DNA leaders call religion to account

Date: March 22 2003

By Roger Highfield in London

The scientists who launched a revolution with the discovery of the structure
of DNA in Cambridge 50 years ago have used the anniversary to mount an
attack on religion.

When they revealed DNA's double-helix structure in 1953, Francis Crick and
James Watson helped to invent biotechnology, provided the foundation for
understanding the diversity of life on Earth, revealed the mechanism of
inheritance and shed light on diseases such as cancer and even the origins
of anti-social behaviour.

From Copernicus to Charles Darwin, scientific discoveries have had a habit
of offending religious susceptibilities. Most scientists tread warily and
avoid attacking religion, but Dr Watson and Dr Crick are outspoken atheists.

Dr Crick, 86, said recently: "The God hypothesis is rather discredited."
Indeed, he says his distaste for religion was one of his prime motives in
the work that led to the sensational 1953 discovery.

"I went into science because of these religious reasons, there's no doubt
about that. I asked
myself what were the two things that appear inexplicable and are used to
support religious beliefs: the difference between living and non-living
things, and the phenomenon of consciousness."

Dr Crick argues that since many claims made by specific religions over 2000
years have proved false, the burden of proof should be on the claims they
make today, rather than on atheists to disprove the existence of God.

"Archbishop Ussher claimed the world was created in 4004BC. Now we know it
is 4.5billion years old. It's astonishing to me that people continue to
accept religious claims," Dr Crick said. "People like myself get along
perfectly well with no religious views."

Dr Watson, 74, said religious explanations were "myths from the past".
"Every time you understand something, religion becomes less likely," he
said.
"Only with the discovery of the double helix and the ensuing genetic
revolution have we had grounds for thinking that the powers held
traditionally to be the exclusive property of the gods might one day be
ours."

The American effort to read the genetic recipe of a human being, the Human
Genome Project, is led by a devout Christian, Francis Collins, who succeeded
Dr Watson in that post in 1993. Dr Collins complained at a recent meeting of
scientists in California that God was receiving a "cold reception" during
celebrations of the 50th anniversary.

He is concerned that the anti-religious views of these "very distinguished
figures" will increase public antipathy to genetics, given that American
polls suggest that 70-80per cent of people "believe in a personal God".

The antipathy to religion of the DNA pioneers is long-standing. In 1961
Crick resigned as a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, when it proposed
to build a chapel. When Winston Churchill wrote to him, pointing out that
"none need enter [the chapel] unless they wish", Dr Crick replied that on
those grounds, the college should build a brothel, and enclosed a cheque for
10 guineas.

Dr Watson described how he gave up attending Mass at the start of World War
II. "I came to the conclusion that the church was just a bunch of fascists
that supported Franco. I stopped going on Sunday mornings and watched the
birds with my father instead."

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