Thursday, December 8, 2011

Let Not the Veil of Ignorance Descend Upon Our Children

Narrow minded, anti-intellectual, anti-science beliefs and those who espouse them have been with us for a long time. 
Socrates was forced to drink hemlock after being charged with corrupting the youth of Athens.  The Italian, Galileo, who supported the theory of Copernicus that the earth orbited the sun, was called to Rome in 1633 and tried for heresy.  One of the pieces of evidence against him was Psalms 104:5, “The Earth is firmly fixed; it shall not be moved,” a biblical verse that shackled men’s minds for centuries and held back scientific enquiry into the nature of the universe.
What, you might ask, does this have to do with anything?  Well, the narrow, absolutist views that hemmed in people like Socrates and Galileo, are still with us.  Recently, the state of Mississippi tried to pass a law declaring that life begins at the moment of fertilization.  The so-called ‘Personhood Law’ was shot down by voters, but one has to believe, unfortunately, people whose minds run to such efforts won’t give up.  Which brings me to the issue that is really on my mind; the pseudo-scientific theory of Intelligent Design that some people want taught alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution in our public schools.
Adherents of intelligent design claim that it is possible to infer from empirical evidence that certain features of our universe and living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, and not an undirected process, such as natural selection.  They try to separate their views from creationism, stating that it relies on scientific evidence rather than biblical scripture or religious doctrine.  This attempt to explain the universe and the living things contained within it was developed in the early 1980s by cosmologist Fred Hoyle who, along with many others, was uncomfortable with bringing God into the discussion. 
I have serious issues with both schools of thought.  Creationism accepts no argument; you either believe or you’re rejected as a non-believer.  Unlike scientific enquiry, which is always subject to further verification or outright rebuttal when new evidence is found, creationism must be accepted on faith alone.  Intelligent design doesn’t go quite to those lengths, but it still fails the scientific test – it posits that some superior intelligence designed the universe and living creatures, but is mute as to the identity of that intelligence.  Sounds suspiciously like a cleaned-up and edited version of creationism to me.
If we allow our educational institutions to indoctrinate students with such points of view, are we not risking creating new generations of people who don’t think or question?  Shouldn’t religious indoctrination be left in the church where it belongs?  Not, according to the supporters of such thinking.
I’ve seen firsthand the outcome of religion intruding into the classroom.  Zimbabwe, where I’ve lived for the past two years, allows teaching of the Bible in government schools on a par with science.  On my Facebook page, I regularly interact with over 4,000 young Zimbabwean products of this education system, and their responses to certain issues demonstrates the danger in blurring the border between church and state functions.
Recently, just for fun, I posted the following question:  Is a zebra a black animal with white stripes, or a white animal with black stripes?”  Within thirty minutes, I’d received over 30 comments from young Zimbabweans, and about ten percent of them were religious in nature.  By the end of a day, there were more than 100 comments, still with a significant number along the following lines:  It takes an intelligence not to disintegrate what God created it simply black and white. Giving it one color is good as question God's actions,” or “There is no color in that animal . . . when God created that animal he did not tell us about colors.”
The significance of this admittedly limited sample; and I have many others, believe me; is that it shows how adhering to absolutist beliefs often closes the mind to new information.  That which conflicts with our absolute beliefs is simply rejected.  Our minds refuse to move forward, but remain mired instead in a simplistic, un-provable point of view.  Some people would call that ignorance.
I prefer to be charitable and call it naiveté; but it is no less dangerous.  Such beliefs lead to the persecution, and often destruction, of those with whom the adherents disagree.  It leads to the refusal to accept the benefits of science, such as some religious sects who refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated.  Not only does this endanger the children themselves, but in the case of infectious diseases, others with whom they come into contact.
There has to be a place in our world for religion and for science.  I don’t believe the two are necessarily in conflict.  A scientist can believe in evolution and God at the same time.  Unfortunately, there are far too many people – some of them in positions to affect our lives – who don’t hold that view, and who want to force their views on the rest of us.  I respect their views, and defend their right to hold them; but, I will fight to the death against their right to force them on me, or upon future generations.