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Atheism and evolution: policy statement

It is with a sad sort of resignation that I post this knowing that some readers will see the title of this post and experience immediate offense – perhaps some won’t even read it or stop reading this blog. As someone who lives in Britain where, along with the rest of Europe, 80% of people declare a lack of belief in God, and evolution is regarded as a plain fact, I must confess I don’t really understand what all the fuss is about on the other side of the pond.

I believe – like most European commenters on the situation – that the reason that evolution is not fully accepted by our American cousins is because religious fundamentalism has such a strong-hold in the states that evolution has never been taught properly or extensively in American schools.

I am an atheist. I have been since I was about eight years old. I am proud of my atheism. Religion and evolution are non-debates for me. I’m sorry if some people find that offensive. To be quite frank, there are a lot of things I could find offensive if I wanted to, but as I am not a zealot of any kind I respect other people’s right to believe what they want. I don’t much care what other people believe. I have real-life friends who are Catholics, pagans, Muslims, undefined spiritualists, and fellow atheists. I show a slight interest in their religion, only because it helps me to understand the workings of their minds.

Religion is a political and emotional minefield, and I work very hard not to accidentally offend religious friends. Sometimes that is not possible, because one can make totally neutral comments and still be misinterpreted as saying something insulting. Religious people seem to be on a hair-trigger with that respect. But religious people shouldn’t be the only people who are allowed to be offended. Plenty of atheists have borne a significant amount of the brunt of religious bigotry throughout history, sometimes with their lives. If religious people are allowed to take offense so easily, atheists should have the right to be offended too.

For example: I am offended that atheism is regarded by religious people as ‘just another religion’. This shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of atheism and is quite insulting.

Except sometimes I think there is too much of this taking of offense going on. People sometimes use their right to take offense as a political cudgel to beat other people with valid viewpoints into silence. I do not think people who have what are essentially differences in political opinions should be allowed to get away with playing the ‘I’m offended by your criticism of my precious beliefs’ card. In fact it’s an essential aspect of freedom of speech that political and religious ideas should be debated openly and honestly without people being forced to tiptoe around. By contrast, people who have physical attributes that make them a target for discrimination – whether they be black, women, gay, disabled, religious, non-religious or just different – damn well have a right to get offended when ideas start to advocate the wiping out or shutting up of a group of people. Saying a religious idea is wrong is quite different to saying a religious person should be discriminated against. People are not ideas. It is important to get this distinction right. I’ve seen a lot of overstepping the mark on both sides.

People who are religious will frequently cite the argument that ‘atheism is just another form of religion’. This is not true. Atheism is the disbelief in religion. It is a refusal to accept the hypothesis that there is a god. It is the normative scientific starting point. Atheism does not have to provide proof. The burden of proof is on those asserting the hypothesis – it is up to them to prove the existence of god. This simple scientific assertion, an integral feature of atheism, appears to be enough to send some religious people into paroxysms of rage.

People also often confuse atheism and agnosticism. Atheism is characterised by the absence of belief. Atheism is not necessarily saying ‘there is definitely no god’, it is merely saying ‘show me some real proof before I accept your hypothesis of a god’. Not believing that something is true is not the same as believing that it is false. Different forms of atheism exist however, and ‘strong’ or ‘positive’ atheism is a definite assertion that there is no god. In contrast to atheism, an agnostic is someone who says that we cannot know for sure whether god exists or not, a fence-sitter if you will. If you would like to understand atheism here is a good introduction.

With the burden of proof in mind I want to say a few simple, logical words about creationism.

  • A scientific hypothesis must be testable and falsifiable
  • Creationism is not testable or falsifiable
  • Therefore creationism is not science

A debate about creationism and creationist-influenced evolutionary theory does not really have a valid place on a scientific forum, especially when it is conducted purely as an ego-massage to support someone’s personal religious beliefs. In rubbishing fundamental tenants of Darwinian evolution, it then becomes impossible to explain basic questions about genetics from a scientific standpoint. In order to understand why different forms of genes exist, you must first understand and accept evolutionary theory. Otherwise you will just be forced to fall back on making offensive remarks about some people being ‘less perfect’, or ‘defective’, or even ‘more deserving of God’s punishment’ than others.

Here is a run down of exactly why creationism is not science.

By contrast:

  • Evolutionary theory is testable and falsifiable
  • Therefore evolutionary theory is science

Evolutionary theory is not merely ‘a theory’. It is in no way on a level playing field with other ‘religious beliefs’ from which people can pick and choose at will. There is an enormous amount of evidence for evolutionary theory in the fossil record, and in our genes. Not only is evolution the science to creationism’s anti-science, evolution has been proved beyond reasonable doubt.


Written by alienrobotgirl

28 April, 2008 at 8:26 pm

Posted in How to be Scientific

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