Wednesday, August 16, 2006

On the Scale of Ignorance

Public opinion about evolution graphic

Science vs. God - again?
I have already touched upon this subject a number of times (see below: God and the Divinity of Life). I do think it is a pertinent issue. So forgive me.

The above scale (published in Science Magazine) illustrates a highly salient insight. I would bluntly describe it as a ranking of countries according to their prevailing ignorance or – less bluntly – as an indication of the average quality of their common sense.

When reporting on the underlying research, a Dutch newspaper – just a few days ago – stated that in the past twenty years, the percentage of Americans who have serious doubts about evolution has increased threefold. This of itself is noteworthy of course, but the above scale puts the issue in a broader perspective.

And let us not overemphasize the difference between Europe (as a whole) and the US (as a whole). For instance, if you could pick out New England and compare it with, let’s say, France, you probably won’t find much difference.

We the educated people..
Still, educated Americans can seriously frown when looking at their score next to Turkey, very much at the bottom of this scale: it says, to frame it correctly, that in percentage terms Americans are at the rock bottom heap where it concerns the acceptance of evolution as the fundamental foundation or mechanism of (the diversity of) life as we know it.

The research furthermore indicated that fewer than half of the American adults can provide a minimal definition of DNA, which in the Western world is generally considered basic high school stuff.

In Europe, on average, 10% opposes evolution, and I must say that I don’t look at the Dutch score (which is higher, hence worse: approx. 12 %) with much pride.

It has all to do with religion, the researchers say. For instance, Americans tend to take the Bible’s Genesis much more literally than Europeans. Moreover, they add, the subject of evolution is a much more politicized theme in the US than in Europe. Court cases, such as in Kansas, about the acceptability of teaching creationism versus evolution at school, would be totally unthinkable on our side of the Atlantic. Above all, such processes are highly self defeating and they lead to false illusions (about who wins or looses) only.

Of course, we cannot say that ‘Americans are Ignorant’ simply because of this ranking. I hold the American society in very high esteem, in particular because of the advancement it has made on the basis of science. Still, we are talking of a troubling aspect that deserves our attention.

Fanaticism and selfrighteousness
There is a wider issue, to which much of this must be tied in our time. Let’s take another example where religious conviction and (scientific) common sense seem to collide. In the US there is a President who, without much due process, personally blocks any further progress in a specific type of research (stem cell research). His arguments, I must say, have rather more to to with personal zealotry than with sound and responsible thinking. I am not saying that stem cell research is acceptable at any cost, but in Europe, most of us would handle this question in quite a different, more studious way.

I furthermore do not believe that it is a coincidence, in our time, that in many places in our world - not limiting myself to the Western world - new fanaticism in the religious aspect of humanity has gained considerable momentum.

It is a strange, but hardly innocent irony that so much new dogmatism and disbelief emerges as to almost remind ourselves of the darkest ages of human history when only few but brave people dared to be inquisitive and not accept any truth simply because of somebody’s intimidation. Apparently to many, there is something very frightful in modern times (and sure, 'progress' as we know it is not filled with goodness only).

And I would observe that most of those who are inspired by their disbelief and dogmatism today are very prone to act with similar intimidation. President Bush, in his worst moments, is a true copy of his greatest foe, the current President of Iran.

We see the same phenomena in different parts of our world; in Iran people are being told that the WW II Holocaust is just a theory and not a fact. In the US self styled Evangelists aggressively block regular science education. How close is the Iranian President to the Right Wing Christian Evangelists in the US? Very close, if you ask me.

Love and Science
I am not a proponent of the thesis that there must be a battle between God and Science. If sexual replication has emerged as the key process of evolution – and we know that this has happened in a very early stage of life’s advancement – then we are actually referring to the process that humanity – across religions, across cultures – has come to call ‘love’.

Love is the key to life as we know it. And for many Christians, God is Love. Religion and science are two sides of the same coin. They are an expression of the Ascent of Man in all its richness. I would hate to see Religion go, simply because it cannot compete with our common sense of Nature. But I also hate to see Religion continue to be a source of fierce adversity between people - Christians and Arabs -who essentially share much of the spiritual and scientific heritage that we are talking about.

There are Religious leaders who at this moment carry a grave responsibility to allow the freedom of common sense and science to do its work, whilst a the same time to guide their following towards the goodness of their faith. They are not opposite – or should not be, regardless the Religious sentiments one may have.


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