The village atheist and the village idiot fused into one

FusionChesterton once described Thomas Hardy’s work as “the village atheist talking to the village idiot”. The columnist Oliver Kamm proves the two can coexist within one breast.

In his Times article he sets out to prove that science and religion are incompatible. He only succeeds in proving that both of them are incompatible with the columnist Oliver Kamm.

I can’t think offhand of many beliefs that are as vulgar as atheism in general and materialism in particular. But gradations do exist, and one finds the vulgar end of vulgarity at the rock-bottom level housing Oliver Kamm. Yet even there, the belief that science and religion are incompatible stands out as the world record holder in vulgarity run riot.

I’ve met no theologians suggesting anything like that, and only a handful of scientists. Typically, champions of this harebrained idea know little about science, less about religion and nothing about epistemology. Kamm is a case in point.

Writing about the chemist Harry Kroto, Kamm writes: “He devoted his life to expanding knowledge. In doing so… he also reduced the scope of religious explanations.”

How? Kroto’s main interest was molecular spectroscopy, and I’m not aware of any conflict between his field and religion.

The two planes of knowledge can’t clash because they don’t intersect in their specific objects of study. The only area where they could overlap is philosophy, but it’s not immediately clear why the two are in a zero sum relationship: more of one meaning less of the other.

If Kamm knows why, he should have explained it. Instead, he just drops his pseudo-profound statement like a sack of dung, proving yet again that there’s no fool like a ponderous fool.

Having dug himself into a hole, Kamm does what fools do – he keeps digging: “But religion, even at its most tolerant, is dogmatic. It holds that truth is revealed. Science is experimental. The coexistence of science and faith doesn’t mean compatibility.”

Truth, which is faith, is indeed revealed, and science, or rather some science, is indeed experimental. Both, however, start with an intuitive premise. A theologian would call it belief in God. A scientist would call it a hypothesis.

Both will then hold their intuition to the test of empirical facts to see if they agree. If they do, knowledge emerges at the other end, but the types of knowledge are different – the two thinkers get different answers because they ask different questions.

The theologian answers such questions as “How can something come out of nothing?”, “What is the purpose of life?”, “What is consciousness?”, “What is man’s role in life?” These are questions natural science can’t answer, nor even ask.

(Incidentally, ‘science’ means only ‘natural science’ to Kamm – as if, say, philosophy weren’t scientific. This is exactly the kind of egregious ignorance one expects from the likes of him.)

Theologians, unless they also happen to be scientists, as many are, seldom busy themselves with the arcana of the material world, leaving this endeavour to natural scientists. They respect the knowledge gained thereby for it expands our understanding of God’s design.

This has always been thus, and the supposedly deadly conflict between religion and science is a figment of vulgar imagination. After all, it wasn’t only great cathedrals but also great universities that owe their existence to Christianity. So, to a great extent, does natural science.

Once mediaeval thinkers had corrected the Greeks’ metaphysical error of not recognising the objective existence of the physical world, they could be certain that nature obeyed universal laws – it was after all created by a universal law-giver.

The scientists’ job was understood as finding out what those laws were, and how they are manifested. This understanding lies at the heart of every presupposition of modern research. (This regardless of whether the scientist has lost or preserved the original faith.) That’s why science eventually became incomparably greater in the West than in any other civilisation – only Christendom possessed and cultivated the essential prerequisites.

Alas, modernity saw the appearance of what I call ‘totalitarian scientist’, and what Ortega y Gasset called ‘the very prototype of the mass-man’: “[He] knows his own minimal corner of the universe quite well. But he is radically ignorant of all the rest. We shall have to call him a learned-ignoramus, which is a serious matter, for it means that he will act in all areas in which he is ignorant not like an ignorant man, but with all the airs of one who is learned in his own special line.”

We see such scientists all around us: Wolpert, Dawkins – and Kamm’s idol Kroto. The venerable late chemist claimed to have three religions: Amnesty Internationalism, atheism, and humour. With all due deference, this vindicates Ortega’s observation: only an ignorant fool can say such things – this regardless of his attainments in some technical areas.

Kamm, however, can’t claim even such attainments. What he does possess is the undiluted smugness and high airs of an ignoramus. Then again, a modern journalist obviously can parlay such qualities into a successful career.

4 thoughts on “The village atheist and the village idiot fused into one”

  1. Sorry Alex but you’ve jumped the shark.

    Religion and science are opposites. Religion is about revealed knowledge usually by some drug addled hippy in a cave or a brothel thousands of years ago. When religion comes up against observable fact religion wins and the observable facts are declared wrong, and the observer denounced for apostasy. In less enlightened times (or countries) he would frequently be tortured to death as a lesson to others to enquire a little less assiduously into reality.

    To this extent religion is like politics, and in fact at the higher levels the two have been inextricably intertwined since the dawn of history. And any sane person is wary of both.

    Science is a continuing debate in which the fundamental objective of any practitioner is to overturn the established wisdom and find a better explanation/theory/method. It is fact-driven and coldly rational. Inconvenient facts are welcomed as pointers to the next leap forward.

    Science and religion could not be more opposed, and no amount of elegant writing on your behalf can disguise that.

    1. Nothing at all wrong with wanting to believe in god, or with ordering your life in accordance with the supposed requirements of god – that has led over the centuries to very great things as much as to very evil ones.

      As long as your desire or belief s confined to yourself and doesn’t require other people to agree or to behave in a certain way.

      And don’t confuse belief with fact or science.

      1. Current events make one feel as if the Muslims have a monopoly on God. Atheism and Islam is an almost unbearable choice.

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