Friday, 11 July 2008

Round One: Fight!

Words cannot express my anger with Press columnist David Round. In this week's article, as in previous articles, he continues to peddle his poison of self-righteous christian moral supremacy over rational thinkers. Round's profile on the Press website shows that he "teaches environmental law and issues in legal philosophy at the University of Canterbury" and is "also a keen tramper and amateur naturalist". Being trained in the law has obviously given him the idea that the truth is somewhat flexible, able to be bent to the will of skilled manipulators. The nature of proof and implications are attacked in his current jumble of fallacious conclusions.

"Atheism just plain destructive"
- The Press, July 8th, 2008

In the early 17th century, the learned James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, calculated that God's creation of the universe began on the evening preceeding October 23, 4004 BC. Other learned and pious men, including even Sir Isaac Newton, calculated slightly different dates. I disagree with them all. Of course, the Earth is immeasurably older, and life developed from the simplest primaeval forms as the theory of evolution describes. I am not a creationist.

Nevertheless, I cannot help but have some sympathy for creationists. For one thing, political correctness obliges us to respect every other religion's beliefs, however absurd. It would be very insensitive to cast public doubt or scorn on some of the remarkable events of Mohammed's life, for example. We are even obliged to ignore the Koran's numerous injunctions to wage war on unbelievers. A strong lobby group wants "Maori science" taught in schools. It is unfair that our own ancestral beliefs, however picturesque, are publically derided when not a word may be said against others.

Evolution and Christianity are actually perfectly compatible . The Catholic Church, for example, has long officially accepted the theory of evolution as a valid possible description of how life developed on Earth . The Church's most recent catechism readily acknowledges that "many scientific studies have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man".

The Book of Genesis does not contradict what science tells us. At the beginning of God's creation there was chaos. Stars — the sun — and planets first appeared, then the seas and dry land. Plants came, and sea-creatures; then land animals and last of all man himself. This is a scientifically accurate sequence. Genesis does not read exactly as a science textbook, but that is not the Bible's chief purpose. Genesis was written for a simple pastoral people in a pre-scientific age . Within that context its poetic account of creation is perfectly acceptable .

The second reason for my sympathy with creationists is that the theory of evolution is regularly misused as an argument for atheism.

Evolution is perfectly compatible with the existence of God . Scientists themselves cannot tell us what happened at the moment of the "Big Bang" , nor describe what, if anything preceded it. If there was nothing before that moment, then the universe somehow came into existence out of nothing in an truly marvellous manner. If something did exist before then, then we are back where we started in wondering where that earlier material came from. The origin of life out of inorganic matter are equally mysterious. It is perfectly possible, to say the least, that some incomprehensible life force, call it what we will, has accompanied, prompted and guided the development of the universe. At the very least science cannot disprove the existence of such a life force . It remains a plausible hypothesis .

Evolution tells us that all life, including even the most highly developed creatures, is descended from the primaeval protoplasm. Somehow all life's incredible richness and variety was contained in, or at least has flowed from , that tiny, sluggish ancestor. Why should this happen all by itself? May not some force have impelled it? Science can describe life, but cannot explain it. Why should these organs, these cells, these compounds and molecules behave as they do? How can a tiny seed somehow become an enormous tree? Science can tell us the chemistry, but can go no further .

Leave that point aside. At the very least, God and evolution are compatible. Evolutionists may fancy that their theory makes God unnecessary, but it still does not make him impossible. Yet evolution is constantly misrepresented as being the "dethroning of God" . Correspondents to this very paper have claimed that evolution "proves" that God does not exist; that life arose entirely by chance on this remote planet (remote from where?), and has no purpose or meaning .

Evolution proves no such thing. But when misused to deny God's existence it is inevitably discredited in the eyes of those who see God at work in the world . The atheistsic argument is also environmentally highly dangerous. If all life arose by chance and is without value or purpose, then why should we preserve it? The good christian believes that to render a species extinct is to spit in the face of the Creator; an atheist can have no such rational objection. In its denial of meaning and its crude determination to see nothing but physical material, atheism is as destructive of environmental sanctity as it is of social responsibility . Scientists once sought to understand God's mind. Now in their pride they attempt to usurp His Throne. Such unworthy human motives discredit their investigations.



After being subjected to this little orgy of hatred and bigoted nonsense, I am obliged to provide an analysis.

First, it is obvious that Round is a committed christian, even though he tries to distance himself from hardcore creationists — a sensible, or perhaps calculated, move on his part. In doing so he is flying in the face of the majority of adherents to his chosen faith, the members of which are the principal opponents of evolution. His belief in 'god' persists, notwithstanding.

The article starts off in moderation and facetiously diplomatic tones, but Round shows his true colours by the end, where he relapses into ranting and drawing unfounded conclusions about the atheist stereotype he has constructed for himself.

Although Round sets himself up in the second paragraph as magnanimously tolerant of other belief systems, his not-so tacit implication is that other systems of belief (including atheism) are wrong, and do not deserve to be tolerated. Of course, he doesn't entertain that his own beliefs could be seen to be absurd by others. In the same paragraph he claims that it is "unfair that our own ancestral beliefs (i.e. christian beliefs. -ed), however picturesque, are publically derided when not a word may be said against others". This is simply and demonstrably untrue. For example, there is plenty of open condemnation of islamic fundamentalism, as well criticism of Sharia law. Cults like scientology are also regularly criticised, or at least noted, for their secrecy, murky financial dealings and pseudo-scientific claims. In any case, the way christians are talked about doesn't even begin to compare to the vitriol with which atheists are publicly vilified and derided, as typified by Round's article. It happens that christianity is a major religion in New Zealand. Many church leaders and believers happen to be vocal and outspoken on various issues that arise in society, and use every opportunity to espouse their beliefs. It cannot be expected that they are never challenged on their assertions. As I have said in previous posts, religions, including christianity, deserve no special immunity from investigation, challenge, and criticism.

Round then states that "[e]volution and Christianity are actually perfectly compatible". I agree, to the extent that the process of evolution is unaffected by whether a christian believes it is happening or not. In this way, satanism, zen buddhism, judaism and every other -ism is compatible with evolution. Beliefs have no material effect on the validity of evolution. It is also true that the Catholic church "has long officially accepted the theory of evolution as a valid possible description of how life developed on Earth". As we all know, the Catholic Church haven't always felt this way about science and even today, in the modern age, only half-heartedly assents to tolerate science: It has no choice, now that the general public have access to education and the church must compete for minds. As the saying goes, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, and pretend that this justifies your continued existence while clinging to the remnants of your shattered faith".

Another commendable position Round takes is on the Bible. "Genesis was written for a simple pastoral people in a pre-scientific age" and "[w]ithin that context its poetic account of creation is perfectly acceptable", he tell us. Here is an acknowledgment that the bible - the source of christian wisdom and the justification for their beliefs - cannot be taken at face value and is subject to interpretation. Questions regarding how much of the Bible is "poetic" in nature, and the contexts in which the Bible are valid, are left as an exercise for the reader.

It is difficult to see how it can be claimed - as Round does - that evolution is misused as an argument for atheism. The fact is that it is one of the strongest arguments for it. This is because it has been shown that evolution does occur, and is an entirely mundane, natural process. One could wonder why an allegedly omnipotent supernatural creator would bother with starting such a process when presumably endowed with the ability to create life in its final, complete and fixed form.

Atheists get a brief reprieve as Round turns his attention to scientists and science, getting into the dangerous position of equating the possible with the probable; "It is perfectly possible, to say the least, that some incomprehensible life force, call it what we will, has accompanied, prompted and guided the development of the universe. At the very least science cannot disprove the existence of such a life force". This is the realm of Bertrand Russel's teapot. It must be explicitly stressed that anything which is unknown is exactly that - unknown. Just because a phenomenon can't be explained currently does not give a speculator free reign or license to apply any arbitrary explanation to it. Unknown means "unresolved" or "indeterminate", not "the work of god". (This is but one possibility, not the sole possibility, nor necessarily the most likely possibiliy.)

The next assumption made about evolution is that "science can tell us the chemistry, but can go no further". This actually contains two assumptions; that there is a "further", and that science should be able to provide some insight into whatever that may be.

Then in the penultimate paragraph, Round cannot contain himself any longer. He sulks about the "dethroning" of 'god' by "misrepresenting" evolution, as if this is an attack on himself personally. He seems indignant that others can claim "that life arose entirely by chance on this remote planet ... and has no purpose or meaning". This is at least as valid an assertion as any advanced by christians.

Finally, the last paragraph is a ragged mess. "When [evolution is] misused to deny God's existence it is inevitably discredited in the eyes of those who see God at work in the world". A more accurate statement might refer to such people as 'those who believe that they see God at work in the world'. Here again, 'god' is assumed to exist. Clutching at straws, from nowhere he pulls out the atheists-are-just-evil card: "The atheistsic argument is also environmentally highly dangerous". Pardon me? The warped reasoning behind this bizarre statement is that the (stereotypical) atheist obviously believes life is worthless and that there is no point in preserving it: "The good christian believes that to render a species extinct is to spit in the face of the Creator; an atheist can have no such rational objection". Apart from the blunt implication that 'only christians are good - therefore anyone who is not a christian is not good', this is nothing but bigotry, since atheists can posit any of the following objections to the extinction of species: Firstly, to lose something so inherently beautiful and unique is a cause for sadness; Second, diversity - wherein nature derives strength - is diminished; Third, the balance of the lost species' ecosystem is irreversibly changed, and this will have many adverse effects. No doubt there are more objections which could be raised. In the dying fits of the article: "In its denial of meaning and its crude determination to see nothing but physical material, atheism is as destructive of environmental sanctity as it is of social responsibility". Yet another thing that atheists are responsible for. Next, Round will be accusing atheists of sodomizing sheep and eating babies...
Round's last gasp of hatred is reserved for turn-coat scientists who "once sought to understand God's mind. Now in their pride they attempt to usurp His Throne. Such unworthy human motives discredit their investigations". What throne? Pride has nothing to do with science, except perhaps the satisfaction and pride in discovery and rational thought. Thankfully, Round's insensible ranting ends here.

To summarize the assumptions Round makes: God exists; we are not worthy of god and should worship him; scientists are malevolents to be viewed with disdain and suspicion; as are atheists; all atheists are also nihilists; only christians are good.

One cannot help but feel that Round has misunderstood the point of science. To restate, science is the process of unveiling reality. The reason for scientific method and process is to independently establish what is correct, and what is not, based on testing hypotheses by observing the outcomes of controlled trials.

Atheism is simply the conclusion arrived at by considering all the scientifically admissable evidence available at the current time and taking the balance of probabilities - a concept Round should be familiar with. Atheism is also the result of a revolt against tyranny of unexamined thought and dogma.

Nothing in his article supports or justifies its title.


NOTE: At the time of posting this, Round's article is unavailable at the Press website. I would expect that it will be available within the week.

Update: Original article now available here.

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