JR'S Free Thought Pages
Reason lost - AC Grayling
The Guardian, August 2006
An Opinion panel Research survey conducted in July this year found that more than 30% of UK university students believe in creationism or intelligent design. This raw detail is gasp-inducing enough in its own right, as indication of the effect of the propagandised resurgence of the fairy-tales that once served mankind's intellectual infancy and are now reasserting a grip on too many. But it is even more troubling as a symptom of a wider corrosion, the spread of a more virulent cancer of unreason, which is affecting not just the mental culture of our own country but the fate of the world itself. If that last phrase seems hyperbolic, read on.
Take the local concern first, and ask what is signified by the 30% statistic at issue. From the day that the government of John Major allowed polytechnics to redescribe themselves as universities, and his and successive governments set a target of getting 50% of school leavers into higher education, but without the huge investment of resources at all levels that would make this viable, it was inevitable that standards required for entrance to degree level courses would fall. And so it has dramatically proved. At the same time standards in public examinations at the high school level have also fallen, by some measures a long way. The official line, of course, is that the latter at least is not true: but such is the way with official lines.
The combined result is that a significant proportion of university entrants today are noticeably different creatures from their average forerunners of a generation ago: quite measurably less literate, less numerate, less broadly knowledgeable, and less reflective. At the same time education has been infected by post-modern relativism and the less desirable effects of "political correctness", whose combined effect is to encourage teachers to accept, and even promote as valid alternatives, the various superstitions and antique belief-systems constituting the multiplicity of different and generally competing religions represented in our multicultural society. This has gone so far that our tax dollars are now arrogated to supporting "faith based schooling", which means the ghettoisation of intellectually defenceless children into a variety of competing superstitions, despite the stark evidence, all the way from Northern Ireland to the madrassahs of Pakistan, of what this does for the welfare of mankind.
The key to the weakening of intellectual rigour that all this represents is that enquiry is no longer premised on the requirement that belief must be proportional to carefully gathered and assessed evidence. The fact that "faith" is enough to legitimate anything from superstition to mass murder is not one whit troubling to "people of faith" themselves, most of whom disagree with the faith of most other "people of faith" (thus: a Christian does not accept Islam, and vice versa; so a Christian's claim to be certain, by faith, that his is the only true religion is rejected, on grounds of faith, by the Muslim; and so on, to the point of mutual assassination); which shows that the non-rational mindset underlying religious belief, an essentially infantile attitude of acceptance of fairy-stories, has not been affected by the best that education can offer in the way of challenging and maturing minds to think for themselves.
Example: ask a Christian why the ancient story of a deity impregnating a mortal woman who then gives birth to a heroic figure whose deeds earn him a place in heaven, is false as applied to Zeus and his many paramours (the mothers of such as Hercules, the Heavenly Twins, etc.), but true as applied to God, Mary and Jesus. Indeed ask him what is the significance of the fact that this tale is older even than Greek mythology, and commonplace in Middle Eastern mythologies generally. Why are they myths, whereas what is related in the New Testament (a set of texts carefully chosen from a larger number of competing versions some centuries after the events they allege) is not? Do not expect a rational reply; an appeal to faith will be enough, because with faith anything goes.
"With faith anything goes": here is why the claim that the resurgence of non-rational superstitious belief is a danger to the world. Fundamentalism in all the major religions (and some are fundamentalist by nature) can be and too often is politically infantilising, and in its typical radicalised forms provides utter certainty of being in the right, immunises against tolerance and pluralism, justifies the most atrocious behaviour to the apostate and the infidel, is blind to the appeals of justice let alone mercy or reason, and is intrinsically fascistic and monolithic. One does not have to look very far to find shining examples of this pretty picture in today's world, whether in the Middle East or the Bible belt of the United States. The rest of the world is caught between these two appalling instances of basically the same phenomenon, so it is perhaps no surprise, though no less regrettable, that the infection should spread from both directions.
More regrettable still, though, is the fact that the civilised quarters of the world are not taking seriously the connection between the world's current problems and failure to uphold intellectual rigour in education, and not demanding that religious belief be a private and personal matter for indulgence only in the home, accepting it in the public sphere only on an equal footing with other interest groups such as trades unions and voluntary organisations such as the Rotary Club. This is the most that a religion merits being treated as, as the following proves: if I and a few others claim to constitute a religious group based on belief in the divinity of garden gnomes, should I be entitled to public money for a school in which children can be brought up in this faith, together with a bishop's seat in parliament perhaps? Why would this be laughed out of court when belief of essentially the same intellectual value, say, Christianity, is accorded all such amenities and more?
I remind those who seek to counter with the tired old canard that Stalinism and Nazism are proof that secular arrangements are worse than religious ones, that fundamentalist religion is the same in its operation and effects as Stalinism and Nazism for the reason that they are at base the same thing, viz. monolithic ideologies. Religion is a man-made device, not least of oppression and control (the secret policeman who sees what you do even in the dark on your own), whose techniques and structures were adopted by Stalinism and Nazism, the monolithic salvation faiths of modernity, as the best teachers they could wish for. When any of these imprisoning ideologies are on the back foot and/or in the minority, they present sweet faces to those they wish to seduce: the kiss of friendship in the parish church, the summer camp for young communists in the 1930s. But give them the levers of power and they are the Taliban, the Inquisition, the Stasi.
Give them AK47s and Semtex, and some of the fanatics among them become airline bombers, mass murderers of ordinary men, women and children, and for the most contemptible of reasons.
How far are the 30% of students who believe in creationism from airline bombers? A very long way, of course; the latter are a sick and psychopathic minority only; but the point to register and take seriously is that there is nevertheless a connecting thread, which is belief in antique superstitions and the non-rational basis of the putative values they represent, values which can lead in the extreme to mass murder, as the chilling jingle reminds us: "faith is what I die for, dogma is what I kill for."
As part of the strategy for countering the pernicious effects that faith and dogma can produce, we need to return religious commitment to the private sphere, stop the folly of promoting superstitions and religious segregation in education, demand that standards of intellectual rigour be upheld at all educational levels, and find major ways of reversing the current trend of falling enrolment in science courses. The alternative is a return to the Dark Ages, the tips of whose shadows are coldly falling upon us even now.
A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford - and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com
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