More blurring of the boundaries between fantasy, science and fiction this week!
The fundamentalist Christians are at it again, in their constant search to find some crack in the edifice of scientific knowledge into which they can force a wedge. Their strategy is to try to find any aspect of the natural world which scientists can't yet explain, so that they can argue that its purposeful creation by God is a valid possible explanation. In this way, they hope to get their religious beliefs accepted as worthy of being taught in schools alongside science, as a major step towards their goal of embedding religion within education. The focus of this activity is in the USA, in which religion is kept out of public education by law, but there is an increasing spill-over into other countries which are on the receiving end of lots of pro-creationist publicity and teaching materials.
Many of the fundamentalists believe that the universe and everything in it was created by God exactly as described in the Bible, over a period of six days a few thousand years ago. There is the slight problem that Genesis 1 has the creation of plants, animals, man and woman in a different order to that listed in Genesis 2 – they can't both be right – but that doesn't seem to faze the creationists. The big problem they have in selling this idea to non-fundies is the vast and ever-growing body of evidence from many different fields of research (astrophysics, astronomy, geology, geomorphology, palaeontology and biology, to name the obvious ones) which clearly point to the enormous age and slow development of life, the Universe and all that. Clearly, the creationists' beliefs are pure religious dogma and stand no chance of being allowed into US state schools, as emphasised by various legal rulings.
So they switched tactics to low cunning, and during the late 1980s and 1990s developed the concept of "Intelligent Design", or ID. Here we need to mention the Discovery Institute, based in Seattle, which is a major sponsor of the "wedge" strategy for getting religious beliefs accepted within mainstream education, and is closely associated with ID and other recent attempts to subvert the ban on teaching creationism. The tactic this time was a lot more subtle. Darwin once observed that it would only take one example of a feature of a living thing which could not have evolved from some earlier feature to disprove evolution. The aim of the creationists is to identify any such feature they can, and argue that this is evidence that this must have been the act of an "intelligent designer". They carefully avoid mentioning God as the likely designer, or using the forbidden words "creation" or "religion". However, this strategy suffered a major setback in 2005 when the proposal of a school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, to teach ID was challenged in court. After a high-profile six-week trial, the verdict went against the creationists. “The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the board who voted for the ID policy,” the judge wrote. “It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would, time and again, lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID policy.” To make matters worse for the ID proponents, their prize exhibit – a complex flagellum which they claimed could not have evolved – has since been found in a simpler form, indicating an earlier stage of evolution.
So the fundies switched tactics again, to an even more subtle approach; the defence of academic freedom! They are promoting the argument that teachers have the right to hold "open discussions of scientific theories" – such as evolution – with their students, and can introduce books and other materials from outside the standard curriculum to help the students "critique" the science they are taught. This has been supported by a "teach the controversy" public campaign (ignoring the fact that as far as science is concerned, there is no controversy over the theory of evolution). This is a clever move, since who could be against academic freedom? But what it really does is open the door to an attack on evidence-based logical reasoning (the basis of the scientific method) by a belief system which rejects objective evidence and reason in favour of a dogmatic adherence to the exact words in an ancient book. Despite this, in mid-2008 Louisiana approved a state law which defends such academic freedom, and other states have been considering similar measures.
No doubt buoyed by this success, the fundamentalists have recently found what they perceive to be another point of weakness: our understanding of human consciousness (reported in the New Scientist on 25 October). In particular, they attempt to draw a distinction between the human mind and the material brain, with aim of arguing that a non-material mind is something entirely separate. It must therefore have had a separate origin, which leads into the existence of a "soul"; another angle to get a religious belief accepted as having a valid place in science. It is once again a clever move, because the nature of consciousness is an area of genuine debate among scientists working in the field, with different views being held. However, the New Scientist article points out that the arguments in favour of the mind being separate are flawed. Its proponents argue that brain scans reveal that when people use their minds to consciously change what they are thinking, this can be shown to affect brain functioning. Therefore, they say, the mind must be separate from the material brain. Their opponents point out that this is a logical non-sequitur; there is no reason why the brain cannot change itself. Furthermore, the fact that something is not yet understood by science does not mean that it will never be understood; in fact, the scientific method has a staggeringly consistent record of success in pushing back the boundaries of ignorance. If it weren't for evidence-based logical thinking we would still be living in caves and killing animals for food by throwing stones at them.
In case some readers feel that this blog is an attack on religion, I must point out that most Christians are not creationists, despite the attempt of the fundies to imply that true Christianity equals creationism; to put the debate (in the words of a car bumper sticker) in the form of "Jesus v Darwin". In most of the Christian world, creationists are in a small minority. Neither the Roman Catholic nor the Anglican churches oppose the theory of evolution. Even in the USA, which is at least 75% Christian, only 39% of the population rejects the proposition that human beings evolved from earlier species of animals (compared with 40% which accepts it, and 21% "don't knows").
Is any of this important? Does it really matter if children are taught religious beliefs as if they were on a par with science? Yes, I believe that it is and it does, very much so. What the fundamentalists are doing is attacking the basis of the knowledge which humanity has accumulated over many centuries. Knowledge acquired through patient observation of phenomena, the gathering of evidence, the development of hypotheses to account for the observations, the testing of these hypotheses (by experimentation wherever possible), and their validation by other scientists, leading to the establishment of theories which remain our best explanation for the phenomena – until contrary evidence or a theory which better fits the evidence comes along. The agenda of the fundamentalists is to sow doubt about this entire process, to encourage children to believe that rational and non-rational modes of thinking are entirely comparable and equally valid as a means of explaining the material world in which we live, rather than occupying separate aspects of human life. If they had their way, children would grow up in a world of medieval superstition, ignorant of the importance of evidence-based logical thinking, and thereby completely unequipped to deal with the increasingly complex and technical problems which we are facing, including resource depletion and climate change. From my perspective, that would be a crime against humanity.