Thursday, April 7, 2011

Churchy physicist hits the jackpot

I often use the term "churchiness" (giving rise to the adjective "churchy") to designate a quaint tradition that consists of treasuring various aspects of the established church of a purely cultural non-theological kind. Today, I'm writing about a spectacular case of Anglican churchiness in Britain, but this phenomenon—which might be described as appreciating the religious icing more than the cake itself—can be found in all faith contexts, even in Judaism (where its adepts often describe themselves as "secular Jews").

In my article of 22 May 2008 entitled Coincidences that appear to be amazing [display], I spoke of one of the nicest little science books I've ever come upon: Just Six Numbers by Martin Rees. In that article, I resorted to humorous irony in a feeble attempt to demonstrate that we often tend to get our thoughts backwards, as it were. It would be ridiculous to assert that chance has caused celebrated rivers to flow precisely through the middle of many great cities. It's the other way round. If the Seine flows through the center of Paris, it's because the founders of the future city decided to settle on the banks of that river, at the propitious geographical site that would later be known as Paris. If a great temple existed at Ephesus, once upon a time, it wasn't the goddess herself who erected it at that particular spot, so that her followers would gather there to worship her; Ephesus was a place where many people just happened to be devout followers of Artemis, and it was normal that they should build a great temple that would soon attract hordes of worshipers of the goddess. Likewise, as Rees says, we should not seek fuzzy metaphysical explanations concerning the precise values of six physical constants that have shaped our universe. While certain observers find it nice to conclude that God alone could have dictated those six values in order to enable us mortals to come into existence and to worship Him (that capital "H" is a remnant of my personal churchiness), the obvious objective explanation—designated as the anthropic principle—is that, in the case of all other theoretical values of those six famous numbers, we humans simply wouldn't be here today, on the planet Earth, to talk of shoes and ships, and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.

Telling tale: The celebrated scientist Martin Rees (Astronomer Royal and former President of the Royal Society) was enamored of traditional British values to the point of getting a kick out of being known officially as Baron Rees of Ludlow. And this self-proclaimed atheist has taken churchiness to its extreme limits by declaring that the Church of England is a "force for good", and that we should preserve the choral traditions and architectural legacy of Anglicanism. That's crazy thinking, but brilliantly British! I would not hesitate in labeling Rees as a charming intellectual eccentric… but I prefer by far the healthy language of an authentic (non-eccentric) British intellectual such as Richard Dawkins, whose profound culture consists of dispensing with all convenient subterfuges such as churchy nostalgia. OK, we can maybe allude to churchiness, for literary reasons (as Dawkins does, when he refers fleetingly to All things bright and beautiful), but we shouldn't actually take it seriously, as something that deserves to be preserved, on a par with the findings of science. Let me say, to clarify my personal feelings, that churchiness is certainly the stuff that should be exhibited in cultural museums (which may, or may not, exist today as such), but its intellectual remnants should never be mistaken for good clear thinking.

Today, we are all alarmed to discover that the good lord (Rees, not the other fellow) has apparently sold his soul to the US spiritual force of the Dollar Deity by accepting the notorious Templeton Prize: over a million and a half lovely little tax-free greenbacks. Churchies of the world, let us arise and praise the Lord! Meanwhile, let me give my guide Dawkins the final lighthearted word: "This will look great on Templeton's CV. Not so good on Martin's."

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