Firstly, there's been a couple of bits in the news recently about the campaign to raise a bit of consciousness about barking religious lunacy being taught in British schools, under the weaselly guise of Intelligent Design. Here in the UK we scoff superiorly at the constant battle in the USA to combat those who want to try to sneak creationism into the curriculum, or edge evolution out of it, in an "it couldn't happen here" sort of way, but it can and it may unless we get our act together. We've been bumbling along just assuming no-one would be so stupid as to try and sneak religion into the science classroom up to now, but the campaign's assertion is that we now need some specific guidelines, and they're probably right.
The campaign already has an impressive number of heavyweight signatories, including, inevitably, Richard Dawkins, who got wheeled out on Radio 4's PM programme earlier this week to provide a bit of contrast to the dim bulb they'd dug up to argue for teaching the controversy or some such nonsense - Simon Morris, who is apparently a science teacher to some kids in London, poor bastards. It's not a very edifying exchange, largely because Morris is such a dimwit, but it at least illustrates that there are people out there who really believe this stuff, and some of them could be teaching your kids.
That was just to warm your blood up to a gentle simmer so you don't sprain anything when I unload this next lot on you.
Here's an amusing article in the Washington Post that seeks to allay the fears of anyone who thinks that the latest crop of high-profile Republican politicians is looking to install some sort of Christian theocracy in the USA in the unthinkable event that any of them should ever get within spitting distance of power. One paragraph from the article bears repeating here as it is just too delicious for words:
As I have explained before, Christians who seek to participate in the political process do so not as an attempt to install some type of theocratic rule, but to ensure that the government fulfils its God-ordained role in society to promote justice, provide security, and protect the God-given freedoms of its people.That sort of level of complete lack of self-awareness really is quite remarkable. Not content with trying to drag the USA back to the 19th century, swivel-eyed Stepford Wife looney tune Michele Bachmann has dived into the murky waters of vaccine paranoia this week by claiming that the Gardasil HPV vaccine gives you brain cancer or something. I mean, it's a bit late for the religious right to be making up this sort of thing; everyone knows their objection to the HPV vaccine, and it is that once free of the mental shackles imposed by the risk of cervical cancer their previously virginal and innocent 12-year old daughters will instantly turn into dead-eyed cum-gargling crack whores, a bit like Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver but without the cute outfits.
Next, back to Radio 4: I'm glad to say I missed philosopher John Gray's programme about the conflict between science and religion - glad because on the basis of this summary he seems to have spent the entire show making an absolutely colossal insufferable arse of himself. Basically this is the tweedy beardy Terry Eagleton/Rowan Williams argument that chuckles indulgently at atheists having got hold of the idea that religious people do anything as gauche and obvious as go around ACTUALLY BELIEVING IN ANYTHING, goodness me no, it's all about ritual, about shared experience, about something metaphorical, I'm not sure exactly what but it's a bit like art and literature and shit, and who could honestly say they aren't moved and inspired by those? Mmmmmmm? Isn't it?
Science isn't actually about belief - any more than religion is about belief. If science produces theories that we can use without believing them, religion is a repository of myth. Myths aren't relics of childish thinking that humanity leaves behind as it marches towards a more grown-up view of things. They're stories that tell us something about ourselves that can't be captured in scientific theories. Just as you don't have to believe that a scientific theory is true in order to use it, you don't have to believe a story for it to give meaning to your life.To which there are two responses: firstly, that is not an accurate representation of religion as practised by 99% of the world's religious people, who do indeed believe some pretty specific things, and believe them pretty firmly, thank you very much, my word yes. Secondly, as this comment at Ophelia Benson's Butterflies And Wheels captures very pithily, if you're making the assertion that atheists are missing the point, being overly literal etc. etc., by insisting that believers believe in stuff like the virgin birth, the resurrection, all that jazz, then what I'm going to need you to do is sign, in the presence of all your Christian brethren, this public declaration that says that those things are all bullshit. Then we can proceed to the debate about metaphor and stuff like that. If you find yourself unable to do that, well then we're not missing the point after all, are we?
Speaking of the startlingly be-eyebrowed Archbishop of Canterbury, he was in the news as well this week, musing about how to spread the word of Christianity in these secular times. Apparently one of the difficulties is that atheism is so darn cool these days, what with Richard Dawkins practically outdoing Jay-Z for space on schoolkids' iPods, and that makes promoting fusty old Christianity a bit tricky, what with all that going to church and hanging out with old people. Nothing to do with, erm, reality or any of that stuff, apparently.
Finally, there's been some furious behind-the-scenes work going on in the top theology labs to try and arrive at a position on the Genesis creation myth that doesn't instantly collapse into absurdity when compared with science, or, to put it another way, reality. Now the obvious way to do this is just to say: well, it's a nice story and all, but it's just a bodged-together conflation of various other old creation myths and there's absolutely no reason to suppose it bears any relation to the actual history of the earth and the human species, both of which are reasonably well understood by other means. Heck, it doesn't even manage to be consistent with itself, let alone external reality.
If you hold to the position that that option is inadmissable, then you have a problem - either you say, yep, Genesis is a metaphor for something, but all that other stuff about the gays and not coveting your neighbour's ass is totally meant to be taken literally, or you say, well, it's not literally true, I mean, there wasn't really a talking snake, but it reflects reality nonetheless. The latest way to do this is to latch onto the concepts of known historical human population bottlenecks and more specifically the concepts of Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam and try and shoehorn all that into the story. Basically what this article says (and you could be forgiven for missing it among all the tortured rambling) is that Adam and Eve weren't the first two humans, but that instead they carried some sort of "soul gene" and then subsequently an "original sin gene" that then spread throughout humanity. Yeah, I know. Never mind that y-Adam and m-Eve lived about 60,000 years apart, and that the bible pretty explicitly leaves very little wriggle room on the question of Adam and Eve being the first humans, if it eases the constant ache of cognitive dissonance then I suppose it's of some value to the devout. But, you know, there is an alternative - just get rid of it all, like having a really big cathartic shit. You'll feel so much better.