgraceful of Ron to allow this part of the quotation to creep into his article, without comment or disavowal. If it ever was true (and there is very strong evidence that it has at least to some extent been so!) then I don’t believe it was true in 1927 and certainly do not believe it is true today. But it is yet another example of an assertion put forward by a so-called scientist, with no reference to the evidence for it. It would be interesting to know what Lord Melvyn Bragg, who came from a working class family and whose series ‘Class & Culture’ is currently being shown on TV, would make of it all.
I could go on. But, to summarise, my understanding of the scientific method is that one proposes hypotheses, based on evidence, which is available to or re-testable by others; and they remain no more than hypotheses (ie never achieving the status of facts!) until they are overthrown or refined by new hypotheses, based on new or more finely measured or better understood evidence. Dirac’s tirade is no more than that – a speaker giving vent to his BELIEFS – ie as bad or as good as the most fundamentalist religious fanatic. Dirac and the far more moderately spoken Dawkins are actually very religious in their prosecution of their beliefs. I often (always!) wish that I had their (or Melvyn Bragg’s) powers of oratory, etc to bring to the presentation of my beliefs to a wider public.