The Darwin Season has recently come to an end on the BBC, but before it started, I was paid what has become the latest in a series of visits by the God Squad. Clearly sensing the need to do a pre-emptive strike, a pair of middle-aged ladies knocked on my door and waited patiently as I put away my satanic books and freshly sacrificed chickens. (Note to religious people: this is a joke, I don't want nutters sending me hate mail).
There followed the standard thread of friendly debate that has been followed a half-dozen times since I moved to my area; it starts with general intro questions about whether I thought wars were a bad thing and whether and why I thought the world was going to crap, and whether I thought there was something behind it. Inevitably, this is guided towards reasoning that because people are not following [the Christian] religion any more, morals have disappeared and decadence rules, and that a belief in God would fix it all. This was accompanied by a Bible being offered to me to read, with some random assurances that 'they knew the world was round back then' and 'they knew about bacteria' as an implication that the bible contains all the facts worth knowing before those scientists came around and found out about them a second time around.
After assuring them that I had read enough of the Bible at school as a child under pain of death (or, at least a good telling off) they asked my opinion of evolution, which seemed to be the point of the visit.
'Do you believe in Evolution?',
'Well, 'believe' isn't really the correct term as it isn't a faith, but I think that evolution can explain the processes of how most things on the planet came to be as they are.',
'See, that's what I don't get about evolution, how can a whale just 'grow' some fins if it wanted to?',
'Well, what you have said to me there tells me that you don't understand the evolutionary process..',
'And the idea of a whale and a cow combining together to make an entirely new species..',
'Please, let me stop you there. You have shown me that you have little or no grasp on what evolution actually is. You are going from door to door, spreading a mutated, ridiculous twist on the theory of evolution, and then providing people with a much more convenient alternative which amounts to little more than 'God did it'.'
'Are you saying we are lying!?',
'That's not what I am saying. I think that you are two pleasant, intelligent people who would not knowingly spread misinformation about something to get people on your side, but that is what you are doing. Have you read 'On the Origin of Species'?',
'No, what's that?',
I cried a little inside.
'It's the seminal work by Charles Darwin, explaining his theories for the interrelationships between the animal orders. It explains in laymans terms the theory behind Evolution, some of the observable evidence in the real world, and how it continues to change things'.
'I don't have time for that'.
'It's a shame you should take such a view. You should read it not only for your own personal development, but to also become fully aware of that which you are denouncing. If you have no idea what it is you are refusing to believe in, how do you know it isn't true?',
'Erm..', (one of the ladies grips her bible a little tighter) '..but you have not accepted the words of the Bible, so why should I even go out of my way to buy this book?',
'You came to my house professing the words of the Bible and stating that evolution has no scientific basis in fact, and you have done the same for other people and will do again. The onus is not on me to convince you or to spend time and effort reading something I do not believe in or agree with, you have made it your job to convince me and other people that God exists and that evolution is false, and so far you have only shown me that your knowledge is limited to the biased discussions from your own flock.',
'I would like you to take at least one thing away from this debate - that your idea of what evolution is, is fundamentally wrong. And now that I have told you this, it would probably not go down very well with your God if you knowingly continue knocking on doors down this street using your inaccurate descriptions to get people to join your flock. You would be using lies to achieve your goal.',
'I can understand your point, but what I believe is in this Bible', (tries once again to offer me it)
'You* should* read Darwins' book, taking time to understand the concepts within it, and then come to a conclusion - your own conclusion - as to whether it is right or not. And you should do this without having the barrier laid down in your head that says 'if what is written goes against the bible account, it must be false'.
The first lady nods begrudgingly, at least I have got her to understand the situation. I smile sympathetically to her, as I feel I have just knocked the ground from her feet. Perhaps a bit of diplomacy is required.
'It is feasible that God exists and evolution is also correct - they're not mutually exclusive. It's feasible that God may have started life and then sat back and watched as the evolutionary processes did their stuff. After all, nobody yet knows where life actually came from..',
However, the second lady who has remained quite quiet until now, is gearing up for an attack on another front.
She says with conviction, 'I do not believe in evolution.'.
'That is quite a statement. All forms of evolution?',
'All forms. They are all wrong.'.
'Because we need to be clear about this, there is the general term 'Evolution', which was around before the time of Darwin and refers to the change and refinement of things, and the specialisation, 'Evolution by Natural Selection', which is part of Darwin's theory.'
'No, all evolution is a lie. Everything was created by God'.
I guess she is concentrating a little too hard on denying the Darwinian evolution to realise quite what she is saying. I am standing next to my front door and notice the complex lock mechanism.
'Evolution is not a lie, it is all around us, observable and demonstrable in many forms, such as the evolution of the motor car, evolution of internet websites, and even the process of evolution leading to this lock on my door. When locks were first invented many years ago they used a basic mechanism for the lock that was easy to circumvent; and as people found ways to open a locked door, the locks were refined and different types of locks - 'sub-species' if you will - emerged that were suited to specific environments. For example a lock for a door is different than for a window or a car, and some are still simple because the simplicity suits that purpose (eg a lock on a shed door), whereas some are more complicated (I point to the mechanism inside the front door), and others are even more so, such as electronic locks requiring a retina scan as the 'key'.',
'But if you were to take the lock apart and place the component pieces on the ground, it wouldn't put itself back together would it?'.
I was a little gobsmacked at her counter-argument, but I finally saw where she was going with it.
'No, it would need me to come along and stick it back together again....',
'Exactly! So that is like what our relationship with God is like. He creates us and everything around us, it all needed a creator.',
'But Darwinian evolution provides us with an alternative theory of how we have arrived at this point in time..',
Sensing an opportunity, she takes it: 'Aha! Exactly! Evolution is a theory, nothing more. You do not have proof.'.
'Evolution is a theory because it is not realistically provable. In order to come to an absolute proof, a person would have to live for millions of years tracking the changes in all the species of plant and animal on the planet, and show the shifting changes within a species as a whole over that time. We cannot do this in our lifetime.'.
'So it is not provable',
'..because the limiting factors are 1) how long we have been actively cataloguing animal species and the development of technology to accurately record them, 2) how long we have known about Darwins' theories, and 3) the lifespan of human beings. In theory, we will be able to prove it in a million years time, because then we will have catalogued such changes..'.
'But it is not provable now!',
'Only in so much that the theory of gravity is not provable, because it is a scientific theory We cannot accurately say that gravity will always be around, or that it is predictable, or that it occurs everywhere in the solar system. Yet gravity is a demonstrable fact, and I don't think that the church will be trying to disprove that any time soon. Evolution is also a fact for similar reasons.',
'No! That is not right. Evolution is nothing more than a theory and will never be proven.',
'Well not quite. Leaving aside the wealth of evidence taken out of the earth to support macroevolution (i.e. the big changes), the process of microevolution is far more practical to demonstrate and has actually been replicated and proven in a lab. A bacterial strain has shown the ability to absorb a chemical within glucose that it couldn't originally do because the evolutionary process that occurs between successive generations of the bacterial cells produce genetic mutations, some of which were progressively better at metabolising the chemical, which in turn drove the evolutionary path towards a new strain. This experiment took about 20 years, because the individual stages of evolution are far closer together with bacteria as they multiply at a far faster rate compared to that of larger animals.'.
Shortly afterwards, the debate disintegrated and reached a rather inconclusive end. The ladies could see they had not won a convert with their arguments. They thanked me for my 'interesting viewpoint' and after an offer of an issue of The Watchtower, I thanked them and they went on their way as it was getting cold. I don't know if they went next door because I was all religion-ed out and just wanted to put it behind me for the day.
You're probably wondering when I'm going to get to the crux of this post, and it's now. The trap I refer to in the title is that of strong religious conviction. After all the other things I have levelled at the notion of believing in a god over the years (incidentally, I will fight for the right for people to believe in a religion, as that is part of a free society, I just find it ridiculous that people do) this incident has brought home to me one particular characteristic: the truth is no longer relevant to the argument.
Taking Christianity as an example, (although this could be applied to any of the Abrahamic religions, and some other select groups too). If you attempt to convince a person of faith something that contradicts the implied or direct writings of the Bible, they will not believe it. You can debate with them, you can point them towards information and supporting evidence, but you will get nowhere.
Why is this so? Oversimplified explanations may involve a lack of intelligence on the part of the believer, or a lack of articulation on the part of the persuader, or simply a reluctance for the believer to take a dent to their pride and admit that they were wrong. I believe that there is a more convincing argument - fear.
Fear is what drives people to make decisions based on the information in their immediate surroundings. Fear has been used throughout the ages to get people in line. Additionally, the nature of human beings is to form a communal group of people striving for the same goal - humans originate from the pack cultures of apes and we feel naturally safe within one. We see example of this all through society; religions, football supporters, gangs in school playgrounds, and many more.
If you manage to persuade someone to join your religious group, it would not be such a difficult thing once they fully buy into the faith, to stop them from leaving by proclaiming eternal damnation in the pits of hell if they were to leave, meted out by the very god you have just got them to unflinchingly believe in. You can crank this up a notch by threatening similar punishment by even letting these thoughts enter their head. The trap is set.
The Bible is seen by the faithful as an absolute. It decides for them what is truth and what is fiction. Such a book of God has great power, and if someone were to discover something that appeared to be true but was not in the Bible - or worse still, contradicted it - they would suffer exclusion from their cosy group at best, and burning in the pits of hell at worst if they were to even consider accepting that which they see in front of them. People do not like change, and such an alteration in the foundation of their lives is not a pleasant prospect. Reasoning with them that the Bible was produced a long time ago when human knowledge was a fraction of what it is now is useless against such an immovable object.
The Bible even has its own section on the subject, where Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge forever casts the human race into sin. Its message is clear. Don't go hunting down knowledge, because you'll end up paying for it. The bit they left out was, that the greater the sum of human knowledge, the less room there is for the notion of a god. If we were to universally accept evolution as the process by which life has become as it is now, then a whole job lot of pruning and editing will be needed to make the Bible relevant again, an unthinkable act.
This is the trap that religious people find themselves in. The information is out there, proofs and evidence and accounts and data, most of which freely available, but the believer cannot allow themselves to consider it, for the consequences for themselves would be grave. This goes not only for that which has direct contradiction with the holy books (such as evolution by natural selection), but also those theories and concepts that support them.
One example is the concept of continental drift, and the tectonic plates slowly shifting around the continents of the world. These theories which were a topic of controversy 100 years ago, but their eventual acceptance as scientific fact helped lend credence to evolutionary flow; the isolation of a group of animals by continental drift, which would then evolve separately according to their new environment. We know that this shifting takes place - the UK is measurably moving away from France and towards America at a rate of a few centimetres per year for example - yet many of the faithful wipe whole swathes of such knowledge from the list of acceptable things to understand or believe in - simply by the process of association. To believe in them would be to give credence to that which would get them a first class ticket to hell.
Again, whether evolution is correct or not doesn't matter to a person of faith. They just aren't allowed to consider it.
Without wishing to sound glib, Atheists have no such restrictions; they are free to accept or reject things purely based on the evidence and reasoning to hand, with eyes unclouded. This is not a perfect system: it may be that something an Atheist holds true is actually not, but the process that the person used to arrive at their conclusion was not flawed; it was because of the accuracy of the information at hand, not because they felt compelled by dogma to take one explanation over another.
This is truly the definition of free thinking, and I hope for a time when we can all be freer to think for ourselves, and avoid falling into such traps.