Monday, October 16, 2006


Richard Dawkins' War

Richard Dawkins, holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, will speak on the on the relationship between science and religion at the Lied Center at the University of Kansas in Lawrence at 7:30 p.m. tonight.

Dawkins’ talk, "The God Delusion" is part of the “Difficult Dialogues at the Commons” series sponsored by the Hall Center for the Humanities and the Biodiversity Institute.

Thirty years ago, the publication of The Selfish Gene, a finely crafted best seller arguing for, of all things, a gene-centric view of evolution, made its author, animal behaviorist Richard Dawkins one of the world’s best known evolutionary theorists.

His latest book, The God Delusion, coming on the heels of a highly-rated BBC television documentary, “The Root of All Evil,” and a series of controversial essays and public comments arguing that religion is evil and parents who indoctrinate their children in the family faith are guilty of child abuse, now makes him the most famous – some would say infamous – atheist now tramping this mortal coil.

Last Friday, Salon published a provocative interview Dawkins granted to Steve Paulson, the executive producer and interviewer for “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” an audio magazine of ideas, broadcast by Wisconsin Public Radio.

There’s a big battle over teaching evolution in public schools in America, notes Dawkins. “And evolution is in the front line trench of that battle.”

However, as Dawkins sees it, the battle over evolution is but one skirmish in a larger and far more important war between science and religion.

Those scientists and skeptics who see no conflict between faith and science are, in Dawkins’ view, “prepared to compromise the war for the sake of the battle.”

“I think the war is more important,” says Dawkins unequivocally. “I actually do care about the existence of a supreme being. And therefore, I don’t think I should say something which I believe to be false… so we can all get along cozily and keep out those lunatic creationists.”

Dawkins’ apparent willingness to sacrifice the teaching of evolution in America’s public schools in order to fight a what can only be called a quixotic war against religious belief will not sit well with many in the audience at the Lied Center tonight who might otherwise agree with much that he has to say.

Here in Kansas, a group of citizens, scientists, and educators – who Dawkins somewhat dismissively describes as an “evolution defense lobby” – have forged a broad coalition to fight persistent attacks by religious fundamentalists on science education in the public schools.

Kansas Citizens for Science includes in its ranks both believers – including born-again evangelicals – and non-believers alike. Moderate Democrats and Republicans on the state school board, all of whom describe themselves as practicing Christians, have also played a key leadership role, as have a number of groups such as the Mainstream Coalition, Kansas Families United for Public Education, and the Kansas Alliance for Education – none of whom are particularly noted for their militant atheism.

For more than seven years now, this coalition has fought to defend science education from attack by a well-funded cabal of fundamentalists who have twice succeeded in winning a majority on the state school board and writing their religious beliefs into the state’s science curriculum.

Dawkins’ insistence on fighting a lonely and somewhat ill-defined war against religion is interesting, coming as it does from someone who claims to be speaking in the name of science, because the notion of a war between two clearly defined worldviews has long been discredited by professional historians.

The popular conviction that religion and science are locked in mortal combat got its start in the last half of the 19th century with the publication of Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom and John William Draper’s 1874 best seller History of the Conflict between Religion and Science.

“The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries,” wrote Draper, “it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other.”

The story of Galileo being forced by the inquisition in 1633 to recant his belief that the earth orbits the sun rather than the other way around is one of the more enduring elements in the cultural mythology that’s grown up around Draper and White’s warfare model.

However, as Dava Sobel notes in her heartbreakingly beautiful book, Galileo's Daughter, the great astronomer didn’t quite see it that way. Galileo, a convinced Catholic, felt honored by God to have been allowed to be the first to uncover the mysteries of His universe.

“The conception of law which is unmistakably conveyed by Kepler's discoveries,” wrote Draper, “and the evidence they gave in support of the heliocentric as against the geocentric theory, could not fail to incur the reprehension of the Roman authorities.”

Yet, Kepler too was influenced by a spiritual concept then current among mathematicians, the harmony of the celestial spheres, first advanced by Pythagoras, in his formulation of the Laws of Planetary Motion.

In Mysterium Cosmographicum, or The Sacred Mystery of the Cosmos, he wrote, “Before the universe was created, there were no numbers except the Trinity, which is God himself… For, the line and the plane imply no numbers: here infinitude itself reigns.”

Even Darwin’s theory of evolution, we know, was formulated with an eye to the natural theology of William Paley.

“Throughout most of modern history science and religion have not been in a state of conflict,” says Ronald Numbers, a historian of science and medicine at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and co-editor of God and Nature, a collection of essays on the historical relationship between science and religion. “The perception of a conflict has emerged roughly within the last 130 years or so. Certainly, this didn't occur during the so-called scientific revolution of the 17th Century, when by and large science and religion were fused in a common enterprise called natural philosophy.”

As the historical record indicates, the relationship between science and religion is far richer, more complex, and above all human than the warfare model proposed by Draper and White – now adopted by their latter day apostle, Richard Dawkins – can accommodate.

While the war between science and religion has proven to be a myth, science is under attack from fundamentalist Christians, a minority among believers, who interpret the Bible literally and place a higher value on the revealed word of scripture than they do on evidence from the natural world.

And, as both Americans and the British should perhaps have learned by now, it is better to fight those who attack you than to wage war on those who have not.


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