Harry Kroto, one of the authors of a letter to the Royal Society demanding that Reiss resign as Director of Education, has explained his reasoning today in a commentary in The Guardian. Basically, he is fundamentally against the idea of a religious individual having an influential position in the Royal Society (or other scientific bodies), because anybody who holds religious beliefs must necessarily hold a world view that conflicts at some level with the scientific world view:
Unfortunately Reiss, who is, apparently, a very nice guy, was in the wrong job. He, together with all religious people – whether they like it or not, whether they accept it or not – fall at the first hurdle of the main requirement for honest scientific discussion because they accept unfound dogma as having fundamental significance – note that I did not say value (positive or negative).
It is, he says, an issue of intellectual integrity. Now, of course he is right on that level. If you hold a religious belief then you have a belief that is fundamentally in contradiction to the scientific method. But the problem is this: why stop with religious beliefs? We all of us – including atheists – hold beliefs that are outside the scientific world view. Although holding nothing but rational beliefs that can be justified by dispassionate review of the evidence is a great aspiration, nobody actually achieves that in practice.
In practice, scientists often behave irrationally. In practice, religious believers often do great science, and have as good an understanding of the scientific method as many atheists. It’s true that religion is one of the greatest enemies of science, but that does not mean that all individuals who happen to be religious are. Reiss’ views on creationism and science education are balanced and sensible. You don’t have to be an atheist to be an exponent of the scientific method.