Which of these men knows more about life means?

It has been a rough week for the old religion - an ex-Archbishop of Canterbury has come under fire and the British Academy has heard that soon science will explain everything, rendering God unnecessary. Bryan Appleyard, whose book Understanding the Present attacks the idea of science as religion, considers the state of the parties

Peter Atkins, Professor of Chemistry at Oxford, tells the British Association for the Advancement of Science that science rules out belief in God. Religious belief, he says, is "outmoded and ridiculous" and a "worn-out but once useful crutch in mankind's journey towards truth". He added: "We consider the time has come for that crutch to be abandoned."

Meanwhile, Robert Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury, is in trouble for revelations made to his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter. Apparently unaware that his words would be made public, he has spoken of his fear of being stabbed in the back by C of E gays, of the way Prince Charles had "given up" on the Church, of Diana as being an actress and a schemer and of their marriage being arranged. He has also disclosed that he knew of Charles's relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles at the time of the wedding.

The contrast is poignant. A scientist robustly denies religion; a churchman flounders in the politics and prejudices of a society that is rapidly becoming what the scientist apparently wants it to be - post-religious. The scientist appears impregnable in his fortress constructed from the only contemporary certainties; the churchman appears hopelessly vulnerable in the miasma of a beleaguered faith. The long war conducted by science against religion seems to be on the point of being won.

And it is a very long war. In one way or another people have been saying that contemporary reason disproves the existence of God for around 3,000 years. The existence of a transcendent realm has always seemed to be in conflict with certain types of reason. Since the beginning of the 17th century when modern science was born, the conflict has become more brutal. When Galileo looked through his telescope in 1609 and concluded that the heavens were nothing like the Roman Catholic Church said they were, he began an assault that continues to this day.

It may not always have looked like an assault and many believing scientists - among them Newton, and Darwin, at least when he was actually writing On the Origin of Species - would have denied that it was. But the simple fact was that Christianity had made not just transcendent claims but also material claims about the nature of the world and these latter claims were rapidly being overthrown by science.

"Religion," said Atkins, "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."

The overthrow of Christian theories about the material world compromised its position on the immaterial. This began with the cold clockwork of Newton's universe, but, with the publication of Darwin's Origin in 1859, it became, so to speak, personal. We were nothing special, the products of blind evolution, as ultimately unremarkable as the amoeba or the monkey. Atkins, along with that other anti-religious campaigner Richard Dawkins, is saying no more than this: we have the explanations so who needs religion?

The message took some time to filter down to the masses, but filter it did. God, for the British and probably for most Europeans, is now dead. So why are scientists such as Atkins and Dawkins so keen to dance on his grave? Surely the war has been won.

Well, of course there are still substantial pockets of belief. In America these are more than pockets. There a majority of the population are clear believers and the state of Tennessee has recently resurrected the controversy surrounding the Scopes trial of 1925 by trying to pass a law obliging schools to teach that Darwinian evolution is no more than a theory. Creationism, the belief in spontaneous creation by God, is equally valid.

But probably even more important than this to the militant atheists is the way that, even among unbelievers, elements of religion still seem to be alive. Wild New Age beliefs flourish, some forms of Christianity are booming and, when asked, people show a remarkable adherence to some form of transcendent view of human life.

Perhaps the point is that in their eagerness to address the question "Does God exist?", the scientists overlook the more pressing question "Can we do without him?" And this is where the Runcie affair comes in.

Runcie was, as Archbishop of Canterbury, God's official delegate to the British, a difficult task in a nation plagued by Atkinses, post-imperial fatigue and a weariness with faith, if not active disbelief. He was head of a church that was and remains "established", a formal part of our constitution that proclaimed the centrality of the Christian religion to our history and way of life.

No serious thinker could deny that centrality. Christianity has been the explicit foundation of British society for, say, 1,500 years and no tradition that old can be expected fully to expire in 137 years, the period since the publication of On the Origin of Species. That was the moment at which scientific reason provided a viable alternative to the view that the complexity of life demanded the existence of a creator. But, one way or another, nobody can doubt that God lives on, powerfully in the language and, more feebly, as some sort of ultimate underpinning of our social order.

Any Archbishop of Canterbury remains, therefore, the formally appointed representative of, if God is too strong a word, the fundamental principles on which our society is based. And, of course, today any such representative is bound to be in conflict with that society, either because we are atheists, or because we do not consciously share any coherent fundamental principles, even if, thanks to the legacy of Christianity, unconsciously we do.

Runcie has now exposed that conflict by being a little too frank. But, leaving aside the line about gays as the perhaps understandable anxiety of a man of a certain generation who found himself at the head of an institution with an unusually vociferous gay lobby, the remarkable thing about all these revelations is how unremarkable they are. Runcie is clearly inside, but, even from outside, we all know that Charles's idea of spirituality is too vague to be encompassed by one corner of one faith, we have all witnessed Diana's schemes, we could see the conveniently arranged aspect of the marriage and the adulterous relationship has, many times, been vividly confirmed. Runcie has spoken nothing but the plain truth.

So the story is not the revelations themselves, but rather the fact that they come from Runcie. Were he a prominent Methodist or Roman Catholic, it might have attracted some notice - perhaps as much as Professor Atkins's remarks. But, because he is the former head of the nation's established expression of spirituality, Runcie's words take on a sensational aspect.

As a result, he has been widely criticised. He has been, it is said, naive in his dealings with Carpenter. He has betrayed secrets to which he was privy because of his position. He has damaged the established position of the Church. He has even, apparently, hammered another nail into the coffin of Christianity itself.

Well perhaps he has been naive - we cannot finally know what was going through his mind when he spoke into Carpenter's tape recorder. But the rest of the charges are crazy. For what do his critics want of this man? Do they wish him to collude in a shabby establishment cover-up of matters that were long ago emphatically placed in the public realm? And, if they do, does that mean that there should continue, in spite of everything, to be one truth for this establishment and another for the rest of us? As for Christianity's coffin, it would be a feeble faith indeed that felt remotely threatened by every passing indiscretion and Christianity may be many things but it is not feeble.

The real point about the revelations is that they expose Runcie's distaste for the way in which British institutions, including his own, are failing to live up to their own standards. The Royal Family, for example, clearly could not see the point or did not have the character to cling to their own official form of spirituality. We are fascinated by this distaste because we share it. In his words we glimpse the discontinuity between the ideal of our national honour and the trashy reality.

To this extent, and in a rather odd way, Runcie has been doing no more than his job. As spiritual counsellor to the nation he has, maybe accidentally, exposed spiritual deficiencies. His judgements are based on the idea that judgement is still possible, that there are norms to which any reasonable Briton, even in the closing decade of the second millennium, should subscribe. For him these norms are grounded in God. Maybe they are not for many others, but, on the other hand, why are we so interested? Why are we so gripped by the casual thoughts of a representative of God?

And this is the point, the real heart of the matter of science versus religion. For, however much science can make devastating inroads into the material basis of the faith, it has singularly failed to damage its spiritual basis. People look for norms, for continuities and they do not - they cannot - find them in any purely scientific vision. Religion, it is overwhelmingly apparent, is an essential part of the process whereby we define ourselves as human. However parochial and silly the Runcie affair may appear to, it signals, in some strange, attenuated way, the continuity of that process.

Because, Professor Atkins, we really cannot do without God, even a God whose only continuing manifestation is a certain unease, a distinct feeling that there really is a right way and wrong way to do things, however assiduously we may persist in choosing the wrong.

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