Simon Barnes, the Times' chief sportswriter, and, since the success of his book "How To Be A Bad Birdwatcher", occasional pontificator on Nature and related subjects, has some harsh words for creationists and proponents of Intelligent Design in a piece today prompted by Sir David Attenborough's tribute to Charles Darwin, to be screened tomorrow evening on BBC1. But his harshest criticism is reserved for....well, you can probably guess:
I don't know who brings me closer to despair. Sometimes I think it is the creationists, wilfully blind to fact. At other times I think it is the advocates of intelligent design, who are quite clever people wilfully blind to fact. But then I think that the proselytising atheists of science are the worst of the lot.
If you believe in the literal truth of the Bible, you have to be pretty selective and overlook, for example, that there are two contradictory accounts of Creation in the first two chapters. But some creationists move beyond the literal and bring us abominations such as intelligent design. They seek to explain the history of life by saying that what happened couldn't have happened. This, they say, proves (as if this were Cluedo) that God did it. Well, it doesn't.
Evolution is a fact. There are a million scientific disagreements and controversies about evolution, but not that evolution happens. If you wish to deny evolution, you must prove that science has been wrong for two centuries and that all biology is based on a faulty premise. Rather you than me.
Sir David told BBC Wildlife magazine that people tell him: “We love your programmes, but why don't you give credit to the Creator?” He said: “They talk about hummingbirds and roses and orchids and lovely things. But I think about the little boy sitting on the banks of the river in West Africa who's got a worm boring into his eyeball that is going to turn him blind.”
So much, then, for benign creation; let's leave the creationists to fight that one out among themselves. But what of the legions of self-trumpeting atheists? What of Richard Dawkins, who had the arrogance to write a fat book about God without troubling to read up on theology, a discipline that includes many writers as subtle-minded as himself?
I can understand any scientist getting cross about creationists and their demands for equal time in schools. But getting cross because some people believe in God - well, what's that got to do with science? No believer can prove that God exists: isn't faith rather the point? And no scientist can prove that He doesn't.
You may believe that you have a soul. Professor Dawkins believes that you don't. Both positions are equally tenable in that both are matters of belief, of faith. This stuff can be neither proved nor disproved, therefore it is nothing to do with science. This comes down to the magniloquent phrase of Stephen Jay Gould, the American palaeontologist and writer who proclaimed the Principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria or NOMA.
“The magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what is the Universe made of (fact) and why it works that way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.” In other words, the clash between evolution and religion is a non-issue. To sum up: both sides should shut up and stick to their lasts.
Jerry Coyne, whose article I linked to a couple of days back, has something to say about Gould's somewhat pompously titled "Principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria or NOMA": it's nonsense. Religion is not just about "questions of ultimate meaning and moral value". Talk of an omnipotent creator isn't merely some kind of metaphor for how wonderful life is, and how every little creature deserves our love. A statement is being made about how the world is: that there exists, in actual fact, a God who loves us and who created the world and everything in it and - focusing on Christianity for the moment - sent his Son down to Earth, born of a virgin, who was crucified and resurrected so that we might all have eternal life. Similarly, heaven and hell are not simply poetic pedagogical devices for ensuring that we observe certain moral standards, but are taken to be actual accounts of what happens to our souls, whatever they may be, after death.
Indeed the whole authority of Christianity (or Islam, or Judaism) is founded on what are taken to be historical events, occurring in this world, to real people. If the historical Jesus could be somehow shown not to have existed, or never to have been crucified, the whole edifice would crumble.
As it is such retrospective certainty isn't possible, though at least with Christianity, unlike Islam, there's much scholarly debate about the historical provenance of the holy books of the New Testament.
As far as the supposed non-overlapping magisteria go, the overlapping is all one way, as religious zealots continue to insist on challenging evolution. Barnes' objection to Dawkins might have more force if Dawkins had been criticising religious morality and setting up an alternative "scientific" morality in its stead, but apart from some asides about the ethics of threatening small children with the prospect of an eternity spent in hellfire, that's not his purpose. He's challenging religion in the area where it makes claims about the nature of the world - that is, in the area where science has its domain - and pointing out that there's not one tiny piece of evidence in favour of an omnipotent deity. There's no need of that hypothesis.
You'd expect Dawkins to be accused of arrogance and wrong-headedness by his religious critics. It's more surprising to see so much constant criticism from non-believers.