The way we are
The archbishop recently praised Richard Dawkins for increasing public understanding about the natural world, that allowed believers to be in awe of the natural world (though of course the Archbishop of Canterbury thanks god for creation). In this theology science helps with the understanding of the natural world, it’s theories verified explain the wonder of what god has accomplished.
In the view of god-of-the-gaps god created the world and what is more evolution is not the way he did it. Any evidence is either fraud committed by scientists or a trick of the evil one. It takes away the idea that god lends an active hand in nature and the world around us. Not only does intelligent design explain it all, but any question that cannot be answered by science is proof god did it, or if the answer is too complicated fingers in ear god did it personally.
Much was the reaction when my mother watched some of the Ken Miller lecture on Intelligent Design. So why is it that Ken Miller and the Archbishop do not find the theory of evolution a threat to their religious belief and way of life but others professing faith (like my mum) do?
In some ways Ken Miller spoke about it in his lecture. Basically the theory of evolution is seen as suggesting that we in common with other forms of life have a common ancestor. We are therefore not made in his direct image. From this theological problem is that because we are part of the animal kingdom than all manner of evils can be done, because we are no better than animals. So bring on the porn, rape the woman next door, steal from your boss and let Satan take possession of your soul.
This misses a very crucial point. Because the theory of evolution makes no moral claim on how we should live our lives. Rather game theory, tit for tat concept, the human cognitive ability to live by rules and empathises with others play their part. One reason we exist as a civilisation is that we are so capable of doing so – this has in terms of population benefited us.
Science is no way to base morals. Social Darwinism (nothing to do with Darwin) is to be confined to the trash bin of political ideology. When anyone suggests that we should have a public policy based on it shout them down with reason and humanity. As Dawkins points out we fight, outwit and go against what would benefit our genes all the time because it benefits us as people in terms of our goals – why on earth should we live our lives for them?
The other reason is that people are skeptical of experts. BSE, climate change, MMR, SARs, GM crops – confidence in science, let alone politicians, is shaken. People are questioning a materialistic culture in a world where most people barely survive. People question not only organised religion but anything just because it is an institution.
So into this vacuum come the alternative ideas – new age therapies, homeopathy. Supposed Gurus tell people to search themselves for the answers, and even the way to heal themselves. Most religious claiming people belong to no church – they are in touch with god because they feel the divine everywhere. I am convinced that this abstract concept is what the majority of religious people mean when they say they are religious but more detailed surveys would be illuminating on this point (see Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell” for a much more detailed suggestion on how to try and do that).
Gather all the empirical evidence you want. Explain science with enthusiasm about beauty, exhibiting the awe of understanding. For some belief in belief will never be broken down by mental appeal. Rather, it could only work by understanding why the person needs their belief. When that is based on fear (of people and other ways to live) and love (of other people and ways of thinking) - when you say evolution for some people you are not just questioning their god, but their whole system by which they survive in this world. It is rooted that some benevolent force will make things right now or in the future – it is a shred of hope held so tightly that to know how it is rooted by fear and love you would never get at it in a debate on ID and evolution.
In short those that think one day reason and facts will win over superstition and super naturalism need to really appreciate how people reflect on things. The way we think lends itself to a self centred ego placed in the central point of the universe. This feeling gives rise to spiritual explanations of how things are or could be for you. Religion survives down the eons because it piggy backs well in the way the mind thinks of itself.
On an intuitive level it seems to most people to make sense. Intuition has been seen as the way to overcome supposed expert opinion – you know best, come to your own conclusion, live your life. In some ways that has been part of the individualistic agenda as demonstrated in Thatcher’s Britain.
In short, it really has to be up to a person to be curious about what science has to offer. And prefer the higher knowledge questions of how rather than answering lower intuitive questions of why. Science answers the how very well. Why questions denote the self discovery aspect of what we deem the way we think (consciousness) – and religion jumps in there whether being the old guard or menu-a-la-carte of the modern age.
So does it really matter? Yes because science is our best hope of not only understanding the cosmos, the natural world and us, but also in improving our quality of life. A world where science is belittled and challenged by religion would signal a world of introspection, skepticism of everything accept how you feel. Where progress is not measured by who benefits but whether it offends sensibilities of some group that can veto it otherwise. This extends not just to science but to culture as well.
In this sense are the values of the enlightenment under threat. We are the in touch generation, the one that has access to so much information and yet is skeptical of so much that is credible. Yet where MMR scares are accepted as “medically proven” (they are unfounded), where homeopathy is seen as a credible medical practice (there is no proof it does anything physically changing). Where ideas about Princess Diana’s death by agents of the state take precedent over a drunk driver. When more people believe in horoscopes than any organised religion. Where writers and broadcasters are put to death or threatened for what they say.
It is in this society that we make our stand. If I am sounding pessimistic that is not my intention. This is climbing the mount improbable of thought. By slow careful steps it can be done. But to think this is one quick charge is a grave error in calculation. This is a war of attrition. One can only make the case – but the priority for me is that science education should not be subjected to religious belief, that children should not be branded by their parents religious beliefs, that religious education of all faiths and philosophy is more necessary in the modern age not less.
Above all is the recognition that life is precious and fleeting – that life is over too quickly for too many in this world. We must use our collective talents to get a grip on the problems of this world. Too often religion, ideology, nationalism, even the human ability of kinship get in the way of recognising that as humans we are descended from the same ancestor. These differences are few compared to the many similarities we have – yet we allow trivial things to divide us.
In the global world how will we respond to the challenges facing ourselves and the planet? Can we go beyond our selfish self preservation and do what benefits all? What will we look to for the answer – because whether we think it is faith or science (or even both) one thing I do agree with the Archbishop on in his sermon:
It starts with us embracing our common humanity.