The fatuousness of a scientist. Steve Jones edition

10 June 2013

It’s refreshing to hear an eminent scientist like Professor Steve Jones concede that their discipline has delivered less than it promised, and to hear him voice scepticism about the pace of technological development. Society’s reverence for the digital, the technological or the scientific often reaches unnerving degrees; so it’s instructive to hear someone at the vanguard of progress caution that it is ‘always a big mistake’ for technology to run ahead of human understanding. I’d be interested to know what he thinks should be done about this problem.

But, what is it about certain people’s attitude to religious faith? I reproduce Jones’ answer to JP O’Malley’s final question in full:

‘I don’t think many philosophers have stabbed each other to death, whether they are for Nietzsche or for Bertrand Russell. But plenty of people have, who argue about the utter minutiae of faiths, Sunni and Shia, for example. Many of them have killed each other, with a feeling that they are doing right.

This is also true with Christianity.  They are absolutely sure that they are right, and the other side is wrong. And that is where the problem lies. That in the end is what drives me away from religion: there is a mystery that you don’t particularly share. And everybody who doesn’t agree with that mystery deserves to be killed. That is the pragmatic reason, not the philosophical reason, why I think religion is a bad thing.’


Professor Jones talks about ‘pragmatic reason’; but, his reasoning is, frankly, lamentable. It follows thus: some people who profess faith commit murder out of the certainty of their convictions; therefore, all religion is bad. This barely qualifies as logic, pragmatic or otherwise. It’s like saying something as ludicrous as ‘Dr Mengele was a eugenicist; therefore, genetics (and by extension geneticists) are a bad thing.’

I’m quite shocked that someone of Professor Jones’s evident intelligence and sensitivity could say something so wholly fatuous and devoid of empathy.

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  • shaft120

    Religion is, in this respect similar to collectivist ideology. The problem with both is that they elevate a persona, either God in religions case or Society in the collectivist case, as the reason for all actions. In both cases the persona cannot be questioned, so responsibility for an individuals actions is excused. Only those claiming to speak on behalf of the persona have power and in both cases it is intentional that their assertions cannot be verified.

    That is why I find it odd that you find so many people of the right believing in god and so many on the left scorning the right’s stupidity for doing so. They are peas in a pod and do not realise it. Both wish to enforce their beliefs on others without taking personal responsibility for their actions. Both need the crutch of a higher power to lend credence to their argument.

    it is not co-incidence that some of the most bloody periods in history have come from this mindset. Righteous belief without responsibility. Breeding that into people is the most evil action of all.

  • Fred Scuttle

    Professor Jones is right. Religion is dangerous nonsense.

  • Fred Scuttle

    Religion has given us nothing. Science, on the other hand…

  • HY

    “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Blaise Pascal

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Why do bright people behave like simpletons when they accept religion hook, line and rapture? Probably because they have been indoctrinated since birth and are no longer capable of rational, independent thought in that particular area.

  • Terry Field

    It is always strange that scientists possessed of powerful logic engines cannot see that the description of physical reality is one thing, and the belief in a creator, the possibility of the existence of souls, of continuation of the souls beyond the end of the existence of the body, and all that can be considered around those possibilities, is another thing entirely.
    Religion is a mere organisational structure with social dimension. Not important. Not really even relevant.

  • Peter Stroud

    It isn’t just religious people who think they are right, and all who disagree with them are wrong. The establishment funded climate science school is equally as dogmatic. Climate sceptics are dubbed deniers. In a crude attempt to allie them with
    holocaust deniers.

  • Eyesee

    Par for the course with scientists today. Remember, it is wholly provable and has been well known for some considerable time, that man made CO2 will not lead to catastrophic global warming and yet there are still some cohorts holding the wall (with the battalions of political activists) claiming just such rubbish. Global Warming extremists are harming us every bit as much as many another enemy. Nice he chooses philosophers, how about Marx? How about Hitler and Stalin, the war party in Japan of the ’30s? These too were ideas and beliefs that very clearly led to war after corrupting men’s minds. And what about Steve Jones, he appears not to like people disagreeing with him. He may say that he agrees that it is so, but he would never kill someone over it. No, but perhaps someone else would, taking an extreme stand behind your views. I fear he may be outraged by the wrong things.

    • Fred Scuttle

      Yep, we don’t need religion to hate each other, but religion does provide one more reason to do so. And it divides us all.

  • C. Gee

    Has religion delivered what it promised?

    Does religion run in front of or behind “human understanding”?

    Professore Jones is not saying anything as ludicrous as you are imputing to him.

    He is saying that there is no objective way of determining which dogma (“mystery”) is correct rationally, so (some) believers go to war to settle the issue. For this reason – that it is definitionally irrational – religion is a bad thing.

    As for accusing Jones of being “devoid of empathy” – that is fatuous. To whom is he supposed to show empathy? Those who kill to settle doctrinal differences (homoousious/homoiousious), or those who still wish to be respected for believing in something or other, despite what their fellow believers can do to each other and everyone else in the name of something or other. And one can’t help noticing that empathy is remarkably lacking among religious fundamentalists.

  • kidmugsy

    “Why does this not happen with science?” It does: Global Warmmongering fits the bill.

  • allymax bruce

    David, thank you for this fascinating article; quite well written, but only for the ‘anoraks of religion’.
    First-off, I would like to compel Steve Jones to read Lev’ Vygotsky; a brilliant early twentieth century Russian psychologist, that States all learning is of a Hegelian dialect, of ‘tool-use’. This applies itself to our computer age, just as much as it did to Vygotsky’s industrialized/mechanised revolution. Much was the despair, to understand, and ‘come to terms’, with this new fangled technology, it changed the way we think, perceive, and reason; thus why the philosophical inneptness of Feudalism passed ingloriously into Modernism. Of which, Post-modernism, is to blame for the destruction of Morality; Kant, Marx, Bush, Bliar etc. You know what I mean. Now, as David rightly points out, we shouldn’t allow Vygotsky’s ever-revolutionising ‘tool-use’produce paradigmstic axioms, that only exist to justify its means; Machevellian Postmodernisn! I mean, immoral wars, murdering millions of innocents, in the name of amoral ‘unintended consequences’ of Postmodernism. But this is what Religion is; the man-ipulation, of moral imperatives, in the name PDA ‘higher-being’, ultimately disowning our own moral responsibilities to Mankind. The problem, even from Adam, is rustYod gave us choice, to come back to Him, or continue in our own destruction. I Luv David’s use of the word ‘lamentation’, beautiful in its prose, of Jeremiah’ssadness in Zion’s Zelda-destruction. I will qualify everything I have said here by stating; Religion is of management making, but Faith is of God.

  • Will Honeycomb

    His reasoning is lamentable, indeed fatuous, as you say. He has a bit of form for this when it comes to religion. Why do bright people behave like simpletons when they dismiss religion, and Christianity in particular?

    • Fred Scuttle

      God exists in the minds of men, but only because it’s impossible to prove the non-existence of anything imaginary.

    • Fred Scuttle

      Why do otherwise bright people believe in ludicrous nonsense like Christianity?

  • JustAnOtherRandomGit

    There are always angry young men who think that they hold the absolute truth and that others should die for their wrongness. Sometimes they latch onto religion; sometimes religious leaders shamefully collaborate with them. Sometimes they latch onto something else, like nationalism, animal-rights, anti-colonialism. But religion, nationalism, animal-rights and anti-colonialism are the vehicles, not the cause.

    Why does this not happen with science? Probably for two reasons. First, because real, proper science tends to destroy the idea of absolute truth, as researchers know that their findings are only contingent and that even the philosophical basis of what they are doing is disputed and complex. (In fact, I also find something of this in Christianity, but I may be in a minority). Second, because it’s quite difficult to get fired up by science without getting into the detail, in which case the first reason applies. “Those who believe in a slightly different theory as to the origins of Parkinson’s disease to me should die!”. Not that likely.

    Regurgitated Dawkins arguments are a bit different, and do have a bit of the smell of the tumbrils about them. Possibly because most people doing the regurgitation don’t know what they are talking about?

  • MikeF

    Any system of thought that believes itself absolutely correct can progress through coercion to killing. But there is no requirement for it to be ‘religious’ in the strict sense that it involves belief in a divinity. Much of the 20th century was about absolutist systems of thought that were not merely secular but militantly atheistic killing perceived enemies and opponents or even just dissident adherents on a massive scale. Leninist, Stalinist and Maoist communism as well as Hitler’s National Socialism are the primary examples and the first, second and fourth of those all made a point of their supposed ‘scientific’ credentials. The safeguard against killing of that sort is not scientific rationalism, perfectly respectable way of thinking that it is, but a culture of free speech, tolerance and pluralism.

  • andagain

    X encourages people to murder out of the certainty of their convictions.

    It is bad to encourage people to murder out of the certainty of their convictions.

    Therefore, X is bad.

    That is not obviously an absurd argument. You really need to come up with a counter-argument. Something that might show religion as being good. Or at least something that might show YOUR religion as being good.

    BTW, no one ever complained about Mengele being a eugenicist. They complained about his torturing and killing people in things he was pleased to call medical experiments, that never advanced medical knowledge one inch.

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