America’s religion vs. science war just got a lot more polarized

BRIAN BETHUNE November 13 2006


America’s religion vs. science war just got a lot more polarized

BRIAN BETHUNE November 13 2006



America’s religion vs. science war just got a lot more polarized


British biologist Richard Dawkins and American geneticist Francis Collins, two of the most prominent scientists alive, see eye to eye on several points. The evolution of life by natural selection over billions of years, they agree, is a fact—plain, observable, proven. And also that the more we know about the splendour and interconnectedness of creation—whether its origin was natural or divine—the more moved we are to transcendent wonder, the more fully human. In short, it’s simply wrong—no less than a cultural and intellectual crime—to keep this knowledge from students, and instead feed them untenable pap about a 6,000-year-old earth where humans once ran with dinosaurs. Natural allies, you might think, in America’s seemingly interminable attempt to come to grips with Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, first published almost 150 years ago.

Not a chance. Dawkins, the world’s most prominent atheist polemicist, will have no truck or trade with the enemy—and Collins, as devout a Christian as he is a committed Darwinist, is very much the enemy. How, Dawkins asks rhetorically in an interview with Maclean ’s, can he work with a man like Collins, who may be a distinguished scientist (a former head of the Human

Genome project, no less), when the geneticist also simultaneously believes in what Dawkins considers absurd, like a personal god who rose from the dead? “In a funny way,” adds Dawkins, “I have more respect for a strict creationist.”

On that newly key battlefront in America’s science vs. religion war—and no other— Dawkins is actually onside with the likes of Phillip Johnson, strictest of strict creationists. The born-again California lawyer is the original force behind “intelligent design,” creationism’s latest incarnation, which claims that life at a molecular level is too “irreducibly complex” to have arisen on its own. Both Johnson and Dawkins are united in their contempt for the middle ground. For them, Collins has no business trying to be cuttingedge scientist and religious believer—and no chance of pulling it off.


Millions of Americans may want to keep a foot in both camps, God’s and Darwin’s, but the middle ground is eroding fast. Eight decades after the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, polls show that half the population of the United States, the world’s scientific and technological powerhouse, professes belief in strict Biblical cre-

ationism. This even split is mirrored nowhere else in the Western world: creationism makes the news in Canada only when a provincial educational authority, like Quebec’s last week, scrutinizes independent religious schools to ensure that evolution is being taught in science class. Or during the 2000 federal election when Liberal spin doctor Warren Kinsella waved a stuffed Barney dinosaur to mock Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day for his church’s creationist stance.

In the U.S., however, intelligent design, though dismissed by the majority of biologists as pseudo-science, is always a live issue. It currently looms in the Michigan governor’s race, where Republican candidate Dick DeVos, a conservative Christian (and Amway heir), wants it taught along with evolution in science classes. Creationist organizations offer “Noah’s Flood” tours of the Grand Canyon in competition with geologists’ interpretation, while the two sides quarrel bitterly over what books can be sold in the national park’s gift shop.

Even so, for hardliners on either side, evolution is only part of a fight that’s rapidly polarizing. The vast majority of the Christians who accept creationism also line up on the conservative side of every other hot-button religious-secular fault line in America— they’re anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-stem-cell research—many of them passionately so. U.S. fundamentalists rally the troops with warnings of a “gay-agenda” takeover of their nation and with books like John Gibson’s The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is Worse Than You Thought. More seriously, John Jones, the U.S. federal judge who in 2005 struck down a Dover, Pa., school board’s decision to teach ID in public schools, publicly revealed in September that he was stunned by the reaction to it, which included death threats. The response was so virulent, according to Jones, because many conservative Christians had expected him to rule otherwise. Why? Because he is a long-time Republican and George W. Bush appointee: in other words,

they demanded he be true to the cause, no matter the law.

Scientists, for their part, have become alarmed about funding cuts, like Bush’s September veto of a stem-cell research bill, his first ever veto. So for Dawkins, too, the stakes are just too high for compromise. He refuses to indulge in what he calls “the Neville Chamberlain school of appeasement,” by cooperating with moderate Christians merely to keep evolution in science classes. He is seriously worried over the possible emergence of the ultimate rogue state, a nucleararmed American theocracy. “If you think the big battle is over teaching evolution in schools, then you will go for allies where you find them,” he notes. “But if you think that’s a mere skirmish in the war between superstition and rationalism, then no, you won’t.”

Both extremes share a deep-set paranoia that the other guys are winning, a fear that makes them shower the compromising,

and compromised, middle ground with mockery and vituperation. When Collins recently published The Language of God (Fenn) to defend his dual devotions, reaction was brutal. Religiously conservative websites rebuked him for discounting “the wealth of scientific evidence supporting the Christian world view,” and questioning the depth of his faith. (Other creationist supporters have given up entirely on proof, understandably so, given the weight of the evidence against them. As Harvard-trained geologist Kurt Wise, who recently made his own choice and returned to his childhood religion, put it: “If all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the word of God seems to indicate.” Some creationists say the answer to the evidence conundrum is simple: although God created the world 6,000 years ago—as set out in the Bible—he made it look like it was much older. The aim of this divine mendacity, presumably, was to test humanity’s faith.)

From the atheistic side, Sam Harris, a truculent American secularist often approvingly cited in Dawkins’ new bestseller, The God Delusion (Thomas Allen), dismissed Collins’s attempt to reconcile reason and faith in scathing terms: “To say that he fails at his task does not quite get at the inadequacy of his efforts. He fails the way a surgeon would fail if he attempted to operate using only his toes. His failure is predictable, spectacular and vile.” Naturally, Harris questioned Collins’s credentials as a scientist. No wonder Collins’s assessment of the current climate is gloomy. “My sense is the squeeze is getting worse,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s. “I hear louder and shriller claims from athe-

istic scientists and ever stronger reactions from religious people.”

An often melancholy tone marks Collins’s book. One poignant and telling passage concerns an invitation he received to address a group of Christian physicians. They were thrilled to have him—an eminent geneticist and one of us!—until he began to talk about the truth of evolution. The warmth, and some of the doctors, immediately left the room. Recalling that moment, Collins, 56, sounds saddened still. “The whole thing gave me a sense of disappointment. I’m a physician myself; I cannot imagine how you can work as a physician without an evolutionary sense. How can they understand flu pandemics or genetic diseases or anything at all? Nothing in medicine makes sense without evolution, yet these dedicated physicians deny it.” Afterwards, he added, “one of them sent me an

email calling me a false prophet.”


Like millions of other Christians, particularly outside the United States, the geneticist believes in theistic evolution. God kickstarted the universe 14 billion years ago with the big bang, an origins story so friendly to Christian theology it could have been proposed by a clergyman. In fact, it was: a Belgian priest and physicist, Georges Lemaître, first floated his concept of an “exploding Cosmic Egg” in 1927. Albert Einstein and other materialistic scientists disliked Lemaitre’s theory precisely because of its suspicious compatibility with Christian belief about the origins of the visible universe. But it’s now the accepted version of events, even for Dawkins.

After that spectacular intervention in real-

ity, so Collins’s view holds, God pretty much let things evolve. Hence his book’s words of wisdom, directed to his fellow believers, on the folly of “finding God in the gaps”—the very raison d’être of ID. Anomalies or basic functions that remain mysterious to science, he argues, should never be taken as evidence of divine action. Consider the crisis that would then follow, Collins writes, if—when—science does find a natural explanation. Collins grounds his own belief in God upon the existence of what he calls the moral law—common notions of right and wrong found in every human society—for which he finds no persuasive natural explanation.

In stark contrast, Dawkins’s current bestseller, a slashing polemic against all forms of religious belief, is marked by the author’s combative zest. An Oxford professor, Dawkins, 65, targets not just God-inspired terrorists

and ID crusaders, or the absurdities and contradictions of blind faith. His book is a fullbore assault on all forms of religious belief as the root of (virtually) all evil. Moderate believers—the sort of exemplary citizens who go to church on Sundays, and devote time and money to good works ranging from medical aid to the Third World to the local literacy program—are as much a menace to humankind as the radicals. Perhaps more so, for moderates are the enablers of fanaticism simply by proclaiming faith to be a virtue. And they are child abusers to boot, because they raise their children religiously, just as they too were raised (and abused) as children.

A convent of Carmelite nuns being almost as sinister as a cabal of armed jihadists,

Dawkins argues it’s time for moderates to accept the truth they’ve been inching towards (as proven by their very moderation), embrace their inner atheists, and come on over to what he provocatively calls the “bright” side. Although he loathes and rejects the term, Dawkins is a secular fundamentalist, a man who brooks no compromise with the dim wits and dark superstitions of traditional belief. Not even on compassionate grounds. “It doesn’t matter if religion is emotionally satisfying,” he says, “if it’s not true.”

He opens The God Delusion from strength: even religious people will admit to the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition and the bloody conflicts of the Reformation. And from a modern, moral perspective, it’s difficult to dispute Dawkins’s description of the God of the Pentateuch: “a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic-cleanser; a misogynist, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomanical, sadomasochistic, capri-

ciously malevolent bully.”

From there on, though, his arguments grow increasingly less persuasive for those not already on his side. His cases for religion and morality separately emerging through Darwinian processes are solid, but hardly compelling for a believer. When he comes to his core comments about religion as the root of evil, he glides over the fact that Christians haven’t indulged in any large-scale bloodletting of heretics, infidels or witches for some centuries now. In actuality, when it comes to threats to human life and limb, within the modern Western world it’s far easier to build a case fingering scientists—for instance the guys who first thought of feeding ground-up sheep to cows—than clergymen.

An appalling amount of organized slaughter did take place in what was once known as Christendom during the past century. The problem for Dawkins is that it didn’t occur in the name of God. Christian apologists

often ask him, Dawkins writes, about those “atheist killers” Hitler and Stalin. Asked if the example of the two dictators, who inspired whole nations to kill on a massive scale, didn’t show that the real enemy was fanaticism—whether religious, racial, nationalistic or ideological—Dawkins lumped everything under the religious rubric: “There is a lot to the blind fanaticism theory, but religion is the foremost propeller of that, because of faith—you’re saying in advance that no one is going to talk you out of this no matter what. Religious fanaticism is the worst kind of all.”


Does this amount to anything more than Dawkins pinning everything he dislikes in history, society and humanity on religion? A net cast so wide is akin to saying the human record of mindless, hate-fuelled violence is caused by, well, the human capacity for mindless, hate-fuelled violence. It’s not likely to convince an ordinary churchgoing soul that he’s part of a vast, blood-drenched evil. But then again, Kurt Wise’s confession of faith—not just in the absence of evidence, but in the teeth of it—is hardly convincing either.

Francis Collins’s middle ground may be impossible for militants of either flank to accept—it is not, by any means, entirely logical—but it does reflect an enduring human truth. The centre is where most of us want to be. We are what we are: creatures endowed, by God or evolution, with brains that seek both earthly knowledge and spiritual meaning. In the end, the middle of the road may be the only place we can live. M