• http://jonathanbaldwin.blogspot.com Jonathan Baldwin

    Although I’m a huge admirer of Dawkins, and possess something of a scientifically oriented mind, I do find his intelligently disguised rants against religion to be a bit of a turn off.

    When he coined the term ‘meme’ (a much misused word recently – but that’s memes for you!) it’s difficult not to sense that he came up with the idea simply to have a go at religions.

    A couple of books on memes that followed, by other biologists, carried on in the same vein. But in ignoring decades of sociological and cultural analysis in the transmission of ideas (these disciplines may not have come up with the name, but they identified the principle of memes long ago) they somewhat shot themselves in the foot by falling into the same traps they laid for religions.

    Personally I’m uncomfortable with Dawkins’s views on religion as they take a broad brush approach. I’m not particularly religious myself, but even I feel attacked by some of his writing and it borders on the edge of recently defined and currently-debated legal no-go areas – the pros and cons of that I’ll leave to others to discuss.

    I’m just not sure why someone of Dawkins’s abilities as a communicator above all else, should appear so obsessed with talking to the already converted (no pun intended) about how bad religion is. (a Mac user to boot! You’d think he’d support the alternative view!)

    It’s this level of debate between extreme and uncompromising views that leads to the situation we find ourselves in regarding intelligent design. I was educated at catholic school and evolution was taught in science and in RE. ‘Intelligent design’ was also covered but not as a viable alternative explanation. It was, in fact, roundly dismissed, but if anything it was used to point out that for all its virtues there are some uncomfortable gaps in the theory of evolution. Addressing these gaps seems to have dropped off the priority list, with the apparent excuse being that it’s only zealots who ‘deny’ evolution (which blows Dawkins’s arguments about science not being a religion out of the water somewhat – having more evidence for one theory than for another isn’t ‘proof’ and there is no proof of evolution, only conjecture based on observation).

    I’d like to see Dawkins return to showing how biology works, rather than trying to show how religion doesn’t. At the end of the day, religion relies on faith. Yet ask anyone on the street to explain evolution and you’ll see that their ‘belief’ in it is no more based on evidence than it is on faith that the scientists have got it right. As we’ve seen with MMR etc etc it only takes one well-publicised doubt to instantly change public opinion. This is what’s happening in the US and, it seems, in some privately run city academies in the UK: show one good reason why evolution is flawed as an idea (and it’s easy to name several) and you let the creationsists in.

    The answer? Don’t argue. Science should never be afraid to entertain alternative ideas. Evolution itself was fanciful in its early days and may yet prove to be again. In this debate, I’m not sure which side is the more close-minded.

  • http://technovia.typepad.com Ian Betteridge

    I’d agree with you that science really doesn’t need to attempt to tackle religion, but the problem isn’t that way round: the issue, really, is *some* religious people’s constant need to undermine science that causes the problem.

    The attempt to push “Intelligent Design” as an alternative scientific theory is an example of this. Unlike a real theory, it’s not falsifiable: there’s no criteria under which it can be shown to be wrong, as it defaults to relying on a non-physical phenemona (a “designer”, which is really shorthand for god) for explanation.

    Personally, I’ve never understood why some radical Christians have this need to put a creator directly into science, when from a religious perspective it’s simply not needed: God, as the saying goes, moves in mysterious ways, and it seems just as likely to me that if there’s a creator he’d choose to simply set up the rules of the universe and watch the beauty unfold as just create everything in one lump. Evolution has an elegance to it that would surely appeal to the divine.

    As to alternative theories to evolution, sadly (or happily, depending on your perspective) at present there are none. Evolution – more accurately, natural selection and mutation changing species over time – has passed every test posed of it so far. Every time there’s been a challenge to it, it’s met it. Will it continue to do so? The evidence suggests it will – and that’s the key difference between a scientist and a believer. I don’t have faith in science: I look at the evidence and find it to be powerful.