AT THE beginning of this year's Edinburgh Festival, a great debate was staged at the Usher Hall.
The proposition was that "The New Europe Should Prefer The New Atheism". The speaker for the motion was the columnist Christopher Hitchens, who blames religion for most of the evils of the 21st century world. And it was strange, on a drenchingly wet Saturday morning, to see the old concert hall filled with what seemed like a mixture of diehard academic atheists, and slightly eccentric religious types convinced that their own account of reality should obviously be shared by all.
Now as someone who had the good fortune to be brought up in the liberal wing of the Church of Scotland, I should make it clear that I cannot side with either of these groups. The atheists, for example, make a profound category error when they imagine that religion "causes" wars. Any serious analysis of, for example, the Northern Ireland conflict, shows that what religion actually does is to provide a moralistic gloss for classic political disputes over territory, resources, social justice and national identity; and so long as those grievances remain, the wars will persist. In dismissing religion as an invariable force for evil, such atheist thinkers also utterly ignore the thousands of unsung and unspectacular situations – from the Iona Community onwards – in which true religious understanding actually serves to promote peace, and human development. And it is impossible to be an intelligent student of either Islam or Protestantism without noting the connection between the emergence of those radical religious traditions, and the evolution of free scientific inquiry as a key element of world culture.
If militant atheists are foolish, though, in their failure to recognise enlightened forms of religious thought, their misjudgment pales to insignificance compared with the strange belief-systems of religious fundamentalists of all faiths. The American debate over the teaching of religious creationism in schools has, of course, been given fresh life over the past few weeks by the emergence of Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, who believes that the Bible story of the creation should be taught in science classes alongside the theory of evolution.
But as if to bring the debate home to a British public often contemptuous of American religious attitudes, this week Mrs Palin's views were echoed by Professor Michael Reiss, director of education at Britain's premier academy of science, the Royal Society. Prof Reiss argues that science teachers – as opposed to specialists in social and moral education – should be teaching school students about the debate between evolutionary theory and creationism, because otherwise they risk alienating the 10 per cent of pupils who come from strong faith backgrounds. He is, in other words, one of those scientists who are prepared, in the interests of an eccentric minority of parents, to sell the pass on the proper teaching of their own subject, and to perpetuate one of the most shocking conceptual confusions of our times. For let's be clear, it cannot possibly be of benefit to any pupils, of any background, to encourage them to confuse the material of religious faith and myth with the material of scientific theory. The Christian creation myth, for example, is a beautiful and useful symbolic evocation of humankind's ultimate dependence on God, and of the high responsibility we bear towards other species. As such, it is full of poetic and moral truth, and is despised only by the arrogant and the unimaginative.
But only the seriously unintelligent – or the deliberately dumbed-down – could fail to grasp that this kind of myth belongs to a different order of reality from the scientific inquiry that tells us how the material universe works, and how we can intervene in it. Religious myth cannot tell us how the physical world functions, and, by the same token, scientific inquiry cannot give us moral guidance on how to use the power it puts in our hands.
If humankind is to have any chance of thinking its way out of its present crisis, in other words, we need to show profound respect for both forms of discourse, and to be scrupulous in understanding the difference between them; and under these conditions, people like Prof Reiss and Mrs Palin, who seem unwilling to make that distinction, are playing an astonishingly dangerous political game. It is true, of course, that the sharp distinction I have drawn between science and faith is also now subject to constant debate and re-evaluation. Under post-modern conditions, the idea of scientific fact as something completely objective has been rightly questioned, just as the basic liberal tenets of post-enlightenment politics have been challenged both by the new barbarians of the right and by some useful idiots on the left.
But the fact that these enlightenment values have been laid open to question does not mean that they have been proved wrong. On the contrary, every alternative proposed so far – from extremist religious belief to the relativist blathering of those who believe there is no such thing as society or truth – is blatantly worse. Faced with a Bishop who argued, after Descartes, that there was no way of proving that the material world really existed, Dr Johnson once kicked his foot hard against a stone, until it hurt, and said: "I refute it thus." Confronted with militant creationism, I look at the fossils in the rock, and the carbon dating of them, and, like Samuel Johnson, I refute it thus. And I do this not because I despise religion, but because I care too much for both religion and science to accept one as a bogus substitute for the other; or to collude with those dangerous reactionaries who are now promoting exactly that confusion, the better – in the deep sleep of reason – to bamboozle their way to power.