Science and religion have often been suspicious of one another. Today in western Europe this has come to seem a marginal conflict but it’s not so in the US – where half the population denies evolution – or in the Muslim world – where there is a similar upsurge in irrationalism.
Evolution seems like a touchstone for a person’s willingness to put reason first both because it contradicts the creation stories in most religions and because it requires us to accept that the universe just doesn’t care about us – or about any other species actually.
In arguing for evolution – as we must do – there’s a risk that we position evolution as the final frontier in the expansion of rational thought into territory formerly occupied by religion. Of course it isn’t. Rationalism accepts no limits to the application of reason.
My thoughts were drawn to this by reading Nigel Willmot’s article – The atheists’ revolt – on the Guardian website (http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/nigel_willmott/2007/10/the_atheists_revolt.html ). In this he suggests that Richard Dawkins is the Martin Luther of our age. That he, like Luther, has raised a banner that is causing others to line up behind him (or as close to a party line as we humanists ever manage!) Dawkins, I think, has given many of us the courage to say that religion is not merely wrong but damaging. We also say that its growth, whether in the UK’s faith schools or Pakistan’s fundamentalist madrassas or the Vatican’s lies about contraception, must be opposed.
Martin Luther provoked a fierce backlash from the Catholic Church. Today’s backlash is more likely to come from the Islamic world and may, in time, be every bit as fierce. We must stand by our principles. We must also find ways of talking to our opponents in ways that lead us, and them, away from violence.