Friday, August 31, 2007

The abuse inherent in religion

I have recently listened to a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Chris Hedges entitled “Is God Great?”

In previous debates that I have listened to, one of the main areas of contention has been the origins of morality. Whilst the atheistic side of the argument is based on the premise that human morality is innate in us (and there are many arguments for this), the religious side holds that human morality is solely the product of divine instruction and religious doctrine. In short they claim that whatever good deed a person does, he or she cannot ultimately take the credit for it, for without the word of God we would all of us behave like moral idiots from dawn until dusk.

The Hedges/Hitchens debate spent a little time discussing the other side of the equation, when Hitchens highlighted some of the many abhorrent practices and deeds produced by adherence to religious dogma; practices and deeds concerning the treatment and subjugation of women. Hedges responded by claiming that Hitchens point of view presupposed that should religion be abolished these practices would disappear with it. He argued instead that these problems are not the result of religion but the product of humanity’s innate capacity to be evil.

These two arguments, for me at least, highlight a very worrying aspect to religion, and those of a religious bent, that has been at the back of my mind for some time.

Consider a child that is never given any encouragement by its parents, a child that never receives any praise for a good deed, accomplishment or scholastic achievement; a child that is actively discouraged with the notion that anything of worth about them is to be credited to somebody else. Consider further that the same child is constantly berated and chastised for even the most puny transgression, and who is told that they are essentially worthless and can never amount to, or aspire to be, anything more than the naughty little wretch that they are. That child, in all likelihood, would grow up to be deeply self conscious, insecure, probably a bed-wetter, and would be sociopathic (maybe even psychopathic) to the extent that they would find it very difficult (perhaps impossible) to conduct themselves in any meaningful way in the world at large.

It occurs to me that the above two arguments can be seen as an analogue, albeit an imperfect one, to this hypothetical child’s upbringing. The church would have us believe that everything good that we do is only accomplished because of divine intervention, and that anything bad that we do is innate within us. I would posit that it is, therefore, no surprise that the people who take this stuff literally, sometimes act in the way that they do. When you think about it, they are actually doing quite well considering what they have to put up with.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Intelligent Design

I have been reading about Intelligent Design recently. For those of you who perhaps aren’t aware of this movement it may help to give a little background.

The ‘theory’ of Intelligent Design has its roots in antiquity with Plato and Aristotle and later, in the 19th Century with ideas put forward by chaps like William Paley and others. More recently however, beginning in the 1980’s the concept of countering evolutionary theory with ‘science’ latched on to these ideas and repackaged itself as what is now generally known as Intelligent Design (ID). It is quite a big deal in America, home of the Discovery Institute whose main proponents, William Dembski and Michael Behe, are often to be found debating their ideas with real scientists and peddling their wares in the form of books such as “The Design Revolution” and “Darwin’s Black Box”.

In essence, ID, while it purports to be science, is nothing more than religion (Christianity to be specific) with a new set of clothes. The ‘theory’ in a nutshell is that evolution does not adequately explain the current state of biological affairs and that life on earth is the creation of an intelligent designer as opposed to natural processes. The ‘theory’ as it is publicly presented makes no claims to the identity of the designer and proponents are fond of pointing out that he/she/they could in fact have been some kind of uber-intelligent alien. However, most if not all of ID proponents are in fact Christians and behind closed church doors, the Intelligent Designer is positively identified as the supernatural Judeo-Christian God, Yahweh.

To date, the ID camp has not produced any peer reviewed papers on their subject, as opposed to the hundreds of peer reviewed papers on evolution produced each year.

A couple of years ago Behe was a witness in a trial brought by a group of parents and the Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania. The trial was the endgame in a campaign by the parents to exclude the teaching of ID in their children’s science classes. The Judge found in favour of the plaintiff, ruling that ID is not science and has no place in a science classroom. Not only that, but the ruling also stated that ID necessitated the invocation of the supernatural, the implication being that it was also anti-science. During the trial, Behe was forced to concede that his definition of ‘theory’ was so woolly and nebulous that astrology would also qualify.

Incidentally, I have been referring to Intelligent Design as 'ID'. This is quite a usual abbreviation, leading the author Steven Poole to note, amusingly, that 'ID' can also stand for 'Implied Deity' and 'Intellectual Dishonesty'.

Anyway, I have been thinking about all this and the thought occurs that while it is obvious that, as it is essentially religion, ID is not science, it is also the case that it does not seem too want to become science either. ID is entirely dedicated to demolishing accepted scientific inquiry, but only in specific areas. It has nothing to say about meteorology or medicine or optics etc, but is focused instead on things like biology and chemistry and palaeontology. Yet in its efforts to ‘debunk’ these disciplines, or at least large chunks of them, it does not do any science of its own. No observation. No experimentation. Just a lot of theorising and then a jump, straight to a conclusion. Why is this I wonder?

The obvious answer is that they are trying to create a zero-sum scenario whereby a ‘disproven’ theory can be happily replaced with another without the need for further investigation. An either/or situation where, if evolution is wrong then creation must be right. Quite aside from the fact that this goes against everything that science stands for, I think that the implications have rather more subtle and worrying undertones.

The chaps at the Discovery Institute would have us believe that they have uncovered overwhelming inconsistencies in current scientific dogma, inconsistencies that can only have been masked by a conspiracy within the scientific community. They would be the avenging heroes that, against all the odds, uncover these glaring lies and reopen the debate on the origins of life on earth. The bit about the supernatural creator is secondary, an afterthought, thrown in for the sake of completeness. However, it is obvious that their motivations stem directly from the bible. The word of the bible and evolution are not just at odds with one another, they are wholly incompatible. Therefore, the findings of evolutionary biology threaten the perceived ‘truth’ of the teachings of the one true God. It can be said with authority then, that the sole motivation of the ID chaps is not genuine scientific inquiry, but rather the reaction of those who know that they are in the weakest position.

The book of Genesis states quite clearly that God made all the creatures of the earth, that would bring forth only after their kind, and then as a separate enterprise he made man in his own image and then the funky rib thing in order to make a woman.

Imagine instead that Genesis said something like this: God then set life in motion across the face of the earth, and from a tiny seed of life grew a menagerie of creatures, each generation slightly different from the one before, each miniscule difference being utilised by life itself, according to its ability to survive. Then when life had achieved a form that most represented God’s image, God said onto it, “Thou art my most important creation and thou shall be called man and woman. Listen up, I’ve got a few ground rules for you”.

What’s the bet that, if that is what the bible said, the ID movement would never have got started? There would be no need for them. When Charles Darwin put forward his exciting discoveries in 1859, far from being attacked as a heretic he would have been hailed as some kind of saint. Chaps like Dembski and Behe would hold up the theory of evolution as scientific proof of the veracity of Genesis and Christian dogma in general.

The point to be made here is that if Genesis was written just a little differently the perceived ‘errors’ and ‘lies’ in evolutionary theory would disappear. The ID camp would no longer be trying to be crusaders after the truth. Any inconsistencies in evolutionary theory would be overlooked; indeed they may even try to cover them up themselves!

In short, their beliefs about the way of the world would not be based on anything even approaching science. A few words in an ancient text are all they would need to convince them.

Sound familiar?