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Monday, September 04, 2006

Secular bigots of the Grauniad

[update: there was a duff link to a Vatican theological document - it should now work]

Much ado among my friends the secular fundamentalists:-

'An Opinionpanel Research survey conducted in July this year found that more than 30% of UK university students believe in creationism or intelligent design.'

- said A C Grayling (via Harry's Place, predictably), delivering a fine old religiophobic rant for comment is free the other day. A 'virulent cancer of unreason', no less - and that's before he gets really worked up:-

'When any of these imprisoning ideologies are on the back foot and/or in the minority, they present sweet faces to those they wish to seduce: the kiss of friendship in the parish church, the summer camp for young communists in the 1930s. But give them the levers of power and they are the Taliban, the Inquisition, the Stasi.

'Give them AK47s and Semtex, and some of the fanatics among them become airline bombers, mass murderers of ordinary men, women and children, and for the most contemptible of reasons.'

Crikey. It sounds as if he knows something about his local parish church that he ought as a matter of some urgency to be sharing with the police. Get that thurible over to Forensic!

Steady on a moment, though, A C. Opinion pollsters do a great job and all that, but if one is going to base an article on a poll it's not a bad idea to check out exactly what the questions were. Especially if the subject matter is not breakfast cereal preferences but something more in the Life, the Universe and Everything sphere. And especially if you're the kind of chap who's keen on not believing anything without hard evidence.

The full poll write-up is here. The question put to the students is almost identical to one put to a sample of the British public as a whole by Ipsos MORI, on behalf of the BBC Horizon programme, in January. In view of Grayling's strictures against the higher education system it's worth noting that the general public appear to have significantly more sympathy with creationism than students do.

The student poll version goes like this:-

'Q1 People have different explanations about life on earth and how it came about. Which of these statements best describes your view?

  • 'The 'evolution theory' - Humans developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process.
  • 'The 'creationism theory' - God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.
  • 'The 'intelligent design theory' - Some features of living things are best explained by the intervention of a supernatural being, e.g. God.'
If ever there was a poll that ought to offer respondents a 'crap question' option, it's this one. For which box is a non-fundamentalist theist like Mr Grumpy to tick? I want to assent to evolution on the understanding that it is good science. But I can't do that unless I also sign up for the corollary according to Dawkins: that evolution disproves the existence of God, or at the very least reduces him to a passive spectator. Which is very bad theology. Not just according to me, but according to the Pope (have a look at this if you're up for something a little less digestible than your average blog posting - paragraphs 63ff are the directly relevant bit), the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi (educated guess, but I'd be very surprised if I'm wrong) and, I am sure, plenty of liberal Muslims. Quite a significant current of opinion, in other words, but how easily it is overlooked by those obsessed with the cosmic struggle between secular rationalism and fundamentalism.

So I can either cop out with a 'don't know', or I can opt for 'intelligent design' as the least evil. Not that there is much sense in the implied view that the mysterious 'e.g. God' pops up every now and then to do a bit of designing, but at least it acknowledges the existence of an active creator.

How much of the 19% support for 'intelligent design' results from similar thought processes? If somebody would repeat the poll using a theologically literate question we might have a chance to find out.

I don't want to press the point too far. Plainly quite a lot of students do give credence to Creationism, and I'm with Grayling in believing that Creationism is pseudo-science and also in thinking that it matters if people believe something that isn't true. So there is a real problem, but let's keep it in proportion. The post I pointed to in my last points out that Americans are both more likely than Europeans to believe in Creationism and more likely to have a positive attitude towards science. Our belief systems are complex, multi-dimensional things, and it is rarely constructive to classify them into good and bad along one dimension whilst ignoring the rest.

At the root of this complexity is the fact that as human beings we need more than scientific truth. We need meaning and values, which science alone can never supply. There are those who assert that the only truths which count are those which can be proved - an assertion which is, of course, itself unprovable. I thought that philosophy had moved on from this old chestnut, but Grayling's article suggests that he hasn't.

What, for instance, would count as evidence that I ought not to try to blow Professor Grayling up the next time he boards a plane?

I don't treat the Bible as a biology textbook, and I don't look to The Origin of Species or The Blind Watchmaker to tell me what I should believe about the ultimate source of meaning and values. The people on both extremes who refuse to draw this distinction are locked into a symbiotic relationship where each group confirms the other in its prejudices. The secularists see people conjuring pseudo-science out of 3000-year-old sacred texts, and conclude with relish that their whole belief system is mumbo-jumbo. Conversely, the more the theory of evolution appears to come in a package with the Meaning of Life According To Dawkins and Grayling, the more reason conservative Christians have to distrust it.

For Professor Grayling, however, creationism takes its place alongside suicide bombings in a single vast web of malignity labelled 'religion'. He is apparently the author of a standard text on logic, so he shouldn't need me to tell him what's wrong with 'some religious believers display violent intolerance, therefore religious belief causes violent intolerance'. The largest group of unfree people in the world today, living mostly in the People's Republic of China and amounting to over a quarter of the human race, are forcibly denied basic freedoms in the name of an ideology which is explicitly atheistic. When this rather obvious fact is dismissed as a 'tired old canard' with the counter-claim that Marxism-Leninism is really a religion, or a 'salvation faith' as Grayling puts it, you know you're wasting your time arguing. Even minds as powerful as Professor Grayling's can be totally closed.

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