Sunday, February 11, 2007

Is It Evolution Sunday Already?

PZ Myers at Pharyngula alerts me to the existance of "Evolution Sunday":

Today is Evolution Sunday. It's that day when participating ministers will say a few supportive words about evolution from their pulpits, or as I prefer to think of it, when a few people whose training and day-to-day practice are antithetical to science will attempt to legitimize their invalid beliefs and expand their pretense to intellectual authority by co-opting a few slogans.

As you might guess, I'm not exactly against the event, but I definitely do not support it.

Frankly, I can't understand why anyone who supports science education (as PZ definitely does) would oppose the idea of Evolution Sunday. I mean, I don't think that most of what churchgoers hear at from the pulpit is true. Perhaps we'd all be better off if people didn't embrace the supernatural (though there's no way to tell for certain). But frank discussions about scientific facts are bound to improve the accurate information-to-myth ratio, right?

I'm sure a few readers are going to complain that I should be praising these efforts to get people to take baby steps in the right direction, but I just can't do it.

I'm not sure if embracing the idea of "evolution" is necessarily a "baby step" for religious folks. More like an entirely sensible understanding of the observable reality of our world. Religious Christians and I would disagree about the exact nature, origin and purpose of human life on Earth, but there's no reason we should disagree about the factual informaiton available to us at the present time. It's not a small step towards abandoning religion, but a rational spirituality. Honesty about what can be seen, and faith in what cannot. It's a spirituality I don't share, but that is FAR FAR more palatable to me than this fundamentalist "literal translation of the Bible" nonsense. So what's PZ's problem?

I'm sorry, but when I see people in chains shuffle a few steps at the behest of their jailer, my heart isn't in to shouting, "Hooray! You're free!" You have a choice. You can go to church today, and among the hymns and prayers and magic rituals and chants to nonexistent beings, you can hear a few words in support of science; or you can refuse to support the whole rotten edifice of religion and stay home and read a good book. Which alternative do you think I would support?

Now, you all know I'm as atheist as they come. I do not in any way, shape or form believe in God, and I certainly don't believe in anything as silly and obviously invented by primitive human minds as Judaism or Catholicism. But I don't think any sort of religious faith is akin to being imprisoned. Some believers seem perfectly capable of combining their religion with a rational worldview.

I agree with Professor Myers almost all the time, but I can see this is a faultline in our approach to atheism. I come at it from a civil rights perspective, essentially. As an atheist, I shouldn't have to celebrate, or even be made aware of, your personal religious beliefs. As long as I don't know about it and it doesn't inconvenience me or my lifestyle choices, believe what you want.

That's why I think Evolution Sunday sounds like a terrific idea. It's a bunch of people getting together and saying, "We're Christians but we still think secular schools should teach children actual facts about the world and not the dumb shit we believe." Perfect score on the Lon-o-meter.

PZ, on the other hand, believes that the world would genuinely be a better place if there were no religion. He therefore dislikes Evolution Sunday because it conflates science and religion, only one of which merits any sort of authority.

I'm undecided on the question of whether we'd be entirely better off without religion. Consider the argument as a spectrum. On one side, you'd have Professor Myers, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. "The world would, without question, be significantly improved if there were no religion." (I find some of Harris' arguments, focused on fundamentalist Islam as a key example of religion run amok and ruining a society, particularly condescending and extreme.)

On the other, you'd have the "South Park" argument, taken from their brilliant 2-part "Buck Rogers" themed episode in which Cartman awoke in a distant religion-less future as part of a wrong-headed attempt to secure a Nintendo Wii 3 weeks early. In brief, "humankind is just a bunch of warmongering assholes and religion is just the excuse for violent behavior, not the cause."

(Obviously, I'm only taking part of the overall question into account with this dialectic. There is another entire spectrum of people who believe that religion actually improves the functioning of a society. But we're leaving them out of this discussion because they're obviously wrong.)

In this particular question, I'm actually closer to Matt Stone and Trey Parker than Dawkins and Myers, oddly enough. I don't think religion, in and of itself, is the cause for most of our problems today. It's all economics. Religion's just how these wars and conflicts are sold to the masses, and if everyone believed in something different, the propaganda would be designed to match that superstition or folklore.

Really, I think this entire subset of the atheism argument is a dead end. Who cares if society would be better off without religion, or if people should spend their Sundays reading good science books instead of going to church. It's not going to happen. Better to focus on maintaining the rights of believers and non-believers alike than to reject any kind of common ground with anyone who might feel differently than you.

Instead, I'm going to encourage you all to participate in my Enlightenment Sunday project. Skip church every week. Ignore the pleas of your priests. Donate money and time to charities of your choice directly, rather than through the intermediary of the church bureaucracy. Improve your brain with books and videos and conversations about science. Think skeptically. I'm sure the participants in Evolution Sunday mean well and are sincere in their wish to reconcile faith with science, but we'll do far more to promote reason in this country if we withdraw from all participation in the church and let religion wither away from disuse, than we will by encouraging these modern day witch-doctors to spread their delusions.

See, to me, this paragraph represents a delusion. That's never going to happen, what Myers describes here, so even if it would "do far more to promote reason in this country," it's an unrealizable fantasy. No matter how eloquently he could write about atheism (and he does a pretty solid job of it most of the time), PZ Myers will never be able to shake Americans out of their deeply-held religious convictions. No one could. We're stuck with it. So better to encourage to the religious people to at least make room for some complex, nuanced and realistic thinking about the natural world, rather than brushing them off completely as misguided saps and fools.

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