He'll need God on his side: John Patten dreams of an enriching harmony between religion and science. He has a tough battle ahead

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The Independent Online
THE TORIES do not believe in God. In this, they are at one with the nation: with a few scattered and eccentric exceptions, the British do not believe in God either. Hymns are bawled at party conferences and weddings, but with an embarrassed, smirking reservation. Er, no, we don't really want a bow of burning gold, thanks very much. 'And did those feet . . .?' Well, no, probably not.

However, John Patten, the Education Secretary, does believe in God and he has been lying in hospital staring at the ceiling. He has also watched television, being, as he explains, unable to concentrate on John Ruskin or John Le Carre.

From these twin activities of staring and watching, he derived the conclusions that he describes, in an article in this week's Spectator, as follows: 'I'd like more people to study science. I'd like more of them to show a bit more interest, too, in other academic disciplines with serious intellectual rigour. I'd also like more of them to believe in God and go to church, for that matter. What I really want is a counter-revolution against the pseudo-religions of radical sociology, the flabbier social sciences and the apocalyptic diatribes of extreme environmentalism that now pass for serious intellectual activity.'

This extraordinary and revealing article is about God, science and politics, though its immediate background is nothing more than the curiously insubstantial fuss a few weeks ago about the steep fall in the number of students taking science subjects at A-level and university.

William Waldegrave, the minister responsible for science, fluttered mildly about this, and Mr Patten himself ordered an inquiry. Pundits squawked and hovered over the matter, Robin Cook sneered, the seldom less than hilarious British Association for the Advancement of Science warned of the 'dire implications for the country's competitiveness', and then it all went away again.

Undeterred and unimpressed, thousands of students are even now trooping off to campus to wallow in Jacques Derrida and Terry Eagleton, while a handful of others will be struggling heroically to save our standard of living with quantum electrodynamics, buckyballs and superconductivity.

I have never met this Mr Patten, but I think he has potential; he should go into hospital more often. Unlike the wretched Mr Waldegrave he does not, immediately a science story looms, drop to his knees before the arrogant and ill-read scientific establishment. Instead, he lies in bed and thinks. And he thinks well, for he sees that beneath this fluffy piece of silly season column-fodder lies a big issue, possibly the biggest of all.

The gist of what he is saying is that he wants more rigour. Rigour he associates with 'real religion' and with science. Both impose tough rules: religion in the realm of our conduct towards ourselves and others; science through an ideal of hard objectivity. Neither is particularly marketable, and as a result they have been widely replaced by pseudo-religions and pseudo-sciences. The call to the Almighty and the spectacle of Isaac Newton 'forever voyaging through strange seas of thought alone' have been replaced by environmentalism, media studies, feminism, literary theory and the worst kind of sociology.

For Mr Patten, the true value of good science and real religion is that they are humbling. They teach individuals to look beyond themselves, to accept an entirely non-subjective truth, however uncomfortable. Without some such ideal, human life can only degenerate into spiritual solipsism: the selfish individualism combined with a shaky and ineffective grip on reality that, in extreme forms, we call insanity.

Perhaps because he is a politician, Mr Patten does not go quite as far as that last sentence, but instead ends on an unconvincing note of optimism.

Indeed, he becomes almost visionary: 'The rigorous humanities and literature will dance with science; a new great tradition mixing Newtonian theory with George Eliot, Jane Austen with Darwin, quantum physics with D H Lawrence will appeal. Much public money will be saved; but, more to the point, much human happiness will be assured.'

Mr Patten's religious idealism is admirable, and almost every aspiration in his article is to be applauded (though I cannot really forgive him for liking Le Carre). But his analysis is flawed because he fails to see the depth of the gulf between his own faith and the secular society of which he writes.

In this secular society, science is not a noble, self-immolating ideal, the stout partner of true religion; it is a cantankerous, self-interested institution barely capable, in the hands of its most high-profile propagandists, of concealing its contempt for other modes of human understanding. Try to detect Mr Patten's austerely idealised science in the writings of Steve Jones, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking or Steven Weinberg and you will try in vain.

What you will find are arrogance and a paper-thin intellectualism that spring from the belief that the authority of science places it well beyond the confines of the discipline and understanding of human culture. (It was the extraordinary Dr Jones, for example, who claimed that philosophy was to science what pornography was to sex. Consider that as a contribution to the education debate.)

And this arrogance signals the real place that science has taken in society: as the enemy of competing value systems and the power house of a destructive, technological, mechanistic materialism. Perhaps the real, the understandable reason that students are not doing science is that they do not like the look of it; they know it will carry on blithely and arrogantly getting things wrong and, frankly, they do not wish to be implicated. Mr Patten's God gets in the way of this bleaker truth, because He makes the Secretary of State too reasonable. Quite reasonably, Mr Patten does not see any incompatibility between science and the rest of human wisdom. He insists on the moral imperative at the centre of Western science, and he maintains the old post-Galileo Catholic truce: the modus vivendi that says science and theology are different aspects of the same thing.

The problem with this truce is that it has never really been observed by science and its handmaiden technology, and now that the new scientific popularisers have become bestsellers, it has been formally abandoned. Believe me, I have tried talking reasonably to Stephen Hawking within the terms of this truce: it does not work. It has, in effect, been admitted that, in a secular society, science wants to be and is God.

Nevertheless, for Mr Patten the truce works, if not as a fact in the present society, then as a possibility in a future one. He writes of the first national curriculum children leaving school in 2001: he hopes that they will have accepted science as part of the culture, and that they will have been lured from the pseudo-religions. Science will be seen gratefully by the young as the potential solver of 'those very problems that set alight youthful idealism'. The whole of culture will have been reformed to become a rigorous dance of disciplines.

This is a decent hope, but it requires conviction; it requires a faith, an absolute at the end of all arguments. For Mr Patten, this is God. But what is it for the secular Tories in their Union Jack boaters, singing 'Jerusalem' in Blackpool? We need to know, because we are stuck with them for some time, and neither Labour nor Paddy Ashdown shows any sign of finding God, or an adequate substitute.

Maybe for the secular Tories the faith is John Major's fidelity to petit bourgeois values; maybe it is Teresa Gorman's Essex common sense; maybe it is the Mr Fixit style of Kenneth Clarke; maybe it is the old Wilson/Heath-era technophilia that lives on in Michael Heseltine and finds its valet in Mr Waldegrave. But, of course, none of these things is remotely convincing. They are not in the same imaginative and intellectual class as the enemies they must fight: a rampant scientism in our values and a technological fantasy in our society.

Perhaps for the true Tory, only God really works, and perhaps that means that Mr Patten is the clearest-sighted man in the Cabinet. What he sees in the world is unreal, but what he aspires to in the future is perfectly coherent and attractive - perfectly, in a word, conservative.

His article is a startling outpouring. It sets him apart in ways he may come to regret. But it is worth knowing that, for at least one member of the Cabinet, an offer of a chariot of fire would not be a complete embarrassment.