Dear Dr Dawkins, 

 

Congratulations.  You succeeded in presenting an authoritative, passionate and convincing account of evolution to a television audience.  ‘The Genius of Charles Darwin’ will stimulate an interest in biological sciences and cause some to reassess their beliefs.  

 

In last night’s episode, the last in the series, your adversaries were not sixth formers, but their teachers, self styled evangelicals and The Primate of All England, Dr Rowan Williams.  Like you, I was shocked to hear the chemistry teacher declare that he believed that the world was definitely created within the last 10,000 years and saddened at Rowan Williams’ remark that God created the laws of physics.  

 

There is no doubt in my mind about evolution.  The evidence you presented is quite overwhelming.  Recent investigations in molecular biology have built on Darwin’s observation to create a beautiful and inspiring theory, which is as near to scientific truth as we can possibly get.  John Mackay’s argument that he can’t believe in evolution because he can’t see it happening is patently ridiculous.  Has Mr Mackay seen God?  The sad thing is he might probably say he has! 

 

But I still feel slightly disturbed by your attack – not so much on belief in God, but on people’s right to believe in their Gods – and even on the belief  in anything that we can’t actually measure.  

 

I am a also a scientist – and an atheist.  I spent 30 years in medical science.  I published over 500 papers, most of them peer reviewed by other scientists.  I learnt to evaluate evidence and construct a scientific argument.  I, like you, feel passionately about a search for truth, but I am nevertheless all too aware, as you must be, of the limitations of science. 

 

It all hinges on the nature of evidence.  As I see it, our existence, from a scientific viewpoint, is constructed from three categories of knowledge.  First there are those  aspects we have hard evidence for, like evolution, plate tectonics, the biochemical structure of living matter,  the Laws of Physics, electromagnetism, the benefits of immunisation,  the actions of drugs.   The second category contains knowledge for which the evidence is indirect and much softer, depending often on assumptions and measurements that are in themselves unsubstantiated.  This includes many aspects of theoretical physics – the nature of  subatomic particles, the structure of the universe, the nature of time.  It also includes much psychological theory,  medical epidemiology and even the efficacy of medical treatments since all of these are based on observations of populations and predicated on the assumptions we make in order to group and  separate them and the statistical tests that we apply.  Then, there is a third category, one of acceptance and belief.   This includes many of the cultural and abstract ideas that form our view of the world and condition our social existence, notions like beauty, truth, meaning, love, happiness and belief itself.  This is more the realm of literature, art and music. 

 

You are a man of culture.  You admitted to Rowan Williams that you love poetry, but… love? ….. poetry?  How do you measure these?  If you are as dyed-in-the-wool a scientist as you can appear to be,  then you must believe that love doesn’t exist and poetry is meaningless,  but I guess you aren’t.   Oh, if challenged, you would bluster on about levels of oxytocin and connections between the limbic system and prefrontal cortex – but this would be sterile and limiting.  It doesn’t capture the essence of human experience in the same way as poetry does.  You might even say that some day we will be able to define the experience of love, or the nature of beauty  by certain types of neurohumoral activity in the brain.  I would have my doubts.      

 

You may have boxed yourself into a corner by your almost evangelical stance against the creationists, but I would guess that you, like most scientists, hold a balance of knowledge and belief in your mind.  You would have to.  Otherwise you could never say, ‘I love poetry’ or ‘evolution is beautiful’ or ‘that’s patently ridiculous’, because that would immediately challenge your view of love, beauty and meaning – leading you to question the origins of your own beliefs.  Indeed, if I can be so bold, you could never function as Oxford Professor for the Public Understanding of  Science, unless you could use metaphor, yet the very use of metaphor depends on shared cultural narrative, mythology and belief.     

 

What would you regard as the most important attribute for a scientist – education, perseverance, dedication, a detailed knowledge of statistical method?   I think it is imagination – the ability to dream with your head in the clouds while your feet are firmly planted in terra firma.   Imagination is not about the way things are, it’s about the way they might be.  It’s the stuff of hypothesis, the process scientists use to  convert a belief into a scientific fact,  to make sense of what they can’t understand.    But imagination, surely, is abstract, like beauty or love.  Scientists too have to believe in their mythologies – even though they spend their lives trying to destroy them.            

 

I am a scientist and a doctor.  I have spent a large part of my life trying to understand the illnesses that medicine has no clear explanation for.  I’ve even written a book on it.  I held professorships in physiology, nutrition and integrated medicine at Sheffield University.   But my epiphany came not with some brilliant physiological breakthough, but with the opportunity to take a Masters degree in psychoanalytical psychotherapy and investigate the meanings of illness.   For years, I had struggled to help my patients, devising new systems of investigation, new methods of treatment, but nothing really worked. 

 

I am now a better physician.  I integrate the hard facts of  physiology and the softer evidence from psychology and sociology with the meanings, my patients express with their symptoms and ascribe to their treatment.  So, even though there is no scientific evidence that I know of, to support the use of homeopathy, for example, I know that that belief is important to some of my patients and therefore try to work alongside it to bring about the insight that will give confidence and effect a cure.  On the other hand,  I do suggest that they stop taking the drugs that are doing them harm, even though they might be evidence based.  Good medicine, I believe, lies at the hinterland between art and science.  The same applies to good philosophy.    

 

We all need meaning in our lives, some belief and code of ethics that directs the way we live.  We each need a narrative to make sense of our own lives and a shared cultural mythology to live together in harmony with other people.  Our narratives may well be informed by evidence, but they may not.  But does this really matter – as long as the meaning makes sense to us and our society and doesn’t cause harm.  I suspect – but I have no evidence for it, that the need to create stories, may be part of our genetic heritage – a vital component of our humanity.  

 

So when I witness you berating recalcitrant sixth formers, beating John Mackay about the head with your arguments or even crossing words with Rowan Williams, I can’t help thinking that you are being a bit of a bully.  After all, you have selected the rules and chosen the weapons.  It is no competition.  They don’t have a chance.  They are coming from a different place.  To be honest,  I find it rather sad that Dr Williams was made to appear as wispy and woolly as his own beard.  I had faith in him as a spiritual leader – but such is the nature of television.        

  

There is danger in mounting a campaign to disabuse people of their cultural beliefs.  To them, science is as much an abstraction as their belief in God.  Yes, they should be better informed.  By all means educate people about evolution.  Everybody has the right to know where they came from.  But don’t tell them their religious beliefs are rubbish and their Gods don’t exist.  To do that is to be destructive to their soul; it robs them of the meaning of their lives, just like the Christian missionaries were doing in Africa in Darwin’s time.  Freedom of belief is enshrined in all the constitutions of the free world.  Belief is what holds societies together, whether this is belief in God, Allah, Buddah, Oprah Winfrey or Team GB.  It is the variety and quality of our beliefs, irrespective of whether we have evidence for them that enrich our lives.  Science and The Arts work best when they work together.    

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