Dirac, Pauli and You

Here is Paul Dirac in October 1927:

If we are honest — and scientists have to be — we must admit that religion is a jumble of false assertions, with no basis in reality. The very idea of God is a product of the human imagination. It is quite understandable why primitive people, who were so much more exposed to the overpowering forces of nature than we are today, should have personified these forces in fear and trembling. But nowadays, when we understand so many natural processes, we have no need for such solutions. I can’t for the life of me see how the postulate of an Almighty God helps us in any way. What I do see is that this assumption leads to such unproductive questions as why God allows so much misery and injustice, the exploitation of the poor by the rich and all the other horrors He might have prevented. If religion is still being taught, it is by no means because its ideas still convince us, but simply because some of us want to keep the lower classes quiet. Quiet people are much easier to govern than clamorous and dissatisfied ones. They are also much easier to exploit. Religion is a kind of opium that allows a nation to lull itself into wishful dreams and so forget the injustices that are being perpetrated against the people. Hence the close alliance between those two great political forces, the State and the Church. Both need the illusion that a kindly God rewards — in heaven if not on earth — all those who have not risen up against injustice, who have done their duty quietly and uncomplainingly. That is precisely why the honest assertion that God is a mere product of the human imagination is branded as the worst of all mortal sins.

To which Wolfgang Pauli is said to have replied,

Well, our friend Dirac, too, has a religion, and its guiding principle is, “There is no God and Dirac is His prophet.”

So, you see, as far as broadly-themed content written in books goes, there is precious little new in the “New Atheism” of the past decade. And as for the backlashes against the “New” Atheism, well, they never said anything that Pauli hadn’t already said better. To the extent that anything was “New” about the whole deal, the novelty was the comparative strength of popular support, the fact that irreligion could be taken as a Movement, the spreading sense that old arguments had new relevance for improving the world.

Said atheo/skeptical “Movement” must have, of course, its own quota of “leaders” elevated far out of proportion with their scholarly capabilities and, indeed, their moral character. (To imagine it might have avoided developing them is to indulge in a flight of — one shudders at the word — optimism.) And we have learned who some of them are. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Michael Shermer come to mind.

The project of melioristic irreligion should be in better hands.

[The Dirac quotation is from Heisenberg’s Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations (1971). Pauli’s response is attested in asssorted variant versions.]