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‘Ockham’s Razor’, a program about science or a soapbox for prejudice?

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 5 January 2010


I for one look to the ABC for intelligent commentary about all number of subjects, especially on Radio National which bills itself as a “world of ideas”. With my background in science I sometimes enjoy Robin Williams’ programs, one of which is Ockham’ Razor, and often find information on the latest in research. However, on my way to church on the first Sunday in Christmas I happened to hear the tail end of this program which I later found was called “A Response to evangelical atheism” presented by Philip Ponder who teaches chemistry at a High School in Melbourne.

My irritation with this program was that it was not about science at all but was a dreadfully simplistic bash at all things religious. It is typical for scientists to hold such opinions, I have many colleagues in science who do and I usually forgive them because of the narrowness of their education and the seemingly inevitable reduction of everything to facts that is associated with scientific training. But I did not expect such a diatribe from Radio National’s premier science program.

The tail end of the program that I did catch is reproduced below.

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Philip Ponder: “In combating religious fundamentalism in science education, it is probably unhelpful to take the sarcastic approach of claiming to be a 'Pastafarian' and demanding the 'Gospel according to The Flying Spaghetti Monster' be given equal time with biblical account. I suspect the cause of science would be far better promoted if students themselves were disparaging about such pseudo science as 'intelligent design' and regarded it as 'veggie science'.”

Robyn Williams: “Yes, well, Philip, but what about veggie religion? Or is that a tautology?”

I have no problem with describing creationism and intelligent design as veggie science. The problem is that neither Ponder nor Williams understand that there is a respectable intellectual tradition of theology in Christianity that can not be demolished by such shallow objections as appear in Ponder’s piece. After all, Ockham was a theologian more than a scientist.

The other thing that made me blush for these presenters was that science is described as a “cause”. In my long working life as a scientist I never understood what I was doing as a “cause”. This description indicates an underlying ideology from which science should be free. What is the cause of science? Well it is obviously to convince us that it is the only source of truth in all things and that these religious people are all ignorant and superstitious and should be given no credence whatsoever.

But the clincher is yet to come. Williams, in a rare candid moment, reveals his true feelings when he suggests that “veggie religion” is a tautology, in other words all religion is veggie that is to say dumb, and way below the intellect of the true searchers after truth, i.e. the scientist.

Such arrogance should have no place on the ABC, this is not about toleration of difference, that code for anything goes, but is simply ignorance that leads to the grossest misrepresentation. Are we not aware that the world’s seats of learning have their origin in the Church? Are we not aware that all of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world continue to have departments of theology? If Ponder and Williams are right in describing all religion as “veggie” then how do these departments continue to exist in major universities? One would expect that they would have been swept aside like Newton’s alchemy and his projections of the end of the world from the apocalyptic chapters in the bible. What sort of limited enclosed world do these people live in that they are ignorant of the intellectual content of Christian theology?

Ponder makes the beginner’s mistake of assuming that religion is a single phenomenon that may be critiqued from the standpoint of rationalism. No student of anthropology or sociology would make such a mistake. All religions are different and they do not all spring from the one source of the need for an explanation of natural phenomenon, which natural science has displaced.

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I am no defender of religion for religion’s sake, in fact I am just as intolerant of ignorance and superstition as the evangelical atheists. The one thing that saves the Christian tradition is the built-in critique of religion that pervades both Testaments. Again and again in Old Testament narrative religion is discounted as a way that informs us of reality. The Bible is severely iconoclastic. The final death of religion occurred when the temple hierarchy was involved in the crucifixion of Jesus. From that day on religion has been under a death sentence. That means that the life of faith may be led free of the religious.

Neither can Christianity to be reduced to simple monotheism. Christians have a stake in atheism in that they do not believe in the existence of an intelligent supernatural being. Rather, they are influenced by a history and a poetry that penetrates to the depth of what it means to be human. Certainly the word “God” is used but this is so hemmed around by prohibitions of idolatry that simple theism is impossible. The Christian God can never be “out there” a nameless force in the universe but may be seen in the experience of Israel and in the face of the man Jesus.

The arrogance of Ponder is truly amazing. He describes Israel as “a minor downtrodden Middle Eastern Tribe” and fails to understand the centrality of the Judeo/Christian tradition in the development of Western culture, including the culture of natural science which would never have gotten off the ground under Aristotle or Plato.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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