It’s Sunday, so allow me to talk about gods for a few minutes.
The Judeo-Christian God has been in the news recently, after the recent debate in the USA over the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools in some states. The more religious states, notably Kansas, want their schoolchildren to believe in a creator, as a minimum, because they are afraid the impressionable schoolchildren might grow up thinking for themselves and drawing conclusions based on actual evidence.
Scott Adams, author of the Dilbert cartoon, recently commented to the effect that both sides in the debate are using “straw man” arguments, misrepresenting the views of the other side, and concluded that the debate is ineffective.
I thnk it rather naive to expect a complete fair and balanced representation of this debate in the media. If you are going to form a belief, or lack of belief, based on media or written sources, it will not end well, I think. But, you may ask, what else do we have to go on? After all, the holy scriptures that people read are media. The Bible was compiled with the aim of fostering and preserving a system of belief. Paul’s Letters, especially, were the blogs of their day, written informally but intended to sway a wider audience. Today, barring a few notable exceptions, evangelists of all shapes and sizes have few reservations about using the media for the propagation of their beliefs. Without media, or propaganda, or evangelism, would there be any religions at all?
Adams is effectively fence-sitting here; on the one hand he says explicitly that he does not believe in Intelligent Design but, on the other hand, focusing on the tactical blunders made by advocates of either position as a reason to avoid getting into an argument. I have a lot of sympathy for that position – it sounds like what Stephen Jay Gould told Richard Dawkins: don’t bother getting into arguments with evangelists, because they want an audience and publicity, not necessarily to convert you individually.
If you’re going to take a strong position on a topic, it is crucial to define one’s position. It’s no coincidence that Christian church services include the recital of a Creed, a flat statement of their beliefs. The Muslim “God Is Great” catchphrase is an everyday version of the First Commandment. The point of this is certainty, the fundamental currrency of religion. Life is hard, and complex, and people sometimes want the big questions to have simple answers, so that they can focus on their lives. Malcolm X reportedly stated “I don’t want knowledge – I want certainty”. Some religions offer exactly that: certainty of belief.
Certainty is what Science, or the Scientific Method (to be more precise), does not offer. As Voltaire once said: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one”. The main argument of the Intelligent Design proponents, and the reason they are being taken seriously, is that Evolution is not 100% certain, and has “holes”, unexplained grey areas. The huge timescales involved mean huge margins of error. Dawkins, when asked whether Evolution was fact or theory, replied “Evolution has been observed. It’s just that it hasn’t been observed while it’s happening” – but even that is understating the case a little, since Evolution has been observed in fast-growing bacteria, for example.
But if all we’re talking about is belief, what is the problem? Can’t people believe what they want, as long as they do no harm? I would be inclined to say yes, but on the provisio that no harm is done. That’s the problem: unfounded beliefs have done immense harm in the past, and continue to do so today. What makes the Intelligent Design debate so poisonous, in my opinion, is that it is an attempt to sway the opinions of children towards belief in the irrational, at the point in their lives when a grounding in rational debate and free thinking would have the most positive effects. Tell them that it is OK to hold beliefs that are not backed up by some facts – which is all that Science can really offer, not certainty – and that affects how they learn, and what they choose to study or not, for the rest of their lives.
Let me end with another Dawkins quote, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let’s now stop being so damned respectful!