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.
A response to Richard Dawkins and Michael Gove, can we also have a Koran in every school?
Someone has once again let Richard Dawkins lose in the Guardian. When will we learn?
In his latest attack on The Bible (and in turn Christianity), Dawkins has managed to miss the pertinent point when it comes to The Bible, religion and society. In an effort to show support for placing a copy of the King James Bible into every school, Dawkins inevitably looks to the place he seeks comfort, in the secular art of literature, rather than the place where The Bible draws its significance – the spiritual.
I would love to know why Dawkins considers literature to be more important in schooling than the fact that The Bible is one the very foundations of modern spirituality. Whether Dawkins likes it or not, spirituality is pretty important in determining how we live our lives.
Dawkins (I feel rather blandly) points out that The Bible is the source of much of modern language that secularists use without thinking, “the salt of the earth; go the extra mile; I wash my hands of it; filthy lucre; through a glass darkly; wolf in sheep’s clothing” etc etc. Very nice, very true but so what? Dawkins argument’s miss the point of why people read The Bible.
The same linguistic arguments can be said of bland, uncultured, secularism. “Back to square one” for example originates from BBC radio commentators using a grid of a football pitch split into six squares to help the listener visualise the football match. As such when the ball was hoofed down the field and the build up play would start again the commentator would say “back to square one”. Interesting, but I would suggest not a reason to have a copy of an old radio times in every school.
People read the bible because they believe it to be holy. In the eyes of Jews and Christians The Bible represents a collection of primary religious texts that is central to their very being. This has resulted in the range of three to six billion copies being sold worldwide. It has also resulted in it becoming one of the most powerful tools in shaping both the secular and religious modern world. To understand me, you and every other person floating around on this mass of atoms we call Earth we need to hold an understanding of this text. Not because of the metaphors, the imagery or the prose but because it provides the very foundations on which people (rightly or wrongly) build their lives.
Christians (a demographic that I feel most comfortable talking about despite not being one) do not pick up the bible because they either agree or disagree with The Bible but because it is a central tenant of their faith. As my colleague commented to me “it is how I know what God is”. It goes beyond the realms of rationality, of culture or anything comprehensible to me or you. It is, for some, the very basis for life. How it is then interpreted and understood provides the cornerstone for millions, potentially billions of people’s lives around the world. For me, this is a pretty strong argument for why we should learn about. This argument only grows in strength as the UK increasingly moves away from organised religion in a world where Christianity is globally growing.
I will finish however in support of one of Dawkins arguments, his assertion that we have to break down the secular myth that The Bible represents a good ‘moral guide’. As Dawkins rightly points out there are a plethora example of quotes from the bible that could be used to rub my secular morality up the wrong way. Whilst a lot of these can be explained away with a bit of context there are some things that even the most blinkered of devotee would be doing well to argue away. Think about old testament war crimes, genocides and murder.
The Bible isn’t going anywhere, and our kids need to learn about what are in those dusty pages. This for me, provides a compelling reason to why it should be taught in every school (practical note to Gove though…teachers may need more than one if they are to be used as an effective teaching tool).
All of these arguments however could be equally applied to any other holy book. To understand the thousands of Muslims in the UK and the millions worldwide we have to understand the importance of the Koran in their lives for example. It is not, just pretty prose but the basis of their spirituality. I wonder if Gove will be pushing a Koran onto every school in the UK? If not, why not?
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Tagged as Bible in every school, Dawkins, Gove, Koran in schools, Religion in schools