Monday 18 August 2008

Dawkins on Darwin

I watched Dawkins on Darwin tonight, and found myself wondering if fundamentalist minds seek out other fundamentalist minds. He really hates Christian fundamentalists, but he can't seem to stop himself scratching the itch. While I agree with his analysis of what the idiocies of creationism do to the world we see around us, he seems to be unable (or perhaps unwilling) to understand how the minds work of people who believe it. In the end he seemed to me to make a statement of faith in science that was as emotionally based and as irrational as the people he combats. He couldn't persuade so he ended up asserting.

But for me the most disturbing part of the programme was when he interviewed some non-creationist science teachers. He did a field trip with some of their secondary school pupils and was astonished at how little they knew of evolution. So he talked to their teachers about it. The teachers said they had a number of children (they didn't say what proportion) who'd been brought up to believe the creationist explanation, and it was difficult to teach them something different. So far so good. But then they seemed to abrogate their responsibility - they said it was not their job to disturb the children's religious beliefs, and so they would lay out the scientific arguments but not try to persuade the children to believe them.

I feel though that it's not just about beliefs but also about how to think. Christians can think. I know that, I am one. To my mind science teachers have a duty to show how to react in a scientific way to the world around. Start with what you see. Build up a hypothesis to explain what you see. Test it. Find it wanting. Modify it. Test it again. And so on. You don't necessarily need to confront creationism, but you can point out to children how a scientific view of the world is built up. One of the most insidious lies of creationism is that it deserves equal air time with evolution because evolution is "just a hypothesis" and creationism is a hypothesis on the same footing. Those who argue that couldn't be more fundamentally, totally and idiotically wrong. Science starts with what we see around us, and builds hypotheses to fit. Creationism starts with an idea and bends the world to fit it. Its method is diametrically opposed to science, and children brought up to believe it need to be told that.

I think in fact that those science teachers were probably not being entirely honest. I think that they likely (and quite understandably) took an easy option, and didn't confront creationism for fear of having a load of stroppy fundamentalist parents making trouble in their classrooms and at school meetings. I don't blame them for that, but I'm sad if it's so. One of the difficulties of being moderate (like me) is that we often don't fight hard enough for our beliefs.


Nogbad said...

they said it was not their job to disturb the children's religious beliefs,

I think I have some sympathy with this (albeit not much). Much as I agree with you regarding science I think we are in one of those places where the lines are blurred. At what point can I challenge someone's beliefs with my own beliefs even if my beliefs are supported as "facts" by science (or something else)? I have no more truck with Creationists than I have with those who believe the world is flat but part of my liberal belief system means that I'll kill for their right to hold whatever beliefs they wish as long as in doing so they cause no physical harm to anyone else. Where do we draw the line? Why should teachers take responsibility for "attacking" the belief systems of their pupils (or their pupils' parents)? Should a Christian teacher be able to challenge my beliefs as expressed through my children? Or a Muslim teacher challenge your beliefs?

Rob Parsons said...

I agree it's not actually their job to challenge a set of religious beliefs. But they shouldn't hide their own light under a bushel just because other people disagree with them. I would also go as far as I can to uphold anyone's right to their own beliefs even if I disagree with them. But that does not mean that I will pull my punches about what I believe in because of a misplaced belief in their right to have their view unchallenged. And that's what I think those teachers wre doing. They were allowing their pupils to maintain a view of the correspondence between science and creationism that is based on fallacious argument.