On October 14, an Austrian named Felix Baumgautner made history by jumping from a helium balloon in the stratosphere and falling approximately 128,176 feet to earth, landing safely in New Mexico. A few days before, a young woman named Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman for campaigning for female education rights. Amazingly, she survived the shooting and is currently in a stable condition in a West Midlands hospital.
These two events became bizarrely intertwined this week in a tweet which read: "Dear Religion, This week I safely dropped a human being from space while you shot a child in the head for wanting to go to school. Yours, Science." The tweet originated on comedian Ricky Gervais's feed (although it is suspected he pinched the joke from another source), and variations on the same have been popping up all over the internet ever since.
When I first read it on Twitter, it riled me. And as the week went on, and I saw it pasted everywhere, it continued to do so. Not because I'm particularly religious (if anything I sway more towards the atheist end of the spectrum), but because the joke itself suggests a level of ignorance as damaging as that which so many religious people are accused of. It's a sweeping, fundamentalist statement equal to "money is the root of all evil" or "religion caused every major war."
By making Felix Baumgautner and science the "winners" of the joke, Gervais (or whoever actually wrote it) only succeeded in trivializing the acts of the Taliban and the fact that a young woman very nearly died. Yes, some terrible things are done in the name of religion. But to tar every religion, every single religious person, with the same brush is nothing short of fundamentalist behaviour in its own right. It is unimaginable that somebody would generalise that all of science is responsible for the atom bomb and the gas chamber, but for some reason an equally ridiculous caption has been adopted by the masses.
Never mind that it makes no sense to even be thinking of these two occurrences at the same time. One is a tragedy perpetrated by a totalitarian regime which uses religion to justify its own agenda. The other was a Red Bull publicity stunt. Admittedly, it was a pretty damned impressive one which had the entire world holding its breath, but let's be honest -- the situations are incomparable.
And shouldn't our super-modern society be a little bit too evolved and open-minded for the either/or religion vs. science argument? Why must one be superior to the other? Science is essential to the development of technology and medicine and the advancement of our society -- and religion has been a cornerstone of civilisation for millennia. It is incredibly unimaginative to believe that we can only reap the benefits of one at the expense of the other.