Charles Darwin said that when he began to see the outlines of the idea of evolution, facts and details that supported it seemed to gather around it almost of their own accord and were easily remembered. Contradictory details, however, were unconsciously resisted or could easily be pushed aside and forgotten. To avoid this Darwin kept a notebook where he wrote down everything that might undermine his theories. This insistence on pursuing truth no matter where it might lead is the essence of science and the exact opposite of the religious thought process, or lack of it. In religion you start with a wish (for a creator, for someone to watch over you, for eternal life) and then hold onto the
resulting wish-fulfilment inventions no matter what the evidence. This kind of religion-think spills into other areas that have no apparent religious content. There are many historical correlations between religious belief and obstinate denial of reality. And this continues. In North America, for example, the Republican presidential candidates have decided that climate change is “a hoax”. This is not a religious belief, but it feels like one. These are not scientists, they don’t understand the science, and they feel no obligation to explain what evidence they have to support their convictions. They simply state them… with conviction. And people go for it because religion softens the mind and makes it ready to buy other distortions of reality. When reality is as dangerous as it is now, this is frightening. As E.O Wilson put it, “Humanity is the first species in the history of life to become a geophysical force.” By spreading toxic chemicals, cutting down forests, polluting the oceans, destroying wild ecosystems and the species that compose them we could damage our planet, perhaps permanantly. To turn away from this, to deny the evidence for the sake of short term political or financial gain is not just intellectually indefensible, it’s evil. In contrast, the scientific method, a codified form of skepticism, simply asks: What is most likely to be true on the basis of what evidence, and how best can I test that evidence? If this scrupulous way of thinking was taught in schools with as much passion as religious faith is taught in churches, temples and synagogues, we would all be much safer. The bible says “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” But actually it is science not religion that cares about truth. It is honest scientists like Darwin and Galileo who tell us the truth about our world and it is the popes and others like them who insist that we deform our brains in order to believe cruel and childish nonsense. It’s all cowardice and fear. Science is brave. Atheism is brave.
Happy Darwin Day, Matthew.