Must science reign supreme?

In the beginning of ‘The Enemies of Reason‘, Richard Dawkins’ latest TV crusade against the irrationality of religion and spiritualism, he asks: why is it during an age in which science is proving more ‘truths’ about life and the universe do people still turn to UFOs and miraculous burnt marks on toast that look like Jesus Christ for meaning?

OK, maybe he didn’t mention UFOs and icons on toasts, but the crux of his contention is this: with the progress of science and the evidence of our origins on this earth becoming more established and indisputable, we should be more rational and not the other way round. It’s like what schooling does to children. With more years of learning, reading, and writing, children become better at them and should by implication become more “clever”, right? Wrong.

To begin with, humanity is not like children. The historical path to reason is not mapped out on the linear progression from baby talk to sophisticated soliloquies, or from ignorance to reason. Reason, like humanity, is complex. We as witnesses of history know that it is the dubious science of ‘race’ evolution or social darwinism that became the ‘rationale’ for European colonialism. Late 19th century genetics inspired the science of eugenics, the same branch of science that rationalised the extermination of Hitler’s “undesirable” people. The atomic bomb was “superb physics” and “technically sweet” according to Enrico Fermi and Robert Oppenheimer respectively. Today DNA databases are being used to mine physical (and very personal) information that can potentially be used to discriminate on the basis of health and heredity.

Of course digging out the horrid past and selecting only the unsavoury aspects of genetics are probably unfair, unbalanced, and lacking in taste. But these things nonetheless prove one thing: great science does not make us reasonable, more fair, or more human. Since the publication of The God Delusion, Dawkins has fashioned himself as something of a scientist-thinker-provocateur extraordinaire. But a philosopher he is not. The discursive paradox that Dawkins is probably unaware of because of the height of the horse he’s mounted is the postmodern turn the field of philosophy as a whole has taken.

Foucault will not be Dawkins’ friend here, because any humanities undergraduate will tell him that there’s no such thing as an unbroken line of history towards reason. The historical path to knowledge is full of ruptures determined by what is trendy, what is profitable, and what benefit certain groups of people – these reasons may not be immediately rational but they certainly can be rational-ised, which does not make them the same thing.

This has been an argument to say that science is not the end-all to end-alls. In the charmingly titled ‘Faith School Menace?‘, Richard Dawkins was aghast when faith-oriented school children in Britain were not buying the theory of evolution wholesale. It was as if their lives on earth were a mockery because they did not take science as seriously as he does. It is as if without science, our lives have no meaning because we refuse to understand it scientifically. To commit the biggest sin of all is to refute evolution and Dawkins’ eyes would burn with fundamentalist intensity.

Dawkins’ greatest fear is that religion and other means of spiritualism deny us the unadulterated awareness of where we come from based on the knowledge of our common ancestors and the intricate workings of the gene, because for some reason these beliefs make the foundation of reason. This is a huge leap in argument for someone who makes the maddeningly simplistic case for reason disguised as some kind of philosophy. Perhaps one thing he should turn his attentions is to the cult status of The God Delusion amongst anti-religionists and Islamophobes and their irrational fears and hatred.

Take your pick, science or religion: My review of Nerdstock – 9 lessons and carols for godless people

The word is out: if you’re religious you cannot possibly appreciate genetics in all its glory, a glory that is inseparable from the Darwinian theory of evolution. I was watching Nerdstock, a Christmas programme for non-religious people on BBC4 last night with at first some curiosity, later with quiet amazement at the burgeoning audacity of the atheist movement, and at last with a scratchy head. The latter reaction may be due to dandruff, but I feel it was more from the unresolved knotted thoughts on the irreconcilability of religion and science. Nerdstock was a love-in for self-proclaimed nerds of the scientific endeavour, who were falling over themselves praising some hazified concepts of evolutionary genetics.

It occurred to me that the atheist movement in Britain wants us to know that in lieu of religion, there is science; Darwinian science and physics to be exact. Science – for the enlightened – is now the antithesis of religion, or some may argue a neo-religion for intellectuals and those who fancy adopting the image. The device for last night’s programme was comedy, taking off the sting and heat of the controversy raised by the atheist bus campaign and the “Please don’t label me” campaign against faith cattle-branding on children. The device, I have to admit, was effective (I was at times amused) but purposefully deployed in smug contrast against humour-less religious folk. Comedienne Shappi Khorsandi gave the best stand-up, though her material was funniest when it was about the groundlessness of the term “mixed-race”. Yes, the beauty of genetics is that it can prove racists and political constructionists wrong.

But genetics is not something simply to be gushed at, something host Robin Ince felt he needed to demonstrate in his quasi-hallelujah moment about him and his son (“Whenever I look at my son, I see genetics. Genetics made him so special!, etc. etc.”). Being in ecstatic awe of the world in pseudo-scientific terms veers spookily into the realm of religious fanaticism, except with science in place of God as the figure to worship, I think. So okay, genetics is amazing, but so are social-conditioning and environmental impingement on the development of people. Biological determinism is not amazing and not 100% valid, and therefore genetics is not all that.

Where does this leave the religiously-disaffected with no interest in Darwinian theory let alone science, and those like me, who does not feel challenged by the idea of being connected to other lifeforms (genetics has made that an undeniable fact) and praises the Almighty for making the genius of nature possible? Well, not in this small exclusive club for both the scientific and scientistically-inclined it seems, which leaves much of the rest of the world to us. Yes, the rest of us live in an irrational mess with a disinterest in how we came to be; the corporeal beings at the mercy of the switchboard of genes. Nerdstock is an amusing interrogation of the non-existence of God, in which the godless install nature as the surrogate transcendental being greater than humankind, an entity we struggle to fathom completely. Sounds familiar?