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Origin Sins

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The messenger is the message I suppose. Mindless promotion of religion by short-sleeved-nylon-shirted-sweaty-underarmed, tie-clasped, comb-overed, staring-eyed evangelical preachers is seen for what it is - ignorance and stupidity. The same sentiments expressed, in a more sophisticated way, by progressive writers on liberal blogs, are meant to be accepted, unquestioningly, by all of us intelligent secular atheists (it that is not a triple tautology), as ultimate truths.

Here is a recent example in which Chip Ward discusses "The Evolution of John McCain: Why He Picked Sarah Palin, Carbon Queen". It's a good article (I think so because I anticipated the argument several years ago) explaining why creationism is bad for the environment. But in passing Mr Ward remarks "Evolutionary theory does not preclude God. It uncovers the how of life, but leaves the why of it quite open. Many devout Jews and Christians, even evangelicals, believe in evolution, just not Biblical literalists."

This is nonsense. It became impossible for an intelligent and informed human being to be religious in 1859 - evolutionary theory obviously precludes god, how could it not? And it is simply wrong to say that evolutionary theory does not address the why of things happening. Of course it does, that was the whole point of Darwin's work. But even if it did not, what on Earth makes Mr Ward imagine that religion adequately addresses "why"? And evolutionary theory certainly explains how life can come into being as well as what happens after that.

And while I was still reeling from Chip's total misunderstanding of the theory of evolution, along comes Mark Lawson "Testing the heavens: Scientists may be trying to engage with believers, but experiments won't resolve the big questions". Here are two gems from Mr Lawson - "Many people, whatever happens, will remain "don't knows", and this is a smart group to belong to. Both the theories of evolution and quantum physics stumble over the question of first cause: the process by which nothingness became something" and "Religion speaks of the "sacred mysteries" - to which an explanation is promised after death - but it has always seemed vital to me that those who reject the sacred continue to respect the mysteries of how and why we are here." But a great deal of Quantum Physics over the last 100 years has addressed the process "by which nothingness became something" - is Mark totally unaware of the literature on this topic? What is the "mystery" and why should we "respect" it, whatever that means. Scientists have been gradually peeling back all the mysteries which were inexplicable at the time for hundreds of years, gradually leaving the religious with no mysteries at all to justify their weird beliefs.

Religious people (a nation of whiners) are always complaining about how us atheists keep insulting them. And, it is true, there have been occasions, some in this very post, when I have been known to be mildly critical of the deranged mindset that is religious belief. But fair do's, there are a lot of insulting remarks coming the other way too. These two articles by Ward and Lawson are cases in point. Do Chip and Mark seriously believe that physicists and biologists have failed to examine the questions about origins? That we have all had our noses to the bunsen burner for the last 100 years, working away at our childish little theories about how life and matter may or may not work in god's creation without considering how the universe began and life started on this tiny fragment of the universe? That we were all working away, waiting for Mark and Chip to speak up, and then with a chorus of anguished cries we would all say, oh, you are so right, how could we be so foolish, who forgot to consider origins? Richard, was it you? And then we would lay down our end-chewed pencils and acknowledge that any further questions about the origins of stuff would be best left to the televangelists.

How insulting. There has been scientific hypothesising and investigation of both questions for a long time. The twin approaches of astronomy and quantum physics has given us a very clear idea of conditions at the start of this universe and how they resulted in the formation of matter and energy. The new Large Hadron Collider experiment will give us our first detailed look at these conditions and help to refine the hypotheses about origins even further. Similarly the twin approaches of geology and chemistry result in experiments in recreating conditions at the time of the origin of life, and ideas about how those conditions can result in self-replicating chemicals (which is all that life is) are being refined all the time. There are new experiments in developing life forms starting from scratch, and constant geological discoveries of earlier and earlier life forms. To dismiss all this by pretending it doesn't exist is both insulting and ignorant.

Given that no one can go back in time a few billion years to the origins of life on Earth, or many billions of years to the origin of this universe, we have two choices in understanding these questions. Either we can pretend that the mythology of one small group of nomads in one part of the planet a few thousand years ago has provided all the answers that the rest of us could ever need, or we could bring the scientific resources of the world to bear on it, building on a scientific tradition going back over two thousand years. Hmm, so hard to choose the right approach. I think I will just give up and accept that what Sarah Palin tells me is true. She would know.

Plenty more mean stuff about religion and cool stuff about evolution on The Watermelon Blog.