Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Edging open the door

Richard Dawkins is getting the drop on next year's bicentennial of Darwin's birth. His three-part series The Genius of Charles Darwin premiered on Britain's Channel 4 yesterday. We don't have a TV here, so I couldn't watch, but a long interview with Dawkins in the Sunday Times (London) made it pretty clear what the lovable curmudgeon is up to now. More of the same.

In the first episode he interviews a class of 15-year-olds at a secondary school in London, some of whom readily confess that they don't believe in evolution because it contradicts their religious beliefs. He bundles the kids into a bus and takes them to the seaside where fossils of ancient creatures tumble from the cliffs. Faced with the apparent conflict between the evidence of the senses and the Holy Book, some students stick with the book. Why? Because that's the way they were brought up.

Not much Dawkins can do about what goes on at home or at Sunday School, but he works himself into a lather about the teaching of creationism in public schools, something he considers akin to child abuse and institutionalized ignorance. He lashes science teachers and school administrators for going along with this nonsense for fear of offending someone's religious sensitivities. If, in the name of multiculturalism, you are going to teach that the Earth is 6000 years old, he says, you should also talk about the Nigerian tribe who believes the world was created from the excrement of ants.

Give this to Dawkins, he doesn't back away from a scrap. And he takes his job as Oxford professor for the public understanding of science seriously. Donnish, he is; he is also a terrific showman, a worthy opponent for the Darwin-bashing televangelists who have built lucrative empires on a foundation of neolithic superstition.

Of course, my own kids believe that much of what I write concedes too much to religion. The phrase "religious naturalist," as in the subtitle of my new book, strikes them as an oxymoron. I dare say Dawkins too would say, "Buck up, Chet, open the door even that little bit and the fanatics will charge through." In fact, that's just what he does say in the Sunday Times interview, with regard to those who "give too much respect to religion."

Well, my new book will make its own case. I trust not even my skeptical daughters will find between its covers a whiff of supernaturalism. What they will find is a long-lapsed Catholic who knows that buried within the untenable dogmas of his natal faith there is a traditional response to mystery -- call it creation spirituality or religious naturalism -- that is as much a part of who we are as human beings as our capacity for love and facility for language. It is a door we can step through uncompromised with Origin of Species in hand.