Daily Archives: August 19, 2008

Religion v Science v Supernatural

Last night’s final episode of “The Genius of Charles Darwin,” dealt with the rise of fundamental Christian belief in the West and the clash between creationism and natural selection. Once again, Richard Dawkins championed the cause of reason and evidence in deciding truth about the origins of species against a sea of believers who persisted in various biblical versions or denials.

At one point, Dawkins was aghast that science teachers did not feel it their duty to dissuade pupils of their creationist beliefs and we had a cringe-worthy segment where he interviewed a science teacher who maintained that the world was less than 10,000 years old. Dawkins was exasperated. On the other hand, I sympathize with the teachers; especially those that have to face the threats from families and school governors. Also, just teaching and engaging kids is hard enough, let alone getting them to overcome their intuitive bias that natural selection must be wrong. These are the natural biases that form part of a supersense that there is purpose, order and design in the world. We need to abandon or suppress these  if we are to accept non-intuitive models of the world and I think that this intuitive thinking is one of the reasons why religious accounts are acceptable to so many.

I have also just been sent an on-line article featuring forthcoming studies of beliefs among US college students, which again highlights the prevalence of supernatural beliefs among highly educated individuals. I have asked for preprints of the studies cited and will report back when I have had a chance to read them but the emerging story seems to be the same point made by G.K. Chesterton, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they will believe in anything.”

There is a widespread assumption that education and science training in particular will eradicate the prevalence of supernatural belief in the modern era. Richard Dawkins is spear-heading the neo-atheist movement to make this change come about. Although Darwin himself wrote that he thought that humans would eventually change their mindset about the origins of species, I am much more pessimistic. The various polls and studies and the sheer opposition to scientific explanations simply reflects the deep-seated, almost intractable, nature of belief. Is indoctrination solely responsible for this state of affairs? I don’t think so. Culture and religions may simply resonate with human inclinations. And where did these inclinations come from? 

I am not advocating that we give up trying, but we have to be realistic about the nature of the opposition to scientific models of the world and how strong those convictions can be.

 

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