Tuesday, September 16, 2008

'Free thinking' intolerance

RichardDawkins.net’s free thinking oasis erupted into anti-clerical bloodlust yesterday at the news that Sir Richard Roberts had written a stern letter to the Royal Society president Martin Rees, asking that Professor Michael Reiss be forced to step down. The letter, which sounds like something from the 19th century German kulturekampf, reads:

We are greatly concerned by the remarks recently made by Professor Michael Reiss, who is currently Director of Education at the RS. We appreciate that there will be a clarification, but the fact that the comments were made in the first place by an official representative of the premier scientific society in the UK, if not the world, is most disturbing…..We gather Professor Reiss is a clergyman, which in itself is very worrisome. Who on earth thought that he would be an appropriate Director of Education, who could be expected to answer questions about the differences between science and religion in a scientific, reasoned way? …..We would urge that Professor Reiss step down, or be asked to step down, as soon as possible.

Leaving aside the ethics of such a move, if Richard Roberts had paid attention to the legal proceedings in this country, he would know that, as a registered charity and a recipient of large sums of public money, the Royal Society comes under the legislation which outlaws discrimination on the grounds of belief or religion. If Martin Rees were to take leave of his senses and force Reiss out for being an Anglican, the Royal Society could be taken to the cleaners at tribunal. Reiss appears to have made no controversial comments and his remarks were simply taken out of context by the media. Intelligent design is simply not on the Law Society’s agenda.

This does raise the question of whether ID should be raised in the classroom. I would say yes, for the simple reason that the current curriculum contrives to make Biology one of the dullest subjects in the school calendar. I recall when I was a snotty nosed adolescent, being made to learn about such turgid topics as the Scottish fish farming industry and the human circulatory system, as well as having to take part in some rather dry discussions about global warming and biomes. No wonder I chose to deface my biology textbook with badly scrawled genitalia as a form of escapism. Having reached adulthood I have found that biology is a sexy subject after all and forms the battleground for competing metaphysical worldviews. To enliven proceedings I propose the following. Simply divide the classroom at random into ‘Creationist’ and ‘Darwinian-Fundamentalist’ groups, then have the two compete against each other over a number of lesson periods. The task of the creationist camp will be to browse the Internet for irreducibly complex systems and to set up displays showing dinosaurs and human beings living together in blissful harmony. The Darwinian-Fundamentalist group will be asked to write self righteous essays claiming to be an expert on every facet of humanity and praising one another. Pupils will be encouraged to wax lyrical about the ‘power of the gene’, create evolutionary just-so stories to explain human attributes like love, artistic ability and birdwatching; and to attempt to derive a Judeo-Christian system of ethics from such things like the mating habits of toads. Not only will this add some much needed fun to the proceedings, it will show how symbiotic relationships can arise in nature between two supposedly adversarial organisms; a good example being the Eucharist-desecrating ‘Pharyngula’ and the lesser peer-reviewed ‘Uncommon Descent’ which mutually depend on each other for their existence. Without conflict there is no content.

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