Sunday, February 12, 2012

The evolution of debate

Today is the 203rd anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the man widely held responsible for the theory of evolution. Actually, his ideas weren’t all that revolutionary even for the time: the idea of evolution (at the time called “transmutation”) had been knocking around for a bit; basically all he did was to pull together ideas from various sources, add his own observations to the mix, and come up with a mechanism by which new species could evolve naturally. In other words: “Here’s how I think evolution could have happened.”

All the more regrettable, then, that Darwin should now be the epicentre of the mother of all debates, although “debate” is a far too gentle word to describe what is actually happening on the fringes of religious fundamentalism and militant atheism, magnified by the magic of Web 2.0 and a classic case of “giving the rest a bad name” on both sides. There can hardly be a debate more polarized than the religion/science argument, which has now reached “shouting match” status.

All was well, in that mainstream religion either accepted, or elected to keep its nose out of, evolutionary theory, while science considered religion to be not something that science even needs to acknowledge (except for certain branches of science like anthropology, which considers religion as something interesting to study but still doesn’t need even to ask whether any kind deity exists).

The internet ended all that with its ability to give a voice to minorities whose screams then drown out saner arguments. Suddenly, everyone was exposed to religious fundamentalism and, at the same time, rampant materialism. And each side decided they had something to say about the other. While real scientists and real theologians, who are sensible enough to understand that they’re answering different questions, left the room clamping their hands over their ears in a vain attempt to shut out the din, anyone remaining was forced to take up one of two extremist positions. Religious fundamentalists, trying to make their ideas sound respectable, came up with a Frankenstein’s monster of philosophy, the infamous “Intelligent Design” hypothesis, which manages the rare trick of being both bad science and bad theology. This was in part a response to the atheist fundamentalists’ use of Charles Darwin and evolution as a stick to beat religious people with.

This is probably the most horrifically ironic part of the whole phenomenon. Anyone foolish enough to take part in the debate must choose which extremist position they prefer to take up, lest they be shouted down and villified by both sides simulteneously (and I have had that dubious pleasure myself). It seems that you cannot accept the theory of evolution as fact without rejecting every single religious or spiritual belief you have ever held (one of the rare points of agreement between the two extremes). This has the effect that atheism — as practiced by those extremist fundamentalists who make sensible atheists weep for humanity and consider living in a cave — seeks to convert with a missionary zeal that makes the Jehovah’s Witnesses look like Buddhists. Those who don’t wish to convert are thus pushed to the other fundamentalist extreme, thus swelling their numbers more efficiently than any mass baptisms ever did.

Worse, it also means that a large number of these atheists are former religious fundamentalists who converted. The problem is not actually what you believe; the problem is how you believe it. To the outsider who knows nothing of the existence of vast numbers of thoughtful and sensible people, atheism is beginning to look more and more like a religion.

Both fundamentalist positions share the same characteristics. They have their sacred texts (the Bible versus On the Origin of Species). They have their Messiahs (Jesus versus Charles Darwin). They have their Apostles (St Paul and Richard Dawkins). They have their favourite phrases to be trotted out at every opportunity (“All scripture is God-breathed” and “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”). They have their favourite arguments to fall back on when other arguments fail. When that fails, they use straw-man arguments. When that fails, they resort to personal insults. Each side characterizes as “deluded” anyone who does not agree with them, and accuses the other side of all kinds of moral shortcomings. Religious fundamentalists believe anyone who isn’t one of them is going to hell. Atheist fundamentalists take as gospel truth Dawkins’s opinion that even the most benign form of religious belief is a poison that threatens the very fabric of society (ironically pretty much how critics viewed Darwin’s work).

But the person whose reputation has really taken a hit is Darwin. An eminent scientist whose meticulous observations and flash of insight advanced our understanding of the natural world, he is now claimed by both sides as one of theirs, as if each has a hold on one of his ghost’s arms and is refusing to let go. “Atheists” claim, with very little evidence, that he suffered a crisis of belief and died an atheist. “Christians” believe, with no evidence at all, that he had a deathbed reconversion. The truth is that Darwin’s experiences did cause him to re-examine his faith; what conclusion, if any, he came to about that is a secret he and anyone he confided in apparently took with them to the grave.

There can be no greater illustration of the ridiculousness of the situation than that. Darwin certainly never deserved this. He spent a lifetime simply trying to apply a little common sense to evidence and so shed some light on why things are the way they are. It nearly cost him his health, it may or may not have cost him his faith; and all his work is good for, it seems, is to set off two groups of equally ignorant and bigoted people against each other.


  1. There's a good reason for what you call "militant atheism". You're "British, living in Germany" so I don't think you have any idea what it's like to live in Idiot America. Over here we have a never ending Christian war against science education. That alone would be a good reason to attack Christianity. Then of course this country experienced the worst religious atrocity of the 21st century, the suicide attacks on 9/11/2001. After that should we continue to suck up to religious insanity? I don't think so.

    1. The way to deal with a "never-ending Christian war against science education" is not to fall into the classic extremist trap of tarring everybody who disagrees with you with the same brush. For example, I am pretty much emphatically against the idea that we should "suck up" to "religious insanity". My point is that fighting insanity with insanity is simply insane. Fighting intolerance with intolerance is how actual wars start. Invoking 9/11 to demonise the opposition and by implication put Sunday School teachers in the same bracket as terrorists is unlikely to be the most constructive way forward.

  2. One more thing. There's a big difference between theists and atheists. Theists believe in bullshit. They have faith in their bullshit because their bullshit has no evidence. It's fair to say the theists are just plain wrong. That's fine. Everyone has to have a worthless hobby. The problem is here in America our theists, also known as Christian assholes, are trying to make our country a theocracy like Iran. When they're not attacking science education to accommodate their dead Jeebus they're attacking our constitution, especially our Establishment Clause. They are trying to stick their Jeebus into our public schools, and our local, state, and federal governments. This is why some people are fighting back. I suppose if we were all like you we would let the Christian theocrats have their way. Then we could call America the United States of Jeebus.