Sunday, September 27, 2009

Fueled by Fear or Ignorance?

Newsweek magazine has just published an excerpt from evolutionary biologist and ethologist Richard Dawkins' new book The Greatest Show on Earth : the Evidence for Evolution, The piece begins thus:

Creationists are deeply enamored of the fossil record, because they have been taught (by each other) to repeat, over and over, the mantra that it is full of "gaps": "Show me your 'intermediates!' " They fondly (very fondly) imagine that these "gaps" are an embarrassment to evolutionists. Actually, we are lucky to have any fossils at all, let alone the massive numbers that we now do have to document evolutionary history—large numbers of which, by any standards, constitute beautiful "intermediates." We don't need fossils in order to demonstrate that evolution is a fact. The evidence for evolution would be entirely secure even if not a single corpse had ever fossilized. It is a bonus that we do actually have rich seams of fossils to mine, and more are discovered every day. The fossil evidence for evolution in many major animal groups is wonderfully strong. Nevertheless there are, of course, gaps, and creationists love them obsessively.
The excerpt caused me to once again consider the Culture Wars that convulse so many societies as the perspectives of religion and science clash. Of course, not all adherents of those points of view are active combatants. Most atheists recognize that there is something bigger than they, something mysterious and awe-inspiring that includes and connects everything that we know. You might as well consider that a spiritual perspective, although a supernatural Personality is not part of that outlook. Likewise, many practitioners of traditional religions find no terrible conflict between their beliefs and science; they just consider the "Big Bang" and evolution the tools that their Deity uses in the work of Creation.

I can understand the impulse to subscribe to a religious set of beliefs, with Rules as to how to investigate that Spirit in a like-minded community. It strikes me as excessively limiting to cleave to only one perspective out of a spectrum of possibilities - but I do understand it. We are each raised in traditions, and develop our own comfort zones.

But, I do not understand Religious Literalists of any faith, those who insist that the blunt, everyday meaning of words, not metaphor or analogy, are the actual words and intentions of a Conscious Deity, despite being filtered through human hands, humans who were products of their times and cultures. Their contortions to justify their literal reading and reject evidence bemuse me especially when contending with cosmological questions such as evolution.

They seem to accept the science of geology when it locates petroleum deposits, or precious ores, or as it studies volcanoes and earthquakes; but they reject it when it demonstrates the long epochs that the Earth has existed. They accept astronomy and its mathematical calculations that allow us to throw a tiny machine hundreds of thousands of miles into space, arriving at a precise time and location, but deny its validity when its calculations disagree with their beliefs as to the Universe's age.

They accept the physical laws that govern matter, determining how large a yield a nuclear bomb will produce, or calculating the half-life of a radioisotope as doctors use it to illuminate the body in search of disease. But these techniques are invalidated when they analyze material samples and determine that they are millions of years old, not mere thousands. They accept biological sciences and molecular chemistry when there are crops and livestock to be improved, pathogens to be tracked, or medicines developed targeting specific genetic strains of disease; but they dismiss the application of the scientific method when they sum up evolutionary principles.

What effort must be expended in compartmentalizing these perspectives, to maintain that intellectual firewall! Unless their Deity is deliberately trying to confuse us, these intellectual contortions serve no sensible purpose other than perhaps serving some deep-seated emotional need.

Fear, or ingrained Ignorance are the only explanations that readily come to mind as to their often fanatic opposition of scientific analysis.

What do you think?

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