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Peter William Atkins

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Peter William Atkins (born August 10, 1940) is an English Chemist and Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Lincoln College. He is a prolific writer of popular chemistry textbooks, including Physical Chemistry, 8th ed. (with Julio de Paula of Haverford College), Inorganic Chemistry, and Molecular Quantum Mechanics, 4th ed. Atkins is also the author of a number of science books for the general public, including Atkins' Molecules and Galileo's Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science.

Atkins is a well-known atheist and supporter of many of Richard Dawkins' ideas. He has written and spoken on issues of humanism, atheism, and what he sees as the incompatibility between science and religion. According to Atkins, whereas religion scorns the power of human comprehension, science respects it.

He was the first Senior Member for the Oxford Secular Society and an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society. He is also a member of the Advisory Board of The Reason Project, a US-based charitable foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. The organisation is led by fellow atheist and author Sam Harris. Atkins has regularly participated in debates with theists such as Alister McGrath, William Lane Craig, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and Richard Swinburne.

In December 2006, Atkins was featured in a UK television documentary on atheism called The Trouble with Atheism, presented by Rod Liddle. In that documentary Liddle asked Atkins to "Give me your views on the existence, or otherwise, of god." Atkins replied, "Well it's fairly straightforward: there isn't one. And there's no evidence for one, no reason to believe that there is one, and so I don't believe that there is one. And I think that it is rather foolish that people do think that there is one."

Atkins is known for his use of sharp language in criticising religion: he appeared in the controversial 2008 documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, in which he told interviewer Ben Stein that religion was "a fantasy", and "completely empty of any explanatory content. It is also evil." He appeared on a television panel about science and religion with Dawkins and Swinburne. When the latter tried to explain Holocaust as a God's way of giving Jews the opportunity to be brave and noble, Atkins muttered: "May you rot in hell".

In 2007, Atkins's position on religion was described by Colin Tudge in an article in The Guardian as being non-scientific. In the same article, Atkins was also described as being 'more hardline than Richard Dawkins', and of deliberately choosing to ignore Peter Medawar's famous adage that "Science is the art of the soluble". wikipedia


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In the preface to The Creation, Atkins writes "My aim is to argue that the universe can come into existence without intervention, and that there is no need to invoke the idea of a Supreme Being in one of its numerous manifestations."

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In a commentary published in the January 20, 1997 issue of the journal Chemistry and Industry Atkins argues that the mysticism offered by religion no longer has any place in explaining our existence and how the universe works. He writes

"The challenge of elucidating living processes -- including consciousness and all its baggage which we bundle together as 'the human spirit' -- is only one example of a challenge where hard work is paying off and science does not need to accept the false explanations peddled by religions. There are other, perhaps more challenging problems, including the origin of everything.

"In no case, though, is there any indication that science is grinding to a halt and coming up against a barrier to further explanation. There is certainly no justification for asserting that the powers of science are circumscribed and that beyond the boundary the only recourse to comprehension is God."

The article (along with some critical responses) can be found at http://ci.mond.org/9702/970218.html.

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An article in September 11, 1996 Electronic Telegraph titled "Professor says science rules out belief in God":

IT IS not possible to be intellectually honest and believe in gods. And it is not possible to believe in gods and be a true scientist, a professor said yesterday in a debate between science and religion at the annual festival of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

While apologising for being "forthright", Peter Atkins, professor of chemistry at Oxford University, said that religious belief was "outmoded and ridiculous". Belief in gods was a "worn out but once useful crutch in mankind's journey towards truth". "We consider the time has come for that crutch to be abandoned," he said.

Theologians could not even agree about the nature of their gods. These personages ranged from "blue touch-paper gods" who started everything and never interfered again, to "infinitely meddlesome gods who, as well as starting it off, police every elementary particle".

Religion provided empty answers to questions it had itself invented. To assert, for example, that a god was responsible for any action or deed was an abnegation of the power of human understanding. "It is a vacuous answer," said Prof Atkins. "To say that 'God made the world' is simply a more or less sophisticated way of saying that we don't understand how the universe originated. A god, in so far as it is anything, is an admission of ignorance."

Science, on the other hand, gave us the hope of comprehension. It provided clear answers to questions that had stumped religion for centuries. It respected the human spirit and encouraged striving towards comprehension. Prof Atkins said: "Religion utterly failed to provide an explanation of the biosphere other than that 'God made it all'. Then Darwin thundered over the horizon and in a few decades of observation and thought . . . arrived at an answer."

Putting the opposite view, Prof William Gosling, of Bath University, said the strength of religion was its "unknowable mystery". He added: "At the heart of all religion there is nothing but the mysterious cause and author of all. More durable than time, more extensive than space, stronger than death, the very source of life itself . . . God is the last answer to all questions."

Religion was not about searching for truth. "To speak of truth in religious mysteries is beside the point. If you can test a statement's truth it cannot be essentially religious. It is not knowledge but belief that matters most in religious life."

Science even failed to offer us truth. Discoveries such as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and chaos theory showed it was eternally impossible to discover absolute truth. All science could offer was probabilities. Some of the most important questions in life were essentially religious. "Will you love me for ever?" "Can abortion be morally justified?"

"None of these gives rise to verifiable answers, but to think them meaningless is crazy," said Prof Gosling, who later accused Prof Atkins of being "slightly polemical". Prof Atkins responded: "I regard teaching religion as purveying lies. I came here today to de-corrupt you all."


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The following quotes arrive from Wayne Aiken's Atheist Fortune Cookie File.

"Someone with a fresh mind, one not conditioned by upbringing and environment, would doubtless look at science and the powerful reductionism that it inspires as overwhelmingly the better mode of understanding the world, and would doubtless scorn religion as sentimental wishful thinking. Would not that same uncluttered mind also see the attempts to reconcile science and religion by disparaging the reduction of the complex to the simple as attempts guided by muddle-headed sentiment and intellectually dishonest emotion?" [P.W. Atkins, "The Limitless Power of Science" essay in "Nature's Imagination", John Cornwell, ed.; 1995 Oxford University Press, p.123]

"Religion closes off the central questions of existence by attempting to dissuade us from further enquiry by asserting that we cannot ever hope to comprehend. We are, religion asserts, simply too puny. Through fear of being shown to be vacuous, religion denies the awesome power of human comprehension. It seeks to thwart, by encouraging awe in things unseen, the disclosure of the emptiness of faith. Religion, in contrast to science, deploys the repugnant view that the world is too big for our understanding. Science, in contrast to religion, opens up the great questions of being to rational discussion, to discussion with the prospect of resolution and elucidation. Science, above all, respects the power of the human intellect. Science is the apotheosis of the intellect and the consummation of the Rennaissance. Science respects more deeply the potential of humanity than religion ever can." [P.W. Atkins, "The Limitless Power of Science" essay in "Nature's Imagination", John Cornwell, ed.; 1995 Oxford University Press, p.125]

"It's a vacuous answer . . . To say that 'God made the world' is simply a more or less sophisticated way of saying that we don't understand how the universe originated. A god, in so far as it is anything, is an admission of ignorance." [Peter Atkins, British Association for the Advancement of Science]