Two traditions, both alike in dignity,
In fair United States, where we lay our scene
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
The United States of America is a country beset with contradictions and internal social conflicts. It embodies the aphorism that the imposition of order leads to the escalation of chaos, as two noble traditions clash - each one driving the other into a further entrenched position. It is a practical civil war, albeit waged in the political and social arena, and unless one side or the other begins to lay down arms, it can only escalate.
My account begins with a post at Clive's Collision Detection blog, where he posted an article on that most innocuous of topics, penguins. He was reporting how the film March of the Penguins has become a hit with creationists. The tone of his post was noticeable hostile, ending with a certain barely concealed bile for how creationists would prefer to explore how things work through family discussion, than through reading scientific reports which have tested how things work.
This prompted me to post a comment, since there are few things I find so worrying as the growing entrenchment between creationists and materialists. Some clarification of terms will be required. When I talk of creationists, I mean Christians who believe that the world is a product of intelligent design, and not of purely arbitrary, random forces. When I talk of materialists, I mean (generally) atheists who believe that the universe is comprised only of matter and energy, and who (in general) believe strongly in the value of testability. I believe there are intelligent, caring people in both camps, but each believes the other camp to be either evil, or as least too annoying to tolerate.
I do not greatly share beliefs with either of these factions. My beliefs are perhaps slightly closer to the materialists, but I symphathise slightly more with the creationists, for reasons that I will attempt to fully elucidate.
Clive, in response to my comment, writes eloquently of the problems that political creationism is apparently causing in the US, and I am inclined to trust his account. However, it is a comment by Will which comes closer to touching the nerve of the problem for me:
A lot of people want to describe the difference between those with a strong religious viewpoint and those with a science based viewpoint as two sides of the same coin. As if the religious types have accepted one body of beliefs and the science types have accepted another... Both groups, this argument goes, are simply accepting a body of explanatory knowledge in a blind and unquestioning way. "Science," they say, "is just another form of religion".
Here's the problem: That is wrong. Science, empiricism, post-enlightenment western thought – call it what you like – is NOT a body of knowledge. It is a process of investigation.
Will is correct that science is a process of investigation, but his opening paragraph betrays the nature of the problem: it is not religion versus science which is the conflict, but religion versus materialism - a philosophy of thought which could most certainly be considered an (atheistic) religion.
When Will says "Science is not a body of knowledge, it is a process of investigation" he reminds me of when Christians (or Muslims, or Hindus...) say "[Insert My Religion] is not a religion, it's a way of life." Because to a person who is a practicing devotee of a religion, this statement is small-t true.
What we have to be particularly careful of, as open minded intelligent people (and I am going to take a leap of faith and choose to believe that anyone reading my words here fits that category), is evaluating other people's beliefs through the filter of our own belief system. We are free to do this - but we simply cannot achieve anything but shouting (and potentially violence) if we then try and extend this argument to the person whose beliefs we are evaluating.
I have now reached the point where it is necessary to explain the origin of my sympathy for creationists. When I lived in Knoxville, TN, for a year (back around 1999-2000), I was right in the heart of the "Bible belt". One day, as I was working on the laptop which (at the time) was the whole of my game design company, there was a knock at the door. It was one of those door-to-door religious types. What do you do in this situation?
I'm sure many people either terminate the conversation immediately, slam the door, or attempt to convert the visitor to their belief system (surely a faux pas) - my preference, time willing, is to talk to them, and listen to what they have to say. The fellow was amiable enough; he explained how he believed in the importance of the ten commandments. I countered that I believed that the core of Jesus' teachings was that the 'new commandment' ("love one another as I have loved you" - John 13:34) was a new covenant between man and God that was intended to supersede the original covenant (the ten commandments).
An aside here, lest one is tempted to dismiss my arguments on the assumption that I am a staunch Christian. I was raised as a (free range) Christian. I believe in Christianity. But, crucially, I also believe in Islam (especially Sufi Islam), Buddhism and Hinduism. I also believe in agnosticism and Humanism. Furthermore, I believe in Discordianism and non-theism. I have found no contradiction in these many beliefs that I hold (although core texts, taken literally, will contradict, of course - but then, the Bible manages to contradict itself, so this is no big issue).
Returning to my visitor, after some discussion, I was able to get to the reason he was going door to door. His goal was not to convert people to Christianity - why bother in such a religious part of the country? - but rather to defend his right to worship on a Saturday. (He was a Seventh Day Adventist, of course). The poor guy was terrified - absolutely afraid - that the government was going to legislate in a way that would prevent him from worshiping on the day that his religion proscribed. I assured him that this was unlikely, but he assured me that his fears were not ungrounded.
Eventually, I told him, if they attempt to prevent you from worshiping in the way you choose, I will be right down there in the trenches fighting along side you. He left in better spirits than he arrived.
My point is simply this: the religious factions in the US are really quite afraid. Clive observes this in another comment:
I believe there's a book out there now by a scholar arguing that America's legalistic prohibitions against the use of publicly funded organizations for religious proselytizing is the precise reason fundamentalism and Biblical literalism are so big in the US: The fundamentalists feel they're fighting for their life. Relax the laws, the author argues, and fundamentalism will instantly lose steam.
I absolutely believe that this is the root of the problem. The separation of Church and State in the US has become farcical - the intention of allowing freedom of religion has been somewhat subverted by political materialists to the extent that many religious people feel threatened. Extreme measures such as attempting to ban the teaching of evolutionary theory are a consequence of people who are cornered by an aggressive and apparently implacable enemy.
Yish (another voice in the comments) observes that a similar argument has been made about heroin - that the attempts to criminalise it have made the situation worse. I agree. I take a dim view of heroin, but outlawing drugs is a largely ineffective solution - just look at when the currently most popular drug, alcohol, was banned in the US. I feel more strongly about bringing marijuana above the table - it worked in the Netherland, and decriminalising marijuana did not lead (as critics feared) to an increase in use, but rather a slight decrease. Prohibition scenarios simply don't work.
He also observes:
Interestingly, the UK never fully separated religion from state. Still, its politically secular for generations. The US, on the other hand is officially secular - but can you imagine a Presidential candidate declaring agnosticism?
This is of course absolutely true. But, as Yish goes on to point out, the US was founded by fundamentalist religious communities leaving the UK for somewhere that would allow them the freedom to worship in the way they wanted. The social situation is consequently very different.
The freakish thing for me is that extremist belief systems seem to exist on both sides of the equation in the United States. The materialists tend to presume that their faction could never do anything as heinous as 'the enemy', but as recently as the 1956, elements of the US federal machinery burned books because they were deemed "unscientific". I refer to the destruction of the works of Wilhelm Reich. Reich had fled Nazi Germany twenty years earlier because he feared he was in danger. There is a sad irony that it was the intolerance of the country he escaped to which ultimately led to his death. What was so offensive in Reich's work? I can't really say - all his books were destroyed by the FDA.
I believe part of the solution to the problem in the US is to declare an armistice. Materialists and creationists need to sit down at the same table and say "I don't believe what you believe, but I defend to the death your right to believe it." I do not accept the argument, oft suggested, that the creationists cannot be reasoned with. I have on occasion found the materialists much harder to reason with, since the creationists at least believe in a doctrine which expressely requires them to approach other people with love. Approach them within their belief system and they seem much more reasonable.
On the issue of teaching evolution in schools, I suggest that an appropriate compromise is to agree that the curriculum should include evolutionary theory, since this is part of current scientific thinking, and science is an appropriate tool to teach in schools, but that (gasp!) it should also include intelligent design, because this is part of the US's cultural framework, and as such deserves to be at least mentioned. Dismissing intelligent design as 'unscientific' should not be sufficient cause to forcibly deny its right to be mentioned in school. If, as materialists naturally believe, evolutionary theory is more convincing than intelligent design, the students will naturally gravitate toward evolutionary beliefs. Eventually, we might reach the point where the Christians will more readily accept that evolution does not contradict or pose any kind of threat to Christianity. It will take time.
To those who are horrified that I would even suggest allowing intelligent design to be taught, I would like to point out that while "Creation scientists" are motivated by a surreal tautology, their criticisms of evolutionary theory are the very best on offer. I have advanced my understanding of evolution by leaps and bounds by listening to the criticisms posed by creationists, and I believe this counterpoint is a hugely valuable contribution to the scientific process. We require decent criticism, and the materialists (perhaps because they are entrenched against the creationists) are just not pulling their weight in this regard.
Karl Popper, as Yish mentions to my delight, distinguishes between science and religion on the issue of falsifiability. Popper's big idea was that we can tell science from non-science by whether or not claims can be falsified. Note, as a consequence, that many beliefs treasured by some materialists should probably not be considered science, in particular Possible World theory; the Many-Worlds model of quantum mechanics. But, like Creation Science, we don't need to take arms against such unscientific approaches because we, as open minded intelligent people, can tolerate unscientific viewpoints. We just say "I accept your viewpoint, but I personally believe that science needs to falsifiable."
My last trip back to Knoxville, I chatted to a wonderfully friendly pagan, who all but apologised to me for the stupidity of so many of his fellow citizens in voting Bush back into office, and in general bemoaned the intractability of the conservatives. The trouble is, liberals sitting around bitching about the problem solve nothing, sadly, else the US would be a truly happy place indeed. What's needed is liberals who are willing to sit down with the conservatives and open a dialogue. This will not be easy. It will be frustrating. But the rewards are surely worth the struggle.