Professor O’Neill: Ambivalent on the Science v Religion debate?

Luke O’Neill, professor of biochemistry at TCD, was interviewed recently on the Pat Kenny Show.(2 July, part three: 6 min).

The question under discussion was:

What is religion and where did it come from? How and why did it evolve? Is there a scientific explanation or is science itself just another religion?

I am responding to the interview because professor O’Neill, like many scientists, is far too ambivalent when it comes to the conflict between science and religion.

My general impression of such scientists is that they are shy about upsetting believers and also exhibit a lack of confidence (perhaps even shame) in the achievements and power of science.

Professor O’Neill is a non-believer and is clearly on the side of science but his views/explanations/answers are far too soft on religion.

O’Neill’s attitude during the discussion strongly indicated that science is, in many ways, similar to religion. This is simply not the case and is, in my opinion, very destructive to the interests of science.

Before getting into analysis it will be useful to provide exact definitions of the subject matter under discussion.

Religion: The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods (Oxford English Dictionary).

Science: The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment (Oxford English Dictionary).

Pat Kenny: Can religion be explained in biological terms?

Professor O’Neill: All religions can be explained by science, they evolved. But remember, we’re not trying to explain god here, that’s a completely different issue entirely.

Analysis: Professor O’Neill is correct to say that the phenomenon of religious belief is evolutionary but he is wrong in claiming that the existence/explanation of god/s is a separate matter entirely.

This is akin to stating, for example, that the 1916 Rising is not relevant to Irish history.

The belief in a god/s lies at the core of religious belief. All religions act on and obey the diktats of their particular supernatural being. All religions defend their actions, no matter how horrific or benign on the rules and commands of their supernatural being.

‘Religions’ that do not believe in a supernatural being, for example, Buddhism, are not religions,they are philosophies of life.

Kenny: People of religious faith are more likely to behave better and have a healthier life.

O’Neill: Loads of studies show that if you’re religious it has a health advantage and people of religious faith are inclined to behave themselves more.

Analysis: I would be deeply skeptical of such studies and suspect that there are as many studies that show the opposite. My atheism has not damaged my health or my behaviour in any way whatsoever.

In fact, I strongly believe that I’m mentally, morally and physically better off as a result of not living my life under the negativity of superstition.

To suggest that hundreds of millions of non-believers live lives that are morally inferior to those who believe in god/s is ridiculous and insulting.

Indeed, it can be argued that non-believers are more moral because they are not subject to the superstitious/bizarre commands of their particular god/s.

Non-believers do not, for example, punish or even kill their fellow humans for believing in a rival god or printing a cartoon.

Kenny: Science is just another religion?

O’Neill: Science has many of the traits of religion, amazing as it may seem. Of course, science is not religion, it’s based on evidence but there are similarities between the two.

Analysis: This kind of ambivalence on the conflict between science and religion can be extremely damaging as it provides support for one of the favourite myths promoted by religious militants – that science is indeed just another religion.

There are no similarities whatsoever between science and religion. As the above definitions clearly demonstrate – science is about systematically studying the structure and behaviour of nature through observation and experiment – period.

Religion is belief in a supernatural power – period.

The clue can be found in the unbridgeable difference between the words ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’.

Kenny: In Christian faith, man is very special. Do scientists believe that humankind is special?

O’Neill: Some of my colleagues do. We all think evolution was about generating us and it’s probably not true, it’s random. Most scientists would probably say our brains are very special and it may not be the case.

Analysis: All scientists, I suspect, believe that humans and particularly the human brain is very special and they are absolutely right, from a purely scientific point of view.

But very few scientists believe that that specialness is due to a god. I seriously doubt O’Neill’s claim that all scientists believe evolution was about generating humans. With very few exceptions, scientists would agree with the professor’s claim that the evolution of humans is entirely random.

Kenny: Science casts out its heretics?

O’Neill: This is very true. All great religions hate heretics; they burn them at the stake. Equally, if you step out of line as a scientist…you will be pilloried. We don’t like heretics; that’s very similar.

Analysis: A heretic is a person who does not conform to established religious dogma. The sometimes’ negative reaction of the scientific community to a scientist who challenges established practices/principles is nothing more than a deep psychological reluctance to let go of long favoured conclusions. There is a big difference between the two.

Kenny: Science reveres its own saints?

O’Neill: Yes, Darwin is a saint for many of us. Newton, Einstein, so we do have our saints as well, absolutely.

Analysis: Now I know that professor O’Neill doesn’t really believe that scientists such as Darwin and Newton are saints in a religious sense, or, at least I hope he doesn’t.

But his casual association of great scientists with the religious concept of sainthood is grist to the mill for those who actively work to blur the obvious difference between science and religion.

It is not uncommon to hear religious people defend their superstitions with the argument that science too is a religion with its own saints and priesthood.

Kenny: Science makes up stories to explain its origins?

O’Neill: Every religion has its origin myths. We don’t know how the universe started. So scientists would say membranes formed and banged off each other and these are myths of origin as well. If you get evidence for them you’re in a better place but we set out to invent these myths to explain.

Analysis: Scientists do not set out to invent myths to explain anything. Scientists operate under strict rules as follows:

Ask a question.
Do background research.
Construct a hypothesis.
Test your hypothesis by doing experiments.
Analyse your data and draw a conclusion.
Communicate your results so that other scientists can carry out independent tests in an effort to falsify your conclusion.

Again, the careless and dangerous association of religious superstitions with science by scientists likes professor O’Neill does serious damage to the progress of science and greatly encourages the religious fanatics.

Kenny: Most of science is unfounded?

O’Neill: This is not quite true; science looks for evidence. There’s evidence for evolution but there’s some aspects of the theory for which there’s no evidence but we still sort of believe in them.

Analysis: It is true that some aspects of evolution are questionable but again, scientists don’t ‘sort of believe in them’. They form hypothesis and test them.

Kenny: Science requires faith?

O’Neill: It’s not quite true but if you ask an average scientist, do you believe in the Theory of Relativity, he will say, yes and won’t have a clue. He will take it on faith from another scientist who does know. But still, many of us say we believe in X and we don’t know the evidence. So again, there’s a similarity, sort of.

Analysis: If you ask the average motorist, do you believe in the science that makes your car engine work, he will say yes, but won’t have a clue. It is the evidence he can see every time he drives his car and not (blind) faith that convinces him that the science is true.

When a scientist accepts the Theory of Relativity on the word of another scientist he is not engaging in an act of faith. He is already aware that there is a vast amount of evidence available if he needs to check it out further. He’s also aware that the entire scientific community accepts the theory for so long as the evidence remains unfalsified.

Having religious faith in something (and that’s the subject under discussion here) means accepting something, usually a fantastic claim, with no evidence whatsoever. Scientists (science) do not operate on faith in any manner or form.

Kenny: So it’s a leap of faith?

O’Neill: Yes, it’s a leap of faith but hopefully it’s based on evidence. But there’s still a leap of faith there, of sorts.

Analysis: No, there’s no leap of (religious) faith involved in science whatsoever. It’s all based on hypothesis/evidence/experiment and testing.

An act of faith means believing in something without empirical evidence. Religion operates within this fantasy realm; science does not.

The following will illustrate the difference:

Professor O’Neill is standing 50 yards from the edge of the Grand Canyon. A priest asks him to run and jump over the edge assuring him that god will keep him safe. To agree to this requires a leap of faith.

I’m also standing 50 yards from the edge with a scientist who asks me to do the same. However, prior to the request the scientist showed me and rigorously tested a safety net located five feet beneath the edge. To agree to this does not require a leap of faith; it simple requires trust in science.

Professor O’Neill is a non-believer himself so I’m pretty sure he’s not promoting a religious agenda.

What he is doing, I believe, is unwittingly giving succour to those who actively work to discredit science in order to promote the interests of their particular god.

A recent example will illustrate the point:

Last April, religious militant and director of the Iona Institute David Quinn delivered a lecture to fifth and sixth year students falsely informing them that the origin of the universe had nothing to do with science but was strictly a matter for religion/philosophy (See full article here).

It is obvious from reading the article that the lecture had nothing to do with proper education; it was not designed to inform students about the pros and cons of science and religion. It was nothing more than a blatant piece of religious propaganda directed at New Atheism and in particular Richard Dawkins.

Unlike professor O’Neill’s casual attitude towards the conflict between science and religion, Quinn is deadly serious in his campaign to discredit science in support of his particular god and if that means intellectually abusing children, then so be it.

If professor O’Neill were a regular scientist working away in his laboratory, his views on the science v religion debate would be a private matter for himself.

But professor O’Neill is not a private citizen in the sense that he regularly guests on media outlets and therefore has an influence on a multitude of people.

Sadly, I believe his interview with Pay Kenny has done some damage to the cause of combating religious superstitions through the progress of science.

Copy to:
Professor O’Neill
David Quinn
Pat Kenny Show

2 thoughts on “Professor O’Neill: Ambivalent on the Science v Religion debate?”

  1. For a scientist Prof. O’Neill is very careless with his language and deserves your criticism.

    For me the matter is summed up by the folling quote by Mark Twain.

    Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.

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