Magazine article The Spectator

Down with Superstition

Magazine article The Spectator

Down with Superstition

Article excerpt

The thoughts of Richard Dawkins, the atheist, and Paul Johnson, the Christian, lie on my bookshelves. I love the writings of both men. Both have changed the way I view the world. I was already an atheist before reading him, but Dawkins convinced me that chance mutations and natural selection alone can explain not only the magnificent variety of life on Earth, including humans, but also the way living things behave.

My mother was a devout Catholic. One day, when she needed something to read, I thought I should present a challenge to her faith and so took one of these books from my shelves and gave it to her. She read it and was shocked. She told me that it was the most disturbing book she had ever come across. She was so upset that she went to her priest and read extracts to him. He told her that the author was probably anti-Catholic. The book in question was A History of Christianity by Paul Johnson.

What shocked my mother was Johnson's cold-blooded examination of the scanty evidence about the life of Jesus and his pitilessly honest dissection of the disputes in the councils of the early Church that established the Christian faith we see now. My mother had no interest in science and so never read anything of Dawkins. But if she had, his scientific arguments would have rolled off her like water off a duck's back, quite irrelevant to her belief. For her, science was science and religion was religion, the two occupying different realms.

The vast majority of religious people on Earth agree with her - quite rightly. Science explains, and does nothing else. Religion inspires, comforts and guides but cannot and should not try to explain the natural world. Indeed, I should say that it is impious for it to do so. Unfortunately, though, small groups from both sides stray out of their territory and make idiots of themselves. Certain religious people talk nonsense about science, especially the theory of evolution, and certain scientists, including Dawkins, make absurd attacks on religion.

The theory of evolution is the simplest ever devised. It says two things. First, there are chance mutations that can change an organism. Everybody, including the religious fundamentalists, agrees with that. Second, if the change improves the organism's chance of survival and procreation, it is likely to have more descendants than its fellows that did not change. Again, everybody agrees with that. But that is all there is. That explains how humans, elephants and mushrooms evolved from one-celled organisms.

The greatest challenge ever to Darwin's theory came early on when critics pointed out that any change would be blended away over successive generations. Darwin did not realise that the problem had already been solved by a priest, Gregor Mendel, who showed that inheritance comes in lumps of information. Modern DNA discoveries, which confirm Darwin's theory in detail, show exactly how it is done.

Modern attacks on evolution, especially by 'creationists' or believers in 'intelligent design', are just silly. One such argument is that you can never get an increase in information by blind chance. Of course you can. The theory of thermodynamics says that entropy or disorder increases in total, but it is quite possible - and this happens all the time - that there can be a local increase in order at the expense of a net increase in disorder. A crystal forming in a cooling glass of salt water gains information as its surroundings lose more.

Another argument is over 'irreducible complexity': that some units of living things could not have been put together step by step as evolution requires. But the eye and the wing, two favourite examples, clearly point to step-by-step evolution. Remove bits from them and you still have an organ that is better than nothing. A crude light sensor that can do no more than sense a shadow is still a massive advantage for survival. In the case of, say, DNA itself, the likely explanation is scaffolding, now discarded. …

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