23 March 2008

Urbi et Orbi

On the 9th February The Guardian celebrated Darwin's birthday with a special section on "On the Origin of Species", drawing together articles by scientists, historians, theologians and journalists to look at the impact of Darwin's work, address popular misconceptions, and celebrate science in all its glory. Richard Dawkins has the opening article, but the most interesting for me is by Richard Harries, former Anglican Bishop of Oxford, on the theological compatibility of faith and evolution.

Harries takes issue both with the rise of American fundamentalism and the over-zealous preaching of Dawkins that serve to perpetuate:
"...the persistent myth that somehow, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the theory of evolution and religious faith are opposed to one another. Our very real human difficulties about reconciling the waste and apparent cruelty of nature with a loving and wise creator is displaced, and focused on the idea that the theory of evolution as such must be inimical to faith."
I am both a theologian and a practising atheist, and yet Richard Dawkins annoys me. He annoys me because he is as much a zealot as those he belittles, and has no sense of humility. It is not enough for him to be right (which he is), he needs to be seen to be right, to be victorious over the forces that oppose him, and thus is locked in an eternal struggle with the religious right. Harries suggests that:
"...they both need one another, and feed one another. If there were no creationists, there would be no enemy for Richard Dawkins to focus on. If there were no Richard Dawkins, creationists would have less reason for their feelings of beleaguered self-righteousness."
However I would much rather be stuck on a ten hour flight with Dawkins than any of his opponents.

The first thought I had whilst reading the Darwin supplement was that I could not imagine any national newspaper in the US publishing something similar out of fear of boycott and loss of sales. The second thought I had was the similarity between the fear of angering religious America by discussing evolution with the fear of offending radical Islam through publishing a Danish cartoon. European newspapers fear for their personal safety, whereas US papers fear for their bottom line; economic retribution is as strong a motivator as physical retribution, perhaps even more so.

The secretion of Dominion Theology into almost every aspect of US political life over the last eight years has happened subtly and almost invisibly, but it has been responsible for the deliberate sabotage of global efforts to address climate change, the weakening of the position of women in US society, the rise of a militaristic society and two crusades against Islam.

The Treaty of Triploi, signed by John Adams in 1797, contains perhaps the most definitive statement by the Founding Fathers on the separation of Church and State outside of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Article 11 reads:
"the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion"
Yet strong public adherence to a Christian faith seems to be a prerequisite for holding public office today. I say "public adherence", as more weight is placed by the Christian Right on words and public professions of faith, rather than by deeds or actions. Politicians compete with each other in televised debates over who has the greatest contempt for evolution while simultaneously arguing over who will strike out at enemies with the greatest force and violence.

When Rev. Jeremiah Wright spoke out about the inhumane and un-Christian treatment of African-Americans by mainstream America, he is condemned for being unpatriotic, and Barack Obama is forced to distance himself by the media to save his political career. He is not allowed to stand up and say to America, "your faith is hollow and self-serving, your deeds do not match your professed words of faith"; he is not allowed to speak out and make middle America feel uncomfortable with themselves.

Umberto Eco warns us about the rise of a fascist society; in 1995 he highlighted the rejection of modernism, the fear of difference and the stifling of dissent as signs of the rise of fascism, writing that for fascism "disagreement is treason". All of these traits are alive and well in modern US society, fanned by the flames of the Christian Right, and supported by the silent complicity of the supposedly liberal media. In a neo-capitalist society, the media is a business with no duty to any moral code save the bottom line of its shareholders. The US media will never challenge its audience; by playing to their baser desires and deepest fears it secures its customer base; what profit is there in causing customers to question their rigid beliefs?

This is why I would rather listen to Dawkins, for all his self-promotion and rhetoric, because at least he is speaking out about the rise of the religious right and the silent transformation of the US into a conservative theocracy. With the demonisation of Dawkins and Darwin, of Jeremiah Wright and any calls for America to examine its conscience, perhaps the greatest sin in these opening days of the 21st century is silence.

As in most things, the last word on this goes to Pastor Martin Niemöller.
When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

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