Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Root of All Evil...

is the title of Richard Dawkins' Channel Four series on religion, much anticipated by many, already pre-emptively vilified by others. Dawkins is one of the leading evolutionary biologists of these times and author of several books on the subject of evolutionary biology (evolution, for short), perhaps most notably The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable.

My first impression, in the run-up to the actual programme and judging by the trailer, was that Dawkins was threading on thin ice. This kind of subject matter tends to add fuel to the fire of religious polarization. But why should Dawkins feel obliged to observe the sensitivity of religions to questioning and criticism? Catholicism for example hardly has been particularly tolerant of free-thinking people. It burned Giordano Bruno at the stake for promoting the heliocentric solar system, made Galileo recant these same ideas and confined him to house arrest and he died shortly after the trial. There are many other cases of religious and merciless persecution of heretics.

Without a shadow of doubt Dawkins' decision to so transparently address the subject of how destructive organised religion can actually be, is inspired by the current debate (if you can all it that) between the Intelligent Design (ID) people and mainstream evolutionary biologists. This debate is almost exclusive to the US because it is fuelled by the Religious Right, a group that has gained significant importance to the point where it has almost certainly had a decisive impact of the outcome of the last two Presidential elections.

ID is nothing more than a thinly disguised form of Creationism, the story of how God created the World and everything in it in six days, according to the Book of Genesis. ID concocts an unholy cocktail of evolution with a guiding hand of God thrown in. The Religious Right and its evangelists want Creationism to be taught in science classes, alongside evolutionary biology, as an equivalent and valid scientific theory and ID is the Trojan horse that would sneak religious faith into the science class through the back door.

But ID is not a scientific theory.

Firstly it's important to reiterate what exactly constitutes science. Let's start by showing what it is not: a Truth Machine. Science cannot establish absolute truths, it does not attempt to do so, and rather it does the opposite. Instead scientists put forward hypotheses regarding the World and then attempt to put together a body of evidence that supports these hypotheses, much in the same way as a prosecutor tries to put together a case that can prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

Theories that have behind them a sufficiently large and convincing body of evidence and have shown to have strong predictive power (the power to predict the outcome of experiments) become "established" but that does not make them absolute truths. Very often the theory will later be shown to incomplete or (wholly or partly) incorrect and will require replacing or refining. Science is therefore an ongoing and iterative process. It cannot establish truth with absolute certainty. But the theories it has developed, honed and polished in a long, arduous and sometimes painful process have an impressive power to predict the future (in terms of future observations).

Evolutionary biology is one of the many success stories of science because it explains perfectly and with an overwhelming body of evidence how life evolved from the primordial soup to the higher animals (and all other current terrestrial life forms) including humans over a period of about 2 billion years. The theory elegantly and compellingly explains the very, very gradual emergence of increasingly complex living systems.

Religion and with it ID/Creationism, is an entirely different way of thinking (some, like Dawkins, provocatively call it "unthinking"). Of the believer is asked that he or she accepts without questioning, doubt or skepticism, principles that have been outlined centuries ago, as absolute, unshakable, immutable, eternal truths, decreed by God. This is faith: blind acceptance without requiring or requesting any form of proof or evidence.

ID in a half-hearted way accepts the theory of evolution, and then tries to undermine it by stating that the complexity of life cannot have arisen without the guiding hand of an omnipotent God. To those who understand evolutionary biology this is of course all very tiring: the theory set out to demonstrate exactly how the complexity of life gradually arose over the eons of time and it succeeded brilliantly. No need for a Meddler in the Skies, but thanks all the same. ID is nothing but a half-way house: evolution in moderation with a good dollop of God mixed in. Proponents of ID present precious little arguments for their "theory", other than the old and tired "life's too complex for evolution to suffice".

As regards God, there are no direct or indirect manifestations of the Great Bureaucrat in the Skies, and therefore we cannot say a great deal of meaningful things about Him, other than discuss His existence/non-existence.
For a discussion on this topic see this discussion forum, where blogfast is my nom de plume.

So, what did I think of Dawkins' programme? I though it was a brave attempt at debunking some of the myths that surround both science and religion and look forward to watching the next instalment. And Dawkins can no doubt expect bags full of hate mail and death threats: so loving and tolerant remain those blinded by religious faiths... Perhaps he can redirect some of it to me because although I'm convinced that everyone is entitled to their beliefs, including their religious beliefs, mainstream religion is really nothing more than superstition and the cause of many serious problems, past present and future. In the name of religion (of whatever denomination), an imaginary entity and His decrees, brutal wars have been fought and innocent but skeptical people have been persecuted and murdered. Today is no different and in the name of Religion we may face the largest conflict in human history yet. Not much reason to rejoice, in my humble opinion...

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At 10:33 PM, Blogger Jim said...

Science will win out. As he died, Galileo whispered these words against his ecclesiastical tormentors,"But it does move."

At 8:35 PM, Blogger Gert said...

It isn't so much a question of winning as it is a question of being left alone. They can believe what they want but to try and undermine science is stupid and illogical. Thanks for your comment.

At 1:59 PM, Anonymous Inquisitor said...

Wars have, and are, being fought in the name of religion whether one chooses to call one's faith 'religion' or not. Maybe just about anything that is 'appreciated' within the caste system sets the stage for conflict.

I wouldn't support either camp - ID or otherwise, unconditionally. However, i am inclined to think at times that there might be as much to the Science of Faith as has been attributed to the Faith of Science.

We have, to-date, seen much with Science and far more at present than we had in its early days. Perhaps, i'm led to wonder at times, we could have developed another way of seeing, via the Science of Faith, if its development had not been tainted by the ecclesiastics of the past. When good is born in evil times, much evil is made of good. The faith of our times - capitalism, puritanical secularity, nationalism - are, however, natural corrolaries of evil times.

Sometimes, methinks, that Science has a tendency to monopolise our sense of our senses. Hmmm.

Interesting argument Gert.

At 4:08 PM, Blogger Gert said...


I'm a little surprised that you appear to see faith and science merely as two sides of the same coin, engaged in a symmetric conflict, which simply isn't true.

Science is essentially a methodology which cannot provide answers, only probable answers and that distinction is fundamental, rather than subtle. It uses a body of observation based evidence to build its answer-providing theories. Its work is never done: theories evolve constantly. It is therefore constantly questioning itself.

In contrast religion claims to provide eternal, immutable, infallibly answers which the adherents are required to accept unconditionally and unquestioningly.

In that sense science and religion are not actually diametrically opposed to each other, at least not in a linear "plus v minus", "up v down", "black v white" kind of sense...

Despite this, religion, in particular Western (Christian) religion, has often felt strongly threatened by science's progress and by the fact the answers it offered very often contradicted what is posited as gospel in the scriptures. And so the religious persecution of early scientists began, with bloody results. Religion as a bloody tyranny.

The ID argument is nothing but more of the same: now religious persecution is no longer possible, our religious types have endorsed a new strategy: "if you can't beat them, join them". Hence a thinly disguised from of Creationism, designed to pose as Evolutionary Biology with a dollop from the Meddler in the Skies. It's nonsense, it's illogical and furthermore it's not particularly in keeping with Christian faith either.

Perhaps you would be more interested in taking position if the ID debate had already come wafting across the pond. There are no early warning signs of its arrival as yet. But it won't be too long before we'll be able to coin the phrase: "le nouveau ID est arrive"...

Thanks for your response.

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David Carlisle

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