11 January, 2010

Open letter to Mark Buckle

In the opinion pages of the Otago Daily Times last week - Friday 8th January, to be precise - I read an actual creationist piece in the paper. I thought this was a little silly, so I sent in a response. The original Opinion piece, written by Mark Buckle, is available to read here.

Here follows my as-yet-unpublished response:

Mark Buckle wrote of the restoring power of ‘knowledge of the Creator’ (ODT, 8.1.10). I would argue that this is certainly not the case – or at least that knowledge of the Creator (or any creator for that matter) is not a necessity for creative restoration.

First off, however, he opines that we're constantly being told new, conflicting knowledge about how to live. This is true, though it has a lot more to do with the sensationalised reporting of science in the media than the actual science – the anti-MMR vaccine hoax in Britain recently is proof of that (not that I think the media are deliberately being facetious, they often, like most of us, just don't know how to handle esoteric and complex scientific reports). However, this doesn't mean that there is anything wrong with the scientific knowledge itself.

Also, we are immensely less afraid that our forebears. We (in the West, at least) are no longer afraid of vampires or zombies or goblins or any of the myriad demons and ghouls that ‘threatened’ us in the middle ages. While we still fear the dark, heights, fire, snakes and spiders and obvious things like death, having survived evolution by developing a mechanism to avoid such things, the things we fear that once lay hidden in the dark, have now, to borrow an analogy from Carl Sagan, have been revealed by the candle of science. Once we know them, we can deal with them rationally. Those who say that our fears have been ‘amplified by our heightened knowledge’ have it wrong: knowledge doesn't lead to greater fear – that fear is constructed by those who oppose knowledge.

Knowing all this ‘stuff’ has brought us closer to life's fundamental needs, because we in the secular, liberal west, have realised that, fundamentally, people need to eat right, have fun and be nice to each other. That's it. We don't need someone telling us that our knowledge is wrong or indeed that our lifestyles are wrong or immoral. We fundamentally need the freedoms granted to us by our advancements through science. To quote comedian Tim Minchin: ‘Science adjusts it's views based on what's observed; faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.’
He goes on: ‘Life is full of mysteries, yeah, but there are answers out there and they won't be found by people sitting around looking serious and saying, “Isn't life mysterious? Let's sit here and hope.”’ [Seriously, go look up his Storm on YouTube.]

But what really boggled my mind about the opinion piece of Friday the 8th, was that half of it was devoted to creationism, an hypothesis that has so thoroughly been debunked to be barely worth it. The fact of evolution by natural selection is so irrefutable, that even the pope supports it (and he doesn't support a lot of things that he should). Our DNA does not hold evidence of our unique identity, rather it is proof of the interrelatedness of all living things on Earth. To me, the knowledge that I share 50% of the DNA code with a banana is more beautiful and powerful than anything offered by any religion that I have yet come across.

David Attenborough observed it best when he said of those who see beauty in ‘creative design,’ that those people always mean sunsets and flowers, and not the little worm that can only make it's existence by burrowing through the cornea of a starving child in Africa – where is the benevolence in that? I will say no more on evolution, except to point you to a far better argument than any I could conceive: Richard Dawkin's latest book The Greatest Show on Earth. If you read it sincerely and honestly, and don't just skip to the bits that offend your intelligence, you'll find it very persuasive.
To quote Tim Minchin again: ‘Isn't this enough? Just this... world? Just this, beautiful, complex, wonderfully unfathomable, natural world? How does it so fail to hold our attention that we have to diminish it with the invention of cheap, man-made myths and monsters?’

To elaborate on what I wrote above, those that tell us that greater knowledge brings us greater fear are merely trying to hide the fact that it is this greater knowledge that they themselves are afraid of. To quote an oft-quoted paragraph from Carl Sagan: ‘How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant”? Instead the say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, the stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.’

To say that ‘True faith ... relies on a reason of greater comprehension than our own’ serves the dual purposes of being illogical, metaphysical garbage and of also being designed to be non-arguable. If the countless people from various cultures and religions have taught you that faith in Jesus Christ is revolutionary and removes fear, are you selectively ignoring those of the Muslim faith who have the same kind of faith in the words of the prophet Muhammed, or of the Jews or Hindus? Or Atheists? Or have you never really known any of them, only assumed that they must be unfulfilled and incomplete based on your own biases, ignorance and bigotry? I realised a long time ago that belief in Jesus Christ only superficially removes fear, and when I discovered that religion is design (not deliberately, mind you) to instill fear so as to control people, I got away from it as fast as I could.

True change comes from being free of mental controls, from being free from accusations of thought crimes. To be able to think and express oneself freely, regardless of one's belief's is true freedom. We only have one life – only one that you can empirically or logically prove – and the brevity of this life makes it all the more worth living.

One final quote from Minchin: ‘If perchance I have offended, think of this and all is mended: we'd as well be 10 minutes back in time, for all the chance you'll change your mind.’

This has not yet been published yet (15.1.10) and I don't expect it to - not in the ODT at least. I can see them wringing their hands over all the apparent offences in this piece. But I'd like to point out one further thing.

Mark Buckle is a pastor at Fernhill Church in Dunedin and it appears that he has in the past delivered the opening prayer at the council meetings. He's written a few opinion pieces in the ODT and they all seem quite similar - he doesn't have a clue what he's on about - even misquoting Karl Marx (the famous "opiate of the people" line which is very easy to check that you've got it right these days. It's nice to think we could just ignore him and his ilk, but we can't. This sort of thinking is muddying the waters that we're trying to clear.

At worst, it's dangerous thinking that sets people against one another. At best, it's offensive to those of us who don't share his belief and don't like being told that we're non-creative sinners.