November 4, 2009

Everything is O.K. until the apes stand up

That pesky issue of evolution. Again.

On Nov. 2, 2009, the New York Times published an article called Creationism, Minus a Young Earth, Emerges in the Islamic World.

Apparently, the problem is not evolution, it's human evolution.

For many Muslims, even evolution and the notion that life flourished without the intervening hand of Allah is largely compatible with their religion. What many find unacceptable is human evolution, the idea that humans evolved from primitive primates. The Koran states that Allah created Adam, the first man, separately out of clay.

Pervez A. Hoodbhoy, a prominent atomic physicist at Quaid-e-Azam University in Pakistan, said that when he gave lectures covering the sweep of cosmological history from the Big Bang to the evolution of life on Earth, the audience listened without objection to most of it. “Everything is O.K. until the apes stand up,” Dr. Hoodbhoy said.

What jumped out at me is the notion that "a negative reaction to evolutionary theory could reflect a struggle to retain cultural traditions and values against Western influences," according to Salman Hameed, who convened the two-day conference here at Hampshire College.

That makes sense to me.

The article by Kenneth Chang goes on to say that "in the West, where non-Islamic influences are strongest, Islamic creationism may be stronger in reaction to the outside pressure." For example, "high school students at Islamic schools in and near Toronto were far more doubting of evolution than students in Indonesia or Pakistan."

In other words, the more a minority feels under threat by the majority culture of the Western society, the more it clings to its own culture. The more the minority feels beleaguered, the more it clings to its beliefs. And the more the minority clings to its beliefs (especially beliefs that are wrong), the more potential for conflict with the majority culture.

Ergo, the more tolerant the majority culture is toward minorities, the less minorities feel the need to cling to their own beliefs, etc., etc. And the less the majority culture has to fear from its minorities.

Chew on that, Lou Dobbs.

(Photo by David Jonathan Ross. Photo credit: Darwin's finches on the Islamic symbol in art work used at a conference in Massachusetts about the acceptance of evolution among Muslims.)

How to lose friends and offend everybody

If you were listening to NPR on Oct. 19, 2009, you may have heard this: A Bitter Rift Divides Atheists
Last month, atheists marked Blasphemy Day at gatherings around the world, and celebrated the freedom to denigrate and insult religion.

Some offered to trade pornography for Bibles. Others de-baptized people with hair dryers. And in Washington, D.C., an art exhibit opened that shows, among other paintings, one entitled Divine Wine, where Jesus, on the cross, has blood flowing from his wound into a wine bottle.

Another, Jesus Paints His Nails, shows an effeminate Jesus after the crucifixion, applying polish to the nails that attach his hands to the cross.
It's no wonder that believers were offended. I was offended, and I'm not a believer.

You don't have to defend reason and science by insulting all religious observance. I don't know about your country, but a lot of believers in the United States belong to the "cafeteria" variety. They have mainstream values, they pick and choose what religious tenets they agree with, and they quietly don't obey the rest. (Ever heard of Catholic couples who use birth control? Or Jewish people who eat bacon?) They adhere to various forms of what is known as the Golden Rule ("Don't injure or harm others. Period.") and don't believe that people who don't agree with them should die.

Most people just follow the religion of their parents and their culture. Life is busy and full of obligations, we are all under a lot of stress, and we shouldn't get down on others because it never occurred to them to question their (and their parents') religious and cultural beliefs. They are not stupid. Not everyone has the leisure, education, interest, etc., to question their or their parents' religious beliefs. They're too busy putting food on the table for their families. As long as they obey the Golden Rule and don't impose their views on others, leave them alone.

Just ignore the more benign forms of religion and only reserve your firepower for the more virulent forms. We nonbelievers don't need to create enemies. We can argue that reason and science is on our side, but we don't have to offend potential allies (and believe me, some religious people are potential allies). If you insult people, you will end up in the lonely position of preaching to the choir, because nobody else will listen to you.

To the atheists who say there are no benign forms of religious observance, I beg to disagree. You can believe all you want that a Pink Unicorn created the universe, and it's none of my business as long as your beliefs stay inside your head. Your freedom to act on your beliefs ends at the point where my nose begins. If you try to restrict my freedoms in any way (or influence politics in such a way that will restrict my freedoms), that's another thing altogether.

So, agnostics and atheists, if you do your best to tamp down the anger between believers and non-believers, you can have a civil (and even cordial) conversation. And that's what I call a good start.

(The photo was by Dianna Douglas/NPR)