How I Got Inclined Towards Atheism

Francis Crick is Kieckhefer Professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, USA. He shared a Nobel Prize with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins in 1962 for the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA.

When Prof. Crick was informed about the Golden Jubilee of the Atheist Centre he was immensely happy and presented his latest book What Mad Pursuit an autobiographical account of his life as a scientist, to the Atheist Centre with his best wishes for the Golden Jubilee. This book is published by Basic Books, Inc., New York. Here are a few extracts from that book to acquaint readers with Crick's views on religion.

My parents were religious in a rather quiet way. We had nothing like family prayers, but they attended church every Sunday morning and when we were old enough my brother and I went with them. The church was a nonconformist protestant one, a Congregational Church, as it is called in England, with a substantial building on Abington Avenue. As we did not own an automobile, we often walked to church, though sometimes we made part of the journey by bus. My mother greatly admired the clergyman because of his upright character. For a time my father was secretary of the church (that is, he did the church's financial paperwork), but I did not get the feeling that either of them was especially devout. Certainly they were not overly narrow in their outlook on life. My father sometimes played tennis on Sunday afternoons, but my mother warned me not to mention this to other members of the congregation since some almost certainly would not have approved of such sinful conduct.

I accepted all this, as children do, as part of our way of life. At exactly which point I lost my early religious faith I am not clear, but I suspect I was then about twelve years old. It was almost certainly before the actual onset of puberty. Nor can I recall exactly what led me to this radical change of viewpoint. I remember telling my mother that I no longer wished to go to church, and she was visibly upset by this. I imagine that my growing interest in science and the rather lowly intellectual level of the preacher and his congregation motivated me, though I doubt if it would have made much difference if I had known of other more sophisticated Christian beliefs. Whatever the reason, from then on I was a skeptic, an agnostic with a strong inclination toward atheism.

This did not save me from attending Christian services at school, especially at the boarding school I went to later, where a compulsory service was held every morning and two on Sundays. For the first year there, until my voice broke, I sang in the choir. I would listen to the sermons but with detachment and even with some amusement if they were not too boring. Fortunately, as they were addressed to schoolboys, they were often short, though all too frequently based on moral exhortation.

I have no doubt, as will emerge later, that this loss of faith in Christian religion and my growing attachment to science have played a dominant part in my scientific career not so much on a day-to-day basis but in the choice of what I have considered interesting and important. I realized early on that it is detailed scientific knowledge which makes certain religious beliefs untenable. A knowledge of the true age of the earth and of the fossil record makes it impossible for any balanced intellect to believe in the literal truth of every part of the Bible in the way that fundamentalists do. And if some of the Bible is manifestly wrong, why should any of the rest of it be accepted automatically? A belief, at the time it was formulated, may not only have appealed to the imagination but also fit well with all that was than known. It can nevertheless be made to appear ridiculous because of facts uncovered later by science. What could be more foolish than to base one's entire view of life on ideas that, however plausible at that time, now appear to be quite erroneous? And what would be more important then to find our true place in the universe by removing one by one these unfortunate vestiges of earlier beliefs? Yet it is clear that some mysteries have still to be explained scientifically. While these remain unexplained, they can serve as an easy refuge for religious superstition. It seemed to me of the first importance to identify these unexplained areas of knowledge and to work toward their scientific understanding whether such explanations would turn out to confirm existing beliefs or to refute them.

Short Graphic Rule

Even a cursory look at the world of living things shows its immense variety. Though we find many different animals in zoos, they are only a tiny fraction of the animals of similar size and type. J.B.S. Haldane was once asked what the study of biology could tell one about the Almighty. "I'm really not sure," said Haldane, "except that He must be inordinately fond of beetles." There are thought to be at least 300,000 species of beetles. By contrast there are only about 10,000 species of birds. We must also take into account all the different types of plants, to say nothing of microorganisms such as yeasts and bacteria. In addition, there are all the extinct species, of which the dinosaurs are the most dramatic example, numbering in all perhaps as many as thousand times all those alive today.

The second property of almost all living things is their complexity, and in particular, their highly organised complexity. This so impressed our forebears that they considered it inconceivable that such intricate and well-organized mechanisms would have arisen without a designer. Had I been living 150 years ago I feel sure I would have been compelled to agree with this Argument from Design. Its most thorough and eloquent protagonist was the Reverend William Paley whose book, Natural theology -- or Evidence of the Existences and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of nature, was published in 1802. Imagine, he said, that crossing a heath one found on the ground a watch in good working condition. Its design and its behaviour could only be explained by invoking a maker. In the same way, he argued, the intricate design of living organisms forces us to recognize that they too must have had a Designer.

This compelling argument was shattered by Charles Darwin, who believed that the appearance of design is due to the process of natural selection. This idea was put forward both by Darwin and by Alfred Wallace, essentially independently. Their two papers were read before the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858, but did not immediately produce much reaction. In fact, the president of the society, in his annual review, remarked that the year that had passed had not been marked by any striking discoveries. Darwin wrote up a "short" version of his ideas (he had planned a much longer work) as The Origin of species. When this was published in 1859, it immediately ran through several reprintings and did indeed produce a sensation. As well it might, because it is plain today that it outlined the essential feature of the "Secret of Life". It needed only the discovery of genetics, originally made by Gregor Mendel in the 1860s, and, in this century, of the molecular basis of genetics, for the secret to stand before us in all its naked glory. It is all the more astonishing that today the majority of human beings are not aware of all this. Of those who are aware of it, many feel (with Ronald Reagan) that there must be a catch in it somewhere. A surprising number of highly educated people are indifferent to these discoveries, and in western society a rather vocal minority are actively hostile to evolutionary ideas.


Last updated by Morgan Matthew Jul 30, 2008.


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