Monday, May 21, 2007

Richard Dawkins: Evolution and Creationism

In the first part of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins looked at the phenomenon of Lourdes. Dawkins describes religion as turning untested belief into unshakable truth through the power of institutions and the passage of time. According to Dawkins, this was testament to the power of tradition in religion.

Dawkins examined the Assumption of Mary to hammer home his point. According to Catholic theology, Jesus’ mother Mary did not die, she ascended directly into heaven at the end of her life. There is no evidence for this; it is not mentioned in the bible. The belief she ascended into Heaven emerged in the 6th century AD. The story spread by word of mouth and became established tradition. The longer it kept going, the more it was taken seriously. In 1950 it became authority. The Vatican decreed Catholics must believe in the doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin. This doctrine was ‘revealed’ to Pope Pius XII by God.

While Catholic doctrine over the assumption of Mary is not in itself harmful, the Pope’s personal convictions about discouraging the use of condoms in Aids-ridden Africa is another story. Here there is an appalling human cost. The Church uses its authority to issue edicts to the faithful without a shred of evidence to back their claims. But Dawkins is at pains not just to blame the Catholics. Fatwas by Muslim imams follow the same trajectory.

Religion thrives on unsolved mysteries. For early humanity what was mysterious and unexplained was so vast, it needed a higher being an ‘alpha male in the sky’ to explain it all. Scientific investigation has rolled back many mysteries. Where once were Sun Gods, science now tells us the Sun is middle-sized star halfway through its 10 billion year life. Revolving round it is the 4.5 billion year old Earth. Science has used evidence, comparing and corroborating evidence, to update old theories about how things work.

Humanity used to resort to supernatural hypotheses for creation myths. Genesis is one of many such myths. God fashioned the world in six days. In the 19th century Charles Darwin hit on what really happened, without any need to invoke the supernatural or the divine. Evolution is a gentle slope; Darwin’s great insight was that life evolved steadily and slowly over four billion years. Natural selection not a divine designer was the sculptor of life. The design hypothesis raises an even bigger problem than it solves: who designed the designer?

Dawkins thought that in his lifetime evolution would be accepted as fact everywhere, backed up as it is by overwhelming evidence. But this evidence cuts no ice with many. Evolution today is under threat. In the bible belt of Middle America, evangelicals are fighting back against science. In the new world, religion is free enterprise. Rival groups set up shop competing against each other to save souls. Fundamentalist Christianity is on the rise in the world’s only superpower. Its power spreads up to and including the president. 135,000 million Americans believe the universe is less than 10 thousand years old.

Dawkins goes to the New Life Church in Colorado Springs where conservative Christians have built an $18 million Church. New Life isn’t just a church but a social network. A 12,000 congregation attend 1,300 organised programs which guide them on everything from marriage to dog walking. It is a New Jerusalem in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. While it lacks the tradition of Lourdes, it makes up for it in swaggering authority.

Evangelical churches like this have become enormously powerful in the US influencing everything from the teaching of science in schools to foreign policy. New Life Church Pastor Ted Haggard was a powerful man, chairman of the National Association of Evangelicals. Haggard had a hot line not only to God but also to President Bush. He is a staunch Republican. He had also rubbed shoulders with Tony Blair and Ariel Sharon. Dawkins was not to know that Haggart was forced to resign in November 2006 after paying for sex with a gay prostitute and admitting he bought drugs.

When Dawkins and Haggart met, they clashed on the Bible. Dawkins wanted to understand what he called ‘irrational faith’ is spreading and attacking science. In their interview Dawkins began by complimenting Haggart and suggested a lot of money was spent here. Haggard said “I wanted people to be able to worship and enjoy it and be in a setting where the speaker is close to them…so I can look at them”. Dawkins said this was effective and said the sermon reminded him of the Nazi Nuremburg rallies. Haggard laughed and said lots of Americans think of it more as a rock concert.

Dawkins acknowledged that every person needs at the centre some sense of meaning about existence. But most accept that life is complex not the childish certainties of God. Dawkins biggest concern is that evangelicals like Haggart are foisting falsehoods on their flock. They deny scientific evidence just to support a Bronze Age myth. Haggart hit back by accusing “people like Dawkins” of intellectual arrogance and air of superiority because “they know so much more”.

Haggart’s approach is to lets teach evolution as just another theory alongside creationism and intelligent design, which sounds reasonable on first impression. But whereas evolution by natural selection is supported by mountains of evidence, creationism exists on a flimsy base; self-contradictory and supported only by what Dawkins contempuously calls "ancient scribblings".

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