The Great Debate UK
British biologist Richard Dawkins, one of the leading voices of the "neo-atheist" movement, has taken the latest book-sized shot at the "intelligent design" movement. You can read my interview with Dawkins' here about his new book: "The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution."
For a scientist of Dawkins' caliber, intelligent design is a barn-door sized target. In a nutshell, it maintains that life is so complex that it must be the work of a creator. Its boosters claim their view is based in science and not influenced by religion, but it is widely seen as a thinly-veiled attempt to give a scientific gloss to creationism. That claim to science is the key here -- most religions believe that God created the world, of course, but they state this as an article of faith and not a scientific fact.
On this blog, we often report on issues related to science and religion. We have to remain agnostic on the biggest question of all -- does God exist? -- and take fundamental dogmas as the starting point for each faith. This sometimes strikes readers as strange or biased. Some think it already shows a prejudice against belief. But just imagine what would happen if we took sides on teachings such as the resurrection of Jesus or the divine origin of the Koran. We would not be practicing journalism anymore, but some kind of theological analysis or deconstruction, and our readers would not be getting the information they want about religion news around the world.
That said, we can't just take everything on faith alone. As journalists, we have to stick to facts on the ground. It's hard to question some beliefs, but we can hold people responsible for what they profess. For example, if a Catholic priest has an affair with a woman, that violation of his vow of celibacy makes his affair different from one between two lay people or two non-Catholics. And if he is prominent enough, like the charismatic Miami television preacher Father Alberto Cutié, it's worth reporting. The same applies to Islam. The scriptures of most if not all religions can be vague and sometimes seemingly contradictory, so Reuters cannot say whether the phrase "Islam is a religion of peace" is true or false. But we can report if a Muslim known to preach that belief is found to be involved in some violent activity. In both cases, we don't question the basic tradition or belief but we hold the believers responsible to it in their actions.
Until not too long ago, most people believed human morality was based on scripture, culture or reason. Some stressed only one of those sources, others mixed all three. None would have thought to include biology. With the progress of neuroscientific research in recent years, though, a growing number of psychologists, biologists and philosophers have begun to see the brain as the base of our moral views. Noble ideas such as compassion, altruism, empathy and trust, they say, are really evolutionary adaptations that are now fixed in our brains. Our moral rules are actually instinctive responses that we express in rational terms when we have to justify them. (Photo: Religious activist at a California protest, 10 June 2005/Gene Blevins)
Thanks to a flurry of popular articles, scientists have joined the ranks of those seen to be qualified to speak about morality, according to anthropologist Mark Robinson, a Princeton Ph.D student who discussed this trend at the University of Pennsylvania's Neuroscience Boot Camp. "In our current scientific society, where do people go to for the truth about human reality?" he asked. "It used to be you might read a philosophy paper or consult a theologian. But now there seems to be a common public sense that the authority over what morality is can be found by neuroscientists or scientists."
- Reverend Dr. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes is Chaplain and Solway Fellow of University College, Durham. As a historian, she has published work on late medieval monastic history and the medieval economic history of the North East of England, notably “Monks and Markets” (Oxford University Press, 2005). Her current research interests are the history of the doctrine of the Trinity, and women’s issues in the contemporary church. She is a member of the General Synod of the Church of England, and a committee member for the group Women and the Church.
International Women’s Day on March 8, is an important opportunity for us to reflect on the fact that women are still taken less seriously than men all around the world. Even in supposedly equal cultures such as my own in the UK women continue, for example, to be paid less than men for the same work, and to suffer pregnancy-related discrimination in employment. Women are disproportionately under-represented in government and on the boards of large corporations. Women’s sport is generally less well funded and less popular than men’s, whilst women’s contribution to art and literature has a tendency to be marginalised – as “chick lit,” for example.