Sunday, March 08, 2009

Rupert Sheldrake

On the theological spectrum, Rupert Sheldrake is way to the left of me. However, instead of comparing his outlook to mine, it’s more instructive to compare his outlook to that of his Richard Dawkins. In terms of age, education, and nationality, they have quite a lot in common:

Rupert Sheldrake [b. 1942] is a biologist and author of more than 75 scientific papers and ten books. A former Research Fellow of the Royal Society, he studied natural sciences at Cambridge University, where he was a Scholar of Clare College, took a double first class honours degree and was awarded the University Botany Prize. He then studied philosophy at Harvard University, where he was a Frank Knox Fellow, before returning to Cambridge, where he took a Ph.D. in biochemistry. He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, where he carried out research on the development of plants and the ageing of cells. At Clare College he was also Director of Studies in biochemistry and cell biology.

From 1968 to 1969, based in the Botany Department of the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, he studied rain forest plants. From 1974 to 1985 he worked at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Hyderabad, India, where he was Principal Plant Physiologist. While in India, he also lived for a year and a half at the ashram of Fr Bede Griffiths in Tamil Nadu, where he wrote his first book, A New Science of Life.

[Richard Dawkins]

Born 26th March 1941, Nairobi, Kenya. British citizen

Education, Positions and Degrees
1959-1962 Balliol College, University of Oxford
1962-1966 Research Student, Oxford University (D.Phil., 1966)
1965-1967 Research Assistant to Professor N.Tinbergen FRS
1967-1969 Assistant Professor of Zoology, University of California, Berkeley
1969-1970 Senior Research Officer, Department of Zoology, Oxford
1970-1990 University Lecturer in Zoology, and Fellow of New College, Oxford
1989 D.Sc. (Oxford)
1990-1995 Ad hominem Reader in Zoology, University of Oxford
1995-[2008] Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, University of Oxford, and Professorial Fellow of New College

The fact that they have such a similar background makes the differences in their respective worldviews all the more striking. One reason may be that Sheldrake’s experience is far more diverse and cosmopolitan. Dawkins’ experience, by contrast, is pretty provincial and ethnocentric. Dawkins is a product of the old British Empire. He was born to a soldier stationed in a British colony, and he reflects the outlook of cultural imperialism.

“I was born and brought up in Nottinghamshire. My parents were Methodists (going back several generations on both sides of the fail), but they sent me to an Anglican boarding school–Worksop College, which is a Woodard school, very High Church. So I was exposed to both traditions and I found the Anglican tradition more interesting. I liked the buildings more, I sang in the choir as a chorister and I really liked church music. I come from a family of organists and my grandfather was a formative influence: he was an organist, and I used to sit beside him on the organ stool and turn the pages for him. My father had a broad and tolerant view and was, I think, a slightly reluctant Methodist; he really preferred the Anglican Church and used to go there whenever possible,” “Branded a Heretic,” R. Sheldrake, Why I am Still an Anglican, C. Chartres, ed. (Continuum 2006), 119-20.

“However, by the time I was about 13 or 14, under the influence of my biology teacher (who was also my housemaster), I had become very atheistic and antagonistic to religion. He was from a Quaker family, and regarded much of the worship in our chapel as superstition. His basic thrust was that Christianity was no better than all these primitive superstitions that we were so happy to denounce in other cultures, and that the primitive beliefs of savages were in fact far closer to Christian beliefs than most people were prepared to admit. At the time I thought that was an overwhelming argument against Christianity; I later came to see it as a remarkable strength,” ibid. 120.

“My housemaster was very against religious dogma. He saw science as a liberating force–at that stage in my life I did to, and I still believe that science can be liberating, although it’s sadly afflicted with dogmatism at the moment. By the time I was in the sixth form, therefore, I had a pretty standard atheistic, progressive, humanist point of view and, although I had to go to compulsory chapel services, I was the only boy in my year who refused to be confirmed. I saw myself as someone who’d moved beyond religion: science was the future; religion was a thing of the past,” ibid. 120.

“While I was an undergraduate and then a research student at Cambridge, I became increasingly critical of the mechanistic approach to biology. I began to think that this approach to life was much too limited. It left out all the things I found most interesting about animals and plants. The first thing that we did when studying animals and plants was to kill them. So I began to feel increasingly alienated from what I saw as scientific dogmatism and became interested in a more holistic approach,” ibid. 120-21.

“When I was 26, I spent a year at the University of Malaya, working on rainforest plants, and on the way there traveled through India. Going to India in 1968 was an amazing experience which nothing in my education had prepared me for,” ibid. 121.

“In 1974 I took a job in India, working in an agricultural institute. I had enjoyed being in the tropics, and I as not keen to go on doing reductionistic biology in Cambridge…While I was in India, it gradually became clear to me that I was much more Christian than I cared to admit. I found, for example, that my Hindu friends had very little interest in trying to change the world. I was working in an institute that was designed to help poor farmers and my Hindu friends would ask, ‘Why do you waste your time trying to help these people? It’s none of your business; it’s their own karma that they’re poor and they’re suffering.’ This was so alien to my whole way of thinking that I began to wonder why it was that I had this idea of trying to change the world and trying to help people. Then I realized that this was a secular manifestation of the Christian tradition; it was a kind of progressive humanism, but its roots were in Christianity. Quite surprisingly and rather paradoxically, I found myself being drawn back to a Christian path while I was in India and, as well as meditating, I began praying,” ibid. 121-122.

“I started going to Evensong at St John’s, Secunderabad: I loved the fact that there was a Prayer Book Evensong there in a colonial church in the tropical heat. I was confirmed in the Church of South India by a very old Indian bishop, and for a while I became organist of St George’s, Hyderbad, where there was a creaking organ and frequent power-cuts and a man round the back operating a hand-pumping system whenever the power failed,” ibid. 122.

“Most Hindus were open to Christianity as a valid religious path, but had rather a superficial knowledge of it. So it was a wonderful moment when a friend told me about Father Bede-Griffiths, and I went to visit him in South India. There I found an extraordinary community: a Christian ashram which was extremely Indian, because most Westerners who go to Indian aren’t interested in Christianity and stay clear of anything Christian. So, while Hindu ashrams were overwhelmed with spiritual tourists from the West, the Christian ashrams had few Western visitors,” 122-123.

“I do controversial work anyway and, in the scientific world, the very fact that I am a Christian adds to prejudice. The anti-Christian feeling in scientific circles is so strong that anyone who has religious views of any kind is thought to have forfeited any kind of intellectual credibility. I work on psychic phenomena and other unexplained things, and I’m interested in a holistic approach to nature. In fact, I’m interested in a holistic view which integrates things rather than compartmentalizing them, with religion on the one hand and science on the other. I became interested in a holistic approach to science when I was an undergraduate. After my first degree, I spent a year at Harvard doing philosophy, because I had concluded that science was hopelessly limited and I hoped that philosophy might help provide a wider perspective,” ibid. 125-25.

“I’ve never had anyone in the Church accuse me of heresy, whereas my experience is that it’s easy to be a scientific heretic. I’ve been proclaimed one on several occasions, notably in a most intemperate editorial in Nature, which described my first book as ‘A Book for Burning.” The editor subsequently said that I ‘deserved to be condemned for exactly the same reasons as the Pope condemn Galileo–it’s heresy.” These kinds of attitudes–the idea that science knows the absolute truth and that there is one single view of nature, which is universal and everyone in the whole world should believe in–in fact resemble the attitudes of the Catholic Church before the Reformation. Science has not yet undergone a kind of reformation and it’s still run by the equivalent of colleges of cardinals and is authoritarian and needlessly dogmatic. All of this is in stark contrast to the rhetoric of science, which is about free enquiry and fearless exploration,” ibid. 126-27.


  1. I like Rupert Sheldrake. Yes, he's far more liberal than I am, and I don't really accept his scientific claims (though I'm open to being persuaded, and I certainly don't think he's ever earned the amount of bile and ire that's been drawn to him - he's exposed a lot of abuse of science indirectly, I believe), but he has a way of approaching both science and faith that I think is thoughtful.

  2. The Shekdrake (or Shekhdrake) was a dragon that dwelled inside the Second Temple. Or so the Apocrypha tell us...