January 28, 2021

Last week, my bishop, the Bishop of Woolwich, the Rt Revd Dr Karowei Dorgu, issued an unprecedented statement to the BAME community. He used to be a GP and hospital doctor, and is concerned by some fears that the Covid vaccine is secretly an attempt to wipe out the black race, or that it marks out patients with “666”, the sign of the beast. “Be wise, ignore the conspiracy theories, take the vaccine,” he pleaded.

He wasn’t alone. The Archdeacon of Croydon, the Ven Rosemary Mallett, then issued a similar statement: “I also hear that there are a number of people from black and minority ethnic communities who are finding themselves really worried about the vaccine… Please, please, get yourselves vaccinated.” The Diocese of Southwark went one step further, bringing in an urban epidemiologist, Professor Tolullah Oni, to lead an online forum to try and disabuse churchgoers of their fears.

As a priest with a black majority church in the same diocese, I am also making every effort to reassure people that the vaccine is safe.

It seems, however, that the same cannot be said of the very people whose jobs it is to promote the “public understanding of science”. Take Professor Alice Roberts, the Professor of the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham, who is also the President of Humanists UK. At the same time as Bishop Karowei and others were pleading with their communities not to see science as a threat, she was doing her level best to ridicule people of faith.

Without any consideration for whether now is an appropriate time to go on the offensive, Professor Roberts, displaying that jocular, superior tone so beloved by professional religion haters, took to social media to sneer about the resurrection, the virgin birth and so on. It “all seems a bit … makey-uppy,” she proclaimed.

Here, of course, Roberts is following in a tradition well-established by another former Professor of the Public Understand of Science, Richard Dawkins. He famously denounced God as “a vindictive bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser, a misogynistic, homophobic, genocidal, phillicidal, pestilential, meglomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully”. This too from the person paid to promote the public understanding of science: “Science is interesting and if you don’t agree you can fuck off.”

Such a callous attitude is symptomatic of the growing “facts don’t care about your feelings” school of thought. But those tasked with the public understanding of science surely need to do a lot better than “fuck off” if they are to win over the sorts of communities who see in science some sort of threat.

That was, after all, one of the chief concerns of the “public understanding of science” movement that took form following the Bodmer Report, commissioned by the Royal Society and published in 1985. On its opening page, it explained that “many personal decisions, for example about diet, vaccination, personal hygiene or safety at work or at home, would be helped by some understanding of the underlying science”. Concerns about vaccination scepticism were there on the very first page. That’s partly why it recommended that “scientists must learn to communicate with the public, be willing to do so, and indeed consider it their duty to do so”.

This is undoubtedly a noble aim. But in recent years, what began as considerate public engagement has become tainted by a new group of public intellectuals who, comfortable in their own echo chambers, understand their role as preaching to the choir.

Roberts and Dawkins are not the only ones who have taken it upon themselves alienate religious believers. Brian Cox, Professor for Public Engagement in Science at the University of Manchester, argued on the Joe Rogan podcast only last week that physics “ruled out” the existence of the soul. Likewise Jim Al-Khalili, Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey and former President of the British Humanist Association, has said that “someone of a religious faith will just stick their fingers in the ears and say: ‘I’m not listening, there’s nothing you can say that will make me change my mind.’” So too Professor Richard Fortey, Collier Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Technology at the University of Bristol, has suggested that proponents of Intelligent Design should be known as “IDiots”.

On and on it goes. Indeed, it was in this spirit that, back in 2019, the National Secular Society successfully lobbied Public Health England to remove a suggestion from their literature that some people, worried about vaccinations, might like to seek advice from “faith leaders”. Following his victory, Stephen Evans, the NSS’ Chief Executive, crowed: “Advising people to approach religious leaders on healthcare decisions is incompatible with the best interests of individual patients and the wider public.”

Certainly it is true that not all faith leaders are taking the sort of lead exemplified by the Bishop of Woolwich. But the scornful rhetoric used by the NSS is equally unhelpful. “Some of these fanatics are obstinate, some are deluded or exploitative,” was how one author on the their website described religious attitudes towards Covid-19.

It doesn’t matter how many mosques and cathedrals open themselves up as vaccination centres; there will always be those who want to turn the complex relationship between religion and vaccination into some sort of culture war — using the present situation to leverage more condemnation of religious belief. And that is profoundly unhelpful, not least because it ultimately undermines the efforts of religious bodies to explain to their communities that science is their friend.

Some people just can’t move on from those tired, old, 19th-century debates surrounding science and religion. In fact, we’ve almost come to expect it from anti-religious campaigning organisations like the NSS. But what we should not expect, let alone accept, is the fact that so many of those now tasked with increasing the public understanding of science regard it as part of their brief to attack religion — it can seriously undermine the communication of all the good that science can do to people who may not share the same world view.

The current pestilence has powerfully reminded us that we are all in this together, and that, unless vaccination is going to be imposed by law, people have to be persuaded about its importance. This is, after all, precisely what the entire public understanding of science movement was intended to achieve, as opposed to being used as a Trojan horse for the advancement of attacks upon religion.

Perhaps it’s high time we had someone in one of these roles who believes in God. This is not an argument about religious privilege — nor one about greater inclusivity. It is simply an argument about public health.

According to one estimate, more than 65% of Nobel Prize-winning physicists in the 20th century were Christians or had a Christian background – a figure which rises to more than 72% for chemists. Yes, a Christian background isn’t necessarily a sign of faith. After all, Professor Roberts went to a church school herself — and sends her children to one. But surely it is not beyond the wit of the scientific community to find someone who can communicate with religious people without resorting to condescension. And if it is, perhaps they should call upon Bishop Karawei.