Reason can wrestle and overthrow terror - Euripides
AC Grayling for The Guardian
Saturday March 16, 2002
Before the scientific revolution of the 17th century, mankind found its picture of the universe a satisfying one. The world existed to serve mankind; it had, indeed, been created by a supernatural agency for that express purpose. Our home the Earth hung from the glittering floor of Heaven like a jewel, with Hell beneath and Chaos around; while above, in the crystal spheres, burned the greater and lesser lights, set in everlasting motion by the creator to illuminate our days and mark our seasons - making music, as they flew, too beautiful for us to hear while we remained imprisoned in our "muddy vesture of decay", but promised to be audible to us if we merit it when dead.
When it was proposed that the Earth flew too, and as one modest member of a vast swarm, occupying an insignificant corner of a vaster universe, the affront to human self-importance was incalculable. But the calm deductions and patient observations of science, not to say the extraordinary difference it has made to the conditions of ordinary life, did not allow the preceding mythologies to retain their plausibility long. But humankind, like its individual members, finds it difficult to give up bad habits, least of all ancient superstitions and beliefs. Proof of this comes in news that a number of schools in the UK are teaching "creationism" - the "theory" that the universe was created by supernatural agencies - alongside, or as "more true than", scientific cosmology and evolutionary biological theory. Reports do not specify which creationist view is being taught; is it (to take a few random examples from thousands) Babylon's account of the mingling of Apsu and Tiamat, who thus gave birth to the gods who went on to create man? Or the Aztec story of how Quetzalcoatl formed humans from the ashes of a previous earth (no one explains the origin of the previous earth)? Or the Genesis story of how a supposedly omnipotent god took six whole days to separate the waters (where did they come from?) and make the plants and animals? How, by the way, do "creationists" tell which of these accounts is better than the others, and the right one to believe?
The trouble with these tales being taught as comparable in intellectual worth to evolutionary theory is that, whereas scientific accounts of the universe and life within it are based on evidence gathered from observation and experiment, then interpreted by reason, tested by careful and rigorous procedures of evaluation, and subjected to revision or rejection in the light of further evidence, the creation myths are based on nothing but the fantasies of the ignorant who lived long ago. Thinking of the latter as even a remotely serious competitor to science is a nonsense. The key here is rationality. Rational thought proportions belief to evidence. To believe that there are sparrows in the garden is rational because the publicly available and checkable evidence is powerful, repeatedly accessible, undeniable, and conclusive. To believe that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden is irrational, not least if based on the testimony of one flaky member of the family who got the idea from an old book. This sums up the comparison between science and creationism in a nutshell.
But to teach creationism to children as if it were a serious competitor to science is worse than irrational, it is educationally and morally irresponsible. Let creation myths be taught along with other myths and fairy tales - some are beautiful, and most are fun, especially the sexy ones about heaven mating with Earth. But to tell children that ancient traditions, the dreams of our uneducated forefathers, and holy writings which must not be questioned or impugned for fear of blasphemy, are sources of authority about the world on a par with science, is a travesty. "By their fruits ye shall know them": the legacy of scientific rationality includes antibiotics, electric light, computers, aeroplanes, central heating, anaesthesia, and clean water; that of religious irrationality includes inquisitions, crusades, persecutions, strife and hatred. The case rests.