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June 2008

All things bright and beautiful

Francis Collins, this month's High Profile interviewee, was recently described by populist atheist Richard Dawkins as 'A bright guy ... a very good scientist.' In the same interview, however, on being told that Collins 'believed in a talking snake' (as opposed to having a more 'nebulous' belief in God), Dawkins said 'In that case, he goes right down in my estimation. He's not a bright guy.'

This may not have been intended to be as insulting as it first appears, for Dawkins, of course, has his own definition of 'bright': 'Those who ... have no religion, who are variously labeled atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, philosophical naturalists, secularists, or humanists.' He goes on: 'Whether there is a statistical tendency for brights (noun) to be bright (adjective) is a matter for research. I would dearly like to see such research undertaken, and I know the result I am betting on.'

One of Dawkins' heroes is Sir Isaac Newton, author of arguably the greatest single work in the history of science. In a Christmas article he once wrote that 'December 25th is also the birth of Issac Newton, who revolutionized how we looked at the world through his laws of gravity. In so doing, he set us free from the shackles of religious dogma and allowed us to think for ourselves.'

Here, for the record, is a list of some things that Newton thought for himself: that astrologers predicted the birth of Christ; that it was worth breaking the law to study alchemy; that the Bible contained messages hidden in a secret code (and that he was chosen by God for the task of understanding it); that rigorous calculations suggested that the world would end sometime after 2060; that worshipping Christ as God was idolatry; and that 'Atheism is so senseless and odious to mankind that it never had many professors.'

On at least one of those things we can safely say that he has been caught out by modern developments.