The whole religion vs. atheism debate has become incredibly tiresome. The loudest, most annoying voices on either side have hijacked the bullhorns and ceaselessly screech about the ridiculous idiots/evil heathens who populate the other side. Personally, I place myself pretty much smack in the middle of this issue – which usually means I’m a convenient target for both sides.
In one particularly relevant and inflammatory aspect of these culture wars, however, I find myself squarely in the atheists’ court.
Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth is a spectacularly intelligent, and thankfully focused, examination of why evolution is, and must be, the process by which life on earth came to be the way it is today. His arguments are clear and, more importantly, the evidence is overwhelming. Everything that scientists have ever discovered about life on this planet points to the process of evolution by natural selection as the driving force leading to the amazing variety of species that now exist – indeed, have ever existed – on this planet.
What surprised me the most about this book was its lack of antipathy towards religion in a general sense. Dawkins relentlessly mocks creationists – those people who believe that the world was created 6000 years ago and that Adam and Eve pranced around with the dinosaurs Flintsones-style like Fred and Wilma. His mocking, however, is pointedly aimed at their purposeful ignorance of scientific fact rather than at their belief in a higher deity. From the author of The God Delusion, I had expected a bit more vitriol to be spewed in the direction of religious belief itself. In fact, Dawkins goes so far as to point out that most senior clergy and theologians have no problem with the theory of evolution and often actively support scientists in this regard. He cites his own “agreeable” collaboration with Bishop Richard Harries of Oxford as an example. The collaboration he refers to is a campaign to preserve the integrity of the science classroom.
I recognize that I’m editorializing here, but I whole-heartedly agree with Dawkins and Bishop Harries that the teaching of creationism in a science classroom is indefensible lunacy. Creationism, like alchemy or astrology, cannot, by any logical stretch, be called a science. There are little gaps in the chain of evidence proving evolution – we’re dealing with a process billions of years old, remember – and Dawkins acknowledges this. Minor gaps, however, do not nullify a solid base of incontrovertible evidence. Nor do they lend credence to an idea completely lacking in any factual support.
As for the larger debate of science vs. religion (one that Dawkins wisely avoids in this book), the fact of evolution is neither a threat to religious belief nor is it evidence for atheism. It’s simply a fact of nature, like gravity or photosynthesis, and a wondrous one at that. As Dawkins presents the evidence for evolution, he reveals what an amazingly complex and beautiful process it actually is. And that’s something that believers and non-believers alike could appreciate.