Thanks to the magic of TV on demand, I have just watched the first part of Richard Dawkins’ series on Charles Darwin. Although Dawkins’s preoccupation with what he sees as the evils of religious belief is not quite to my taste, he ought to be interesting and informative on Darwin and evolution.
Yet the whole programme was punctuated by the false dichotomy between religious belief and acceptance of the facts of evolution, as if the two were necessarily mutually exclusive. Dawkins appeared to be putting these as antagonists to a school science class. Either he managed to find the largest concentration of creationists in the country, or there was some editorial sleight of hand going on to portray the students’ religious faith as rejection of evolution.
When I was at school in the 1970s and 80s, I was taught that there was no contradiction at all between evolution and religious faith. One was a scientific reality, the other a matter of faith. The mainstream Christian churches had learned to take Darwin in their stride, and generations had grown up accepting both Darwinism and Christianity. When I decided to join the Roman Catholic Church, a quarter of a century ago, the priest who gave me instruction was quite clear that the creation story in Genesis is a benign myth – inspiring of itself but not to be taken literally.
My problem with Dawkins’ incessant attacks on religious belief is twofold. First, there is something of the spirit of religious fundamentalism about insisting that we must choose between God and evolution and the accommodation that has developed in western secular society between the two in the last 150 years has to be denied. The second is that there is a battle between rational science and fundamental religion, how does it help the former to alienate those who would naturally line up on that side of the debate simply because they continue to derive comfort from religious faith.
So one feels there is a degree of intellectual dishonesty at work as Dawkins asks whether his teenage science students have emerged from their a walk on a beach looking at fossils believing in evolution or still believing in God. This viewer remained quite happy believing in both. Dawkins will have to explain why they are mutually antagonistic rather than taking it as a given.
This is perhaps a good time to highlight this excellent review of the God Delusion by American biologist H. Allen Orr.