- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2003

LONDON The two scientists who discovered 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, James Watson and Francis Crick helped to invent biotechnology, provided the foundation for understanding the diversity of life, revealed the mechanism of inheritance, and shed light on diseases and even the origins of antisocial behavior.
From Copernicus to Darwin, scientific pioneers have tended to offend religious sensibilities. Most scientists, even Darwin, have tread warily and avoided attacking religion, but Mr. Watson and Mr. Crick are both outspoken atheists.
Speaking recently, Mr. Crick, 86, said: "The god hypothesis is rather discredited." His distaste for religion, he said, was one of his prime motives in the work that led to the 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 nonliving things, and the phenomenon of consciousness."
Mr. Crick, a Briton, says that because many of the claims made by religions over thousands of years have proved false, the burden should be on them to prove the claims they make today, rather than putting the burden on atheists to disprove the existence of God.
"Archbishop Ussher claimed the world was created in 4004 B.C. Now we know it is 4.5 billion years old. It's astonishing to me that people continue to accept religious claims," said Mr. Crick. "People like myself get along perfectly well with no religious views."
His co-discoverer, Mr. Watson, 74, an American, said that religious explanations are "myths from the past."
"Every time you understand something, religion becomes less likely," said Mr. Watson. "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 at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda is led by a devout Christian, Francis Collins, who succeeded Mr. Watson in that post in 1993.
Dr. Collins, a medical doctor who also holds a doctorate in chemistry, complained at a recent meeting of scientists in California that God was receiving a "cold reception" during the celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA structure.
Dr. Collins said he is concerned that the anti-religious views of these distinguished figures will increase public antipathy to genetics, given that American polls show that 70 percent to 80 percent of people "believe in a personal God."
Another survey reveals that this belief is held by 40 percent of working scientists. "One should not assume that the perspective so strongly espoused by Watson and Crick represents the way that all scientists feel," said Dr. Collins, who has worked in a mission hospital in western Africa.
Religion and science "are nicely complementary and mutually supporting," he said. As one example, his research to find a faulty gene responsible for cystic fibrosis provided scientific exhilaration and "a sense of awe at uncovering something that God knew before, that we humans didn't."
"The tragedy is that many people believe that if evolution is true which it clearly is then God can't be true." However, he blames this on the reaction of the scientific establishment to the literal interpretation of Genesis by creationists views not held by most theologians.
"It is not just the fringe elements of the church that are demanding a creationist view in order to prove that you are a true believer; it is also the scientific community fringe who are basically saying that evolution proves there is no God."
Dr. Collins outlined his own belief: "God decided to create a species with whom he could have fellowship. Who are we to say that evolution was a dumb way to do it? It was an incredibly elegant way to do it.
"Jim [Watson], who I know much better than Francis [Crick], avoids bringing this topic up when we are having a conversation."
The antipathy to religion of the DNA pioneers is long-standing. In 1961, Mr. Crick resigned as a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, when it proposed to build a chapel.
When Sir Winston Churchill wrote to him, pointing out that "none need enter [the chapel] unless they wish," Mr. Crick replied that, on those grounds, the college should build a brothel, and he enclosed a check for 10 guineas.
"My hope is that eventually it will be possible to build permanent accommodation within the college, to house a carefully chosen selection of young ladies in the charge of a suitable Madam who, once the institution has become traditional, will doubtless be provided, without offence, with dining rights at the High Table," Mr. Crick wrote.
Mr. Watson, whose mother was a devout Roman Catholic and raised him and his sister as churchgoers, described how he gave up attending Mass at the start of the World War II. "I came to the conclusion that the church was just a bunch of fascists that supported [Spains General Francisco] Franco. I stopped going on Sunday mornings, and watched the birds with my father instead."
This interest in ornithology led to a career in science and the discovery of the double helix.

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