Sat with a group of Ugandans, I found out most did not believe in evolution – in addition, most of them were also medical professionals and all but one (that I know of) are strongly religious.
The above constitute three facts ascertained through a couple of conversations. Facts which must be contextualized with another three statements: All of then are lovely people – they are all highly intelligent, well educated and I have a lot of respect for each of them.
None of this though stops me being slightly astonished that so many dismiss so easily the idea of Darwinian evolution (most hadn’t heard of Darwin). This was, for me at least, surprising.
If my face told of surprise though, it paled into insignificance with their jaws on the floor response to my assertion that I didn’t think there was a God (although of course I could never prove this) and that I thought some of the teachings in the bible were, at best, highly unpleasant.
A meekly worded statement in comparison to Dawkins’ comparable assertion in his book, ‘The God Delusion’:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Unlike many of Dawkins’ conversations with the strongly religious though, my conversation ended in good spirits. Importantly, I think we all came away from the conversation with a slightly more accurate understanding of the diversity of human thought. Even if I thought they were wrong and vice-versa.
However much I talk of the improbability of God, I cannot nor should not escape the importance of religion to both other people and societal structures here in Uganda and across the world.
This is a conclusion which is almost universal in its applicability.
In the UK, according to one poll, half of my fellow countrymen do not believe in evolution with one in five preferring the theory of creationism or intelligent design. When engaging, talking and debating them I have to be aware of their thoughts for the sake of friendships but also for the sake of open discussion and debate (something that I hold to be incredibly important).
There is a time and place for the Dawkins battering ram approach but I have rarely found it useful in my day to day life.
I think it important to acknowledge that humans are inundated with irrational beliefs and as such perform irrational actions. What sets religiosity apart however is the scope and impact it holds on contemporary society.
When I buy bottled beers because I think they taste nicer than in a can (although there is no evidence to support this) I am not hurting anyone or anything other than my bank balance.
Sadly, religion in too many of its current manifestations fail J.S. Mill’s basic harm principle – you can do (think) what you want as long as it doesn’t harm others.
Most people who are Christian – including most of my colleagues – would consider themselves on the positive side of J.S Mill’s basic harm principle and this is true for as long as you adhere to one basic liberal principle – your religion is your private affair, not your families, not your neighbours and not societies as a whole. It is there to be discussed and respected but not inflicted onto others.
This thought is contradictory though to the teachings of most institutionalised forms of religion who throughout history have bound themselves up interchangeably with power structures (monarchs, governments, schools etc etc).
If someone doesn’t believe in evolution, so be it – what harm is caused? If a school teaches creationism though, the harm to the children is clear – they are growing up learning in an atmosphere where scientific evidence is considered secondary to belief.
Worse still, if a religion teaches someone is a lesser person for their personal thoughts or feelings then it can actively encourages division and hatred – as commonly manifested throughout history.
If you want to believe a collection of (and again I quote Dawkins) “chaotically cobbled-together…disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and ‘improved’ by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries” then so be it – for as long as you don’t take those beliefs outside of your personal sphere.
The question is though; can you believe in the bible in an absolute sense without it impacting on others? Would the slave trade still exist if people took Exodus 21:7 too seriously? Or would we just of shrunk this global atrocity to an inter-regional one following the advice of Leviticus 25:44. Should we be putting to death anyone who works on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2)?
I cannot help but to conclude that only a highly selective relativistic understanding of the bible is compatible with many modern morals.
The belief in creationism flies in the face of modern science but, as far as I can see, the belief in itself doesn’t hurt anyone.
But the foundation on which this belief is often based – the absolute truth in a religious script or idea – is deeply problematic. It is this belief that then spawns related problems – the teaching of children misinformation and the inability to debate because you believe in an absolute truth…to give just two examples.
People can think what they want, we all do. Belief isn’t the problem but the basis for beliefs and the actions it spurs is.