In his 2012 memoir Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie, borrowing the words of Saul Bellow, posited that the writer’s task is to “open the universe a little more.” This has always struck me as beautiful and true as well as simple. It would also do as a nice description of the scientist’s job. Herein lies that elusive third culture—both art and science are busy hewing at the universe’s seam in multifarious ways in search of some sort of truth (perhaps the literati would prefer the term authenticity). Such a task ideally requires a mind both broad and critical. The over-used term open-minded could be applied here—but it’s important, as the saying goes, not to be so open-minded that one’s brains fall out.
The opposite of such beauty and truth lies in narrow-minded dogmatism, and in this field, if no other, religious faith is preeminent. As Richard Le Gallienne’s translation of Omar Khayyám’s vivid poetry puts it, the dogmatic faithful form a “maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew”:
…the cold heart, and the murderous tongue,
The wintry soul that hates to hear a song,
The close-shut fist, the mean and measuring eye,
And all the little poisoned ways of wrong.
It doesn’t take long to think of exemplars of these things among the fundamentalists and the bigots. Khayyám was a medieval Persian, but his words could as well describe the country’s modern theocrats (the tongues of Iranian clerics are indeed murderous, as Rushdie can well attest).
The world as revealed by science and literature is more consoling and more beautiful than the one revealed by holy texts. Think how big the universe has become thanks to the work of the Shakespeares and the Einsteins of our species. How awesome it is to gaze upon the blind watchmaker’s evolutionary marvels and try to comprehend the majestic symmetry of the universe! And how lucky that we have the likes of Richard Dawkins to write in dazzling prose, accessible to those of us who are not scientists, of the universe’s beauty!* How blessed we are to have Hamlet and King Lear! The workings of the universe, and the human imagination, require no divine input to function, let alone to excel.
Consider: Scientists have recently discovered that fossils found over a decade ago are in fact the earliest examples of bilaterians yet found. Bilaterians are animals with a front and back, two symmetrical flanks, and a gut with openings on either end. The evolution of this type of creature is an evolutionary turning point, taking place as it did during the Ediacaran Period when multi-cellular and complex life was beginning to flourish. The bilaterians include many animals around today, including you and me. The fossilized organism, Ikaria wariootia, lived around 555 million years ago in the Ediacaran. 3-D scanning has revealed its structure. These organisms passed time digging through the sand on the sea floor searching for food; it’s probably fortunate that at least some of them found nourishment, or we might not be here—or at least we might not be here in quite the same way (though, contra many overenthusiastic media outlets, Ikaria wariootia is not likely to be the actual common ancestor of animal life). How wonderful that science can yield such insight into the remote past and our links with all that lived and lives. Theologians can only fantasize about such revelation.
And yet the American evolutionary war drags on; the creationists and their descendants have been humiliated time and time again in the courts, but they have a lot of funding and are, well, religious in their zeal. Megan Elizabeth Sullivan’s National Law Review article published in March 2019 points to the Trump administration’s antiscience record as an explanation for the upswing in new bills urging the teaching of “creation science” being brought forward in state legislatures. Meanwhile in Britain, the shameful phenomenon of “faith schools” corrodes the minds of the young, and in Muslim countries Qur’anic creationism is rampant. Evolution-denial is the least of it.
Faith, so often held up as a virtue and a light shining on the world, more usually entails the opposite. With each young mind infected by holy nonsense, with each person sacrificed in a fanatic’s act of violence, with each life dulled or lost thanks to pious science denialism, and with each book (or, indeed, author) burned by a shrieking clerical censor, the universe closes a little more. Indeed, if the experiences and thoughts of each person form little (or should that be huge?) universes unto themselves, the shutting down of minds constitutes a quasi-genocidal act upon millions, a closure of numberless cosmoses or infinities.
Our ignorant ways are endangering nonhuman animals, too. If our bilaterian friend from earlier comes nearer the start of our evolutionary journey, then our cousins the great apes are our contemporaries, our gallant comrades along the long and meandering evolutionary track. Gorillas, chimps, and orangutans have faced human threats for a long time, and now the coronavirus crisis could damage their numbers further still. Scientists recently warned in the journal Nature of the potential dangers faced by the great apes and urged reducing human contact with them to prevent possible infection. Given how complacent some of our leaders were when faced with the spread of the virus in humans, it’s quite reasonable to think that the scientists’ advice will go unheeded. Perhaps U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s creationist leanings, and Donald Trump’s neutrality on the evolution question, will lead to yet more indifference. After all, they’re only monkeys, right? And we ain’t monkeys!
Indeed, ignorance about evolution could well prove fatal in dealing with the coronavirus. It is a product of natural selection, and understanding it from that perspective will be invaluable in fighting it. More prosaically, religious stupidity led some believers to video themselves licking holy shrines in Qom, Iran, in late February in defiance of the virus. And, incidentally, Iran has only recently closed the country’s holy places despite weeks of deaths! Still, at least they have finally closed them, something never done before, not even during the 1980s war with Iraq.
In the United States, some religious leaders are being as obtuse as their Iranian counterparts. According to CNN’s Daniel Burke, Louisiana pastor Tony Spell (an appropriate name for a pious huckster or fool but, alas, not on the same level as Oral Roberts) defied the state’s prohibition on large gatherings and boasted that he had 1,000 people in his church on Sunday, March 22. Intoned Spell: “You can’t say the retailers are essential but the church is not. That is a persecution of the faith.” Ah, that old card. And I am sure that if this fool’s actions lead to more infections and more deaths, most people would gladly have missed some Sunday services (and probably would have wished more of their time had been spent buying soap in the shops and praying at home). Then again, Spell believes that he has cured HIV/AIDS and cancer through faith; perhaps he ought to offer his services to the World Health Organization.
Even more worryingly, Spell claims to have received support from the White House. Burke cites the Washington Post’s report that the pastor has spoken with Tony Perkins, who is president of the Family Research Council as well as one of Trump’s evangelical advisors. The official advice is to have small services and to keep apart from others; a video of Spell’s March 22 service shows many people close together and touching.
So, it seems to me that religious faith, especially at its most dogmatic, is a barrier to healthy societies, healthy minds, truth, and beauty. I should make the appropriate noises here: “yes, not all believers,” “yes, there are other malignant forces active in the world,” and so on, as insurance. I know all that, and it’s not the point.
The point is that religious faith—founded in an utter lack of evidence (or, at best, on the shoddiest of evidence), defensible only by long-discredited arguments (consult Bertrand Russell, Victor Stenger, and many others for examples), and which embraces absurdities while making huge claims on the lives of those who don’t share the delusion—is uniquely poised to act as an encouragement of absolutism, ignorance, and arrogance. We have seen a little of how it poisons beauty and truth and poses a danger to us all. But what I’ve said is only a hint of the depths to which religious idiocy can lower people and of the threats it presents to us; just imagine mullahs with a nuclear bomb.
Is there a way out, then?
Yes. The solution is latent in what has gone before. The scathing critique of religion and the evils inflicted upon us by its faithful devotees is essential to furthering the idea of what Christopher Hitchens once called a “new enlightenment.” If the great figures of the eighteenth century had held back for fear of hurting others’ feelings, our world would be a poorer place, one beholden to ossified dogmas and primeval ignorance. The New Atheist school of criticism, so often said to be dead, is needed as much as it ever was.
We must criticize foolishness and evil unflinchingly but not fanatically. Our opposition must be rooted in the ideals of reason, science, secularism, and humanism, and we must be staunch in arguing for those ideals and the benefits they have provided—and can provide—in every sphere of human life. That this is possible is evidenced by the case of Megan Phelps-Roper, whose astonishing memoir of thinking her way out of the detestable Westboro Baptist Church’s indoctrination is a testament to mental strength and honesty.
The ironies of history may also save us. Hitchens’s 2010 Slate essay “Long Live Democratic Seismology” argued that societies stuck under tyranny and poverty are more likely to face the worst consequences of the shuddering of the earth’s crust. Iran is a prime example: its capital, Tehran, is perched wincingly atop multiple geological faults. For Hitchens, the irony of such a state of affairs was that it may well be the undoing of despotic regimes and theocracies, for if the people can’t trust their leaders to protect them at the most basic level, what on earth are they for?
I wonder if, in this time of crisis, we might find ourselves injected with a dose of democratic virology. If the autocrats and theocrats and faith-blind fools of the world cannot effectively handle the coronavirus, it may well undermine them in immeasurably deep ways in the eyes of those who suffer under their regimes. The ironies of history must always be kept in mind.
Perhaps our greatest hope lies in the mass realization that this is our only life and that its uniqueness attaches to it an unquantifiable level of importance and possibility as well as a duty to alleviate misery and resist evil and stupidity. To return to Khayyám:
Men talk of heaven,—there is no heaven but here;
Men talk of hell,—there is no hell but here;
Men of hereafters talk, and future lives,—
O love, there is no other life—but here.
While religion promotes small thinking and the closure of the universe, we must argue that the beautiful, the truthful, and the good come from chiseling away at the universe’s seam to widen it a touch more. Humanism, art, literature, and science have much more to offer us than the ancient ignorance, snivelling, drivelling, and cruelty to be found in the world’s supposedly holy texts.
- BBC news report, “Fossil Worm Shows Us Our Evolutionary Beginnings.” March 24, 2020: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-52019468?fbclid=IwAR0ZDM5m1bB4Kf7e_X0XBfh_KHOZXXS-_wlMv1_1sS0mPF_jFSRgKXSKEaM.
- Briggs, Helen. “Coronavirus: Calls to Protect Great Apes from Threat of Infection.” BBC News, March 25, 2020: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-52036712?fbclid=IwAR1gciH7yXI5cpNN_hHh3TQzM1xLSkUh9W1gmdOqCK2YRFTn2AG429yOpJM.
- Burke, Daniel. “Pastor Again Defies State Order Not to Hold Large Gatherings. He Says 1,000 People Came to His Church Sunday.” CNN report, March 25, 2020: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/03/24/us/louisiana-pastor-spell-coronavirus/index.html.
- Coyne, Jerry A. Why Evolution is True. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- ———. Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. New York: Penguin, 2015.
- ———. “Oldest ‘Bilaterian’ Found: Wormlike Creature Discovered along with Its Tracks.” Why Evolution is True website, March 26, 2020: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2020/03/26/oldest-bilaterian-found-wormlike-creature-discovered-along-with-its-tracks/.
- Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker. London: Penguin Books, 2006 reissue with new introduction; originally published 1986.
- ———. Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder. London: Penguin Books, 2006 reissue; originally published 1998.
- ———. The God Delusion. London: Black Swan, 2016 10th anniversary edition; originally published 2006.
- Dawkins, Richard, and Wong, Yan. The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution. USA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.
- Dennett, Daniel. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. London: Penguin Books, 2007.
- Grayling, A. C. The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
- Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.
- ———. Letter to a Christian Nation: A Challenge to Faith. London: Bantam Press, 2006.
- Harris, Sam, and Nawaz, Maajid. Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015.
- Hashem, Ali. “Why Some Iranians Are Opposed to Closing Religious Shrines to Fight Coronavirus.” Al-Monitor, March 23, 2020: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/03/iran-religious-shrines-closing-coronavirus-opposition.html.
- Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. London: Bantam Books, 1995 edition; originally published 1988.
- ———. Brief Answers to the Big Questions. London: John Murray, 2018.
- Hitchens, Christopher. god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2009 edition; originally published 2007.
- ———. “Long Live Democratic Seismology” originally published in Slate, March 1, 2010, version cited here is in his essay collection Arguably. London: Atlantic Books, 2011.
- Khayyám, Omar. Extract from Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: A Paraphrase from Several Literal Translations by Richard Le Gallienne, in Hitchens, Christopher (ed.) The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. Boston, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2007.
- National Secular Society. “No More Faith Schools.” NSS web page: https://www.secularism.org.uk/faith-schools/.
- Phelps-Roper, Megan. Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church. London: Riverrun, 2019.
- Rushdie, Salman. Joseph Anton: A Memoir. USA: Penguin Random House, 2013 reissue; originally published 2012.
- Russell, Bertrand. Why I Am Not a Christian. Oxon: Routledge Classics 2004 edition; originally published 1957.
- Sini, Rozina and Shahbazian, Armen. “Coronavirus: Iran Holy-Shrine-Lickers Face Prison.” BBC News, March 3, 2020: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-51706021?fbclid=IwAR0Qpf-aYId61a_s0wqJcfQpwZO4CtqLM8DpsgnQEYWJZUk3q-8Qrb6iqns.
- Stenger, Victor J. God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. New York: Prometheus Books, 2008.
- ———. The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason. New York: Prometheus Books, 2009.
- Sullivan, Megan Elizabeth. “‘Alternative Facts’ in the Classroom: Creationist Educational Policy and the Trump Administration.” The National Law Review, March 11, 2019: https://www.natlawreview.com/article/alternative-facts-classroom-creationist-educational-policy-and-trump-administration.
* Dawkins’s Unweaving the Rainbow is one of the greatest evocations of the poetry of science and the best argument for that third culture reconciliation between the arts and the sciences. It is also, in my view, perhaps the finest of his many brilliant books.