The Origin of the Species
posted on 07.08.2006 at 8:23 PM
In 1859 in England, Charles Bradlaugh was on the stump, attacking religion before huge working-class crowds; John Stuart Mill published On Liberty ("If all mankind minus one were of one opinion and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind") and Charles Darwin published his book. Not a bad year.
The Origin of the Species came into the theological world like a plough into an ant-hill -- Leo J. Henkin
I myself have little doubt that in England it was geology and the theory of evolution that changed us from a Christian to a pagan nation -- F. Sherwood Taylor
No rapproachement was possible between Darwinism as such and protestantism as such. The conceptions of Man were too divergent -- John Dillenberger
If we may estimate the importance of an idea by the change of thought which it effects, this idea of natural selection is unquestionably the most important that has ever been conceived by the mind of man -- George J. Romanes
(From The Victorian Crisis of Faith)
Precursor to the Evolution Debate
posted on 06.25.2006 at 2:07 PM
Edward O. Wilson again, writing in Harvard Magazine last year:
In all of the history of science only one other disparity of comparable magnitude to evolution has occurred between a scientific event and the impact it has had on the public mind. This was the discovery by Copernicus that Earth and therefore humanity are not the center of the universe, and the universe is not a closed spherical bubble. Copernicus delayed publication of his masterwork On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres until the year of his death (1543). For his extension of the idea subsequently, Bruno was burned at the stake, and for its documentation Galileo was shown the instruments of torture at Rome and remained under house arrest for the remainder of his life.
Americans, Evolution and Revelation
posted on 06.24.2006 at 12:53 PM
Nothing ["nothing"?] in science as a whole has been more firmly established by interwoven factual documentation, or more illuminating, than the universal occurrence of biological evolution. Further, few natural processes have been more convincingly explained than evolution by the theory of natural selection or, as it is popularly called, Darwinism.
Thus it is surpassingly strange that half of Americans recently polled (2004) not only do not believe in evolution by natural selection but do not believe in evolution at all. Americans are certainly capable of belief, and with rocklike conviction if it originates in religious dogma. In evidence is the 60 percent that accept the prophecies of the Book of Revelation as truth,
The Attack on Reason
posted on 06.23.2006 at 6:20 PM
This (thanks to Kristian Z. ) from the Baccalaureate Address given by outgoing Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers a couple of weeks ago. Summers, I admit, is a complicated character. But still...
It is an irony of our time that at a moment when the power of reason to cure diseases, link nations, emancipate the enslaved, and improve living standards has never been greater, the idea of reason is increasingly in question....
Another way of looking at this is that reason, to its glory, has become strong enough to question reason. But still...
Think about this, at a time when biological science has done more to reduce human suffering and has more potential to reduce human suffering than ever before in all of history. There is today, in American public schools, more doubt cast on the theory of evolution than at any time in the last century.
(Perhaps name of this blog should be changed to "But still...")
Religion as Shameful?
posted on 05.17.2006 at 12:00 AM
W.H. Auden was, Wilfred M. McClay writes in the Weekly Standard, "forthcoming in lamenting what he called the 'prudery' of 'cultured people' who treat religious belief as the last remaining shameful thing, and find theological terms 'far more shocking than any of the four-letter words.'"
"The immaculate conception." "Jihad." "The chosen people." "Intelligent design."
The Evolution "Debate"
posted on 04.26.2006 at 3:59 PM
"Evolution: The Big Surprise" is a headline on the cover of the current issue of the New York Review of Books. And your first thought is that it might have something to do with the debate over "intelligent design."
It doesn't. The article describes some interesting recent research on embryo development and how it has "radically altered our views of evolution and the relation of human beings to all other animals." Still, the fact that you even suspect that the New York Review would be troubling itself with countering a theory with no serious scientific support shows how this creationist nonsense has wormed its way into contemporary discourse.
Another sign is the fact that this article must begin by anticipating our suspicions and making clear that it is not about the "recent controversy about the theory of evolution."
Let's say religious groups were able to convince the odd school board that the "theory" that the universe was created in the year 4004 BC should be taught along with history and astronomy. Would articles on these subject then have to begin by explaining that they are not about the recent controversy about the age of the universe?
Religion and Politics -- 2: John McCain
posted on 04.10.2006 at 10:59 PM
This from a New York Times article on the Democrats' favorite Republican, likely presidential candidate John McCain:
He said schools should be allowed to offer "intelligent design" courses as an alternative to evolution.
And perhaps levitation courses as an alternative to gravity?
Evidence of Evolution?
posted on 04.06.2006 at 9:55 AM
Just discovered fossils of a giant fish with proto-limbs -- a "missing link" between fish and land animals -- certainly deepen understanding of evolution. But have intelligent design/creationist arguments received so much attention in the United States recently that these fossils need to be seen as further evidence of the truth of the theory of evolution (as if this theory is wanting in proof). Apparently yes. This is paragraph five of the lead story in the New York Times today:
Other scientists said that in addition to confirming elements of a major transition in evolution, the fossils were a powerful rebuttal to religious creationists, who have long argued that the absence of such transitional creatures are a serious weakness in Darwin's theory.
Indeed, while this is certainly an interesting and important story, it would probably not be the lead story if this religious foolishness had not received so much attention.
America Hotbed of Atheism?
posted on 04.01.2006 at 12:19 PM
Madeleine Bunting is a wobbly writer -- not, on merit, worth the space I've devoted to her. Nonetheless, she has a way, as she lurches about, of stumbling upon some interesting issues. Another point that I'm intrigued by in her recent piece in the Guardian is this claim that America has become the site of a death match between hardline atheists and creationists. Britain, in her view, must avoid "American-style false dichotomies between faith and science." American style!
Americans are well aware that they possess an oversupply of exuberant creationists. But the United States -- not Europe -- as a hotbed of extreme atheism! Gosh.
Could there be something to this -- perhaps the result of an equal and opposite reaction to those creationists and their buddies on the religious right? Or is Bunting, once again, just not looking where she's going.
The Bible as a Theory?
posted on 03.21.2006 at 11:22 AM
This recent comment by the archbishop of Canterbury points to some of the jagged edges in the intelligent-design debate. His name is Rowan Williams:
"I think creationism is ... a kind of category mistake, as if the Bible were a theory like other theories ... if creationism is presented as a stark alternative theory alongside other theories I think there's just been a jarring of categories ... My worry is creationism can end up reducing the doctrine of creation rather than enhancing it."
Isn't the liberal, pluralistic perspective on intelligent design similar to that of the archbishop: Religion is fine; it just doesn't belong in science classes? (And, by this argument, John Barrow ought to decide if he's a physicist or a theologian, because they are two entirely different professions.)
Wouldn't a proselytizing nonbeliever argue, however, that, when it comes to the creation of the universe, the Bible does put forward a "theory"? Wouldn't this nonbeliever resist the idea that religion should be placed in a special reason-proof, science-proof "category" and, in fact, want intelligent design discussed in school so that it -- along with the notion that the universe was created in six days -- can be analyzed and, presumably, refuted, as the notion that the sun revolves around the earth has been refuted?
The Origin of Bacteria
posted on 03.18.2006 at 10:25 AM
For some recent online debunking of the argument for intelligent design see Concerned Scientist (via Pharyngula). The point, of course, is that rather than arriving -- poof -- suddenly and inexplicably, life on earth came about through a series of comprehensible steps.
Poorly Camouflaged Retreat, cont.
posted on 03.05.2006 at 3:25 AM
Garret Keizer -- writing originally in the Los Angeles Times (thanks again to Ben Vershbow):
"The supporters of intelligent design betray their own secularist assumptions through their insistence that Darwinian evolution be taught with the disclaimer that it is "only a theory." One would assume that, from the perspective of faith, a great deal is only a theory. To apply that label exclusively to evolution suggests otherwise. It suggests that we inhabit a world of ubiquitous certainty. No one could walk on water in such a world because the molecular density of water is (unlike evolution, apparently) beyond the theoretical. Of course, that is the view of science, and the only proper view of science. One is amazed, however, to find it promulgated in the cause of religion."
God and Science
posted on 02.28.2006 at 12:04 PM
From a New York Times article on the defeat (Hallelujah!) of a bill in Utah that would have "required teachers to issue a disclaimer to their students saying that not all scientists agree about evolution and the origin of species."
"The bill died on a 46-to-28 vote in the Republican-controlled House after being amended by the majority whip, Stephen H. Urquhart, a Mormon who said he thought God did not have an argument with science."
Glad to see, of course, that Mr. Urquhart believes God to be open minded. But I continue to wonder how the diety might square science with miracles, the afterlife and His own omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent existence.
Science and Religion
posted on 02.21.2006 at 4:49 PM
Maybe this is what is most interesting about Wieseltier/Dennett debate below:
All right-thinking blue-state people, religious or not, had lined up on the side of science and evolution, against intolerant school boards and the foolishness of intelligent design. Now here's Wieseltier -- a liberal intellectual of impeccable credentials, in the New York Times, no less -- faced with the task of resisting a science-based atheist argument. And what does he do? He resorts to charges of "scientism" and quotes, respectfully, Hume saying: "The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author."
The scary question for a percentage of those right-thinking people: Has the scientific argument against religion grown so strong that it is necessary to challenge science to refute it?
Judge Jones -- In the 15th Century
posted on 01.18.2006 at 5:04 PM
In trying to understand the history of atheism, it is probably necessary to understand why, at times, failure to believe in the gods really did seem wacky: in Europe before Newton and Darwin, for example.
The problem: "world orderliness," Schopenhauer called it - as evidenced by the remarkable regularities of the heavenly bodies as well as the remarkable complexity and efficiency of living bodies. Explain that with your "materialism"! Tell us that is just the product of "blind chance"!
Fact is it was damn difficult -- before gravity, before evolution -- to explain the presence of order and complexity in the universe without recourse to a "divine creator."
Let's say some Judge Jones six centuries ago had been asked to rule on an effort by a school board to begin classes with a statement that there was another "theory" of creation: that all the marvels that make up the heavens and the earth just arrived by accident. Might he not have dismissed that notion as characterized by "breathtaking inanity"?
Judge Jones' decision, continued
posted on 12.23.2005 at 11:52 PM
Back to the problematic quote in Judge John E. Jones laudable decision against requiring mention of "intelligent design" in the Dover public schools: "The theory of evolutionÃ¢â‚¬Â¦in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator."
Hasn't religion surrendered a whole lot if its god no longer creates the species, let alone moves the stars and planets?
"The fact that orthodox Christians so eagerly grasp the vagrant straws floating by shows that they are now content with the very smallest fragments of all that once they were positive was true" -- Clarence Darrow
Might these hazier, more abstract, less necessary views of god -- views that might be compatible with evolution and the rest of modern science -- qualify as vagrant straws, small fragments of once grand religious truths?
Wintertime for Atheists?
posted on 12.18.2005 at 10:39 PM
Let us count, during this holiday season, the outrages: School officials here and there - Kansas, Pennsylvania -- attempting to force teachers to pretend that "intelligent design" is science or that evolution isn't. A United States president who appears to have based decisions involving war and peace upon his belief that he is the instrument of his god's purposes. The Ten Commandments ("Thou shall make no graven image," has always been my favorite) attempting to sneak into government buildings in the United States. God as a character on prime-time TV. Incessant efforts to reinsert Christ into holidays celebrated by many who do not worship Christ. And overseas? Fatwas, jihads, bombings, wars - in the name of religion.
The United States seems lost in yet another of its Great Awakenings (though to partisans of reason and enlightenment it looks more like a Great Swoon). Religious belief, now that the heathen Communists have been routed, is on the rise in Poland, Russia and other former Soviet countries. Such belief seems, with heathen left-leaning intellectuals also having taken some blows, even to be crawling back in Western Europe, even in France.
This is a blog about the writing of a book. And that book is to be a history of disbelief - from ancient India to contemporary California. One conclusion is clear: Disbelief has been on the rise in the world in the past five hundred or so years. The days when most literate Europeans seemed convinced that the universe was created by God in six days, on or about the year 4004 B.C., seem long gone. The days when it was possible to argue that there is no such thing as a true atheist also seem rather distant. However, what is not clear is whether this great march toward secularism has, somehow, right now, stalled.
Is the age of disbelief ending, as Alister McGrath recently argued in his book The Twilight of Atheism? Is religion - with an inevitability that could pass for God ordained - making a comeback? Or is all this orthodox sturm and drang merely an understandable reaction to the globe's ongoing secularization? Is freethinking in retreat or is this merely a pause in our continuing march toward a world based more on reason, less on faith or superstition?
By writing a blog while writing the book, I hope to improve my understandings not only of historical matters but of such contemporary issues - by testing my own surmises, by benefiting from the comments of some interested and thoughtful residents of Internet-land. I hope, thereby, to write a better book.