Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Do we live in an irrational age? Could well be, and one which seems to turn its back on science, if by science is meant a serious, systematic study of the workings of the universe, ourselves included. In recent months, many pages of the popular journal NEW SCIENTIST have been given over to articles on Creationism, a.k.a. ‘intelligent design’. But when scientists confront those who are determined to force-feed the young in school science classes with religious fables and fictions, this debate is portrayed typically as between the religious versus the “atheists”, as in the NS report of a conference in La Jolla, California (In Place of God, NS, 18 Nov 2006).

That is a false antithesis: the debate for scientists – and those who value science, its methods and its potential – should not be a superficial one where deists and other believers in the supernatural/occult are opposed only by those whose argument goes no further than merely to deny the existence of a god and whose atheism is seen as just another form of belief.

The scientific view should surely be that of a materialist monist. By this is meant that the universe/cosmos is material, that the mind is a function of the brain, and that, no matter how ingeniously the experiment is contrived, there is no way that anyone can ever measure, weigh or otherwise prove the reality of the supposedly immortal ‘soul / spirit’, any more than any credible scientific evidence has been or ever could be found to support the ancient superstitious belief in a life-after-death.

What is too often forgotten is where the burden of proof lies: it is not for us to disprove the existence of god(s), but for the believers, creationists and so on to prove their case. Such believers assert the existence of gods and the supernatural but will always be unable to prove their case so, in the end, theirs is a position based on subjective faith. The ‘creationist geologist’, John Baumgardner (NEW SCIENTIST, 9 December 2006), clearly has a long way to go before he understands how geology destroys the credibility of the creation myths in the Bible.

Creation Myths

Even back in the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci questioned the Flood fable, having found fossils of sea-creatures high up in the Alps: according to his calculations, even forty days and nights of rainfall simply could not have caused that much flooding. Yet in our own time, visitors to the Grand Canyon are still being urged to buy a book that asserts that it was “formed a few thousand years ago by Noah’s flood, and not a few million years ago by geological forces” (NEW SCIENTIST, 13 January 2007). What can any scientist make of the assertions (Genesis 1, vv 14-16) of the creation of the sun and moon as “two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night”? Any teacher who tried to teach that the moon is, like the sun, a star or “great light” rather than a planet, would be misleading their pupils. Yet Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia were still insisting that the earth was flat until a Saudi prince who had experienced space travel in the shuttle Discovery explained to a leading cleric, in 1985, that this was actually not the case (Craig Unger, HOUSE OF BUSH, HOUSE OF SAUD, 2004, p85).

There are two main claims on behalf of religion. One is that it helps us to make sense of the nature of the world and our place in it. The other is that it is only from religion that we get our sense of morality and ethics. This was Tony Benn’s argument in a recent TV discussion with the “arch-atheist”, scientist Richard Dawkins. Neither claim can be sustained for a moment.

Science or Dogma?

Clearly religion is worse than useless as a means or method of study. The understanding of the universe we can derive from sciences is logical – based upon reason and conclusions drawn from observable facts and quantifiable data, not subjective faith and blind, superstitious, traditional belief. Scientific theories and findings can be tested, checked, re-assessed, and discarded as new research techniques and new sources of data become available. Those who rely on science follow where the evidence leads and, however complete and ‘final’ their theories may seem to be, they know that there is always more to discover, and that later researchers, accessing and studying new data, will shed fresh light on these discoveries, and so new theories will have to be developed. Indeed, in the last few decades, whole new scientific disciplines have been born and are rapidly being developed.

The scientific endeavour is a dynamic one, forever advancing beyond what was previously possible. In this sense it is evolutionary, not static but forever seeking to develop by exploring the interrelationships between different elements and forces, as for instance in that most famous equation, E =mc2.

As a Socialist wrote:

Each scientist is, and must be, an evolutionist in his own field of research, and is, therefore, to that extent, a materialist. It is only when he leaves his field, particularly when he looks at society and religion, that he is likely to abandon science and enter the realms of fantasy...
... Evolution does not merely signify that there is perpetual change, but that the changes are an unfolding and further development of forces within that which is changing... Everything is part of an unending world process, no section of which can be isolated except in thought. And even when isolating anything in thought it must still be studied in connection with other things
. SPGB pamphlet, HISTORICAL MATERIALISM, 1975, pp 41-42

By contrast, religions – particularly those dogmas based on supposedly ‘sacred’ texts, the Bible, the Koran etc, which are claimed to be the “word of God” and therefore true for all time, never to be challenged or questioned – are static, stuck in a time-warp. It is impossible now to accept the flat-earth view given in Genesis, while relatively recent researches into DNA, including mitochondrial DNA, have proved our close kinship with other primates (chimps and bonobos especially). Evolution makes a lot more sense now than it did in Darwin’s time.

But the Bible and other ‘holy’ books rely on miracles and other impossible happenings. The Virgin Birth, life after death, angels and archangels, Satan and Hell: any youngster at school who questions any of this is fobbed off with non-answers (“God moves in a mysterious way”) or else told that it all comes down to ‘faith’. It is partly because religions mostly discourage critical questioning that they are unable to come to terms with sciences such as geology and evolution, i.e. especially those sciences which show the universe as not static or isolated but as “part of an unending world process”.

The Creationists’ argument that life is as it is because of a supposed “Intelligent Design” simply cannot be squared with the facts. If you doubt this, take a look at an MRA scan of the neck: no halfway ‘intelligent’ designer could possibly have designed the nervous system to be so tangled up with the spinal column in such a stupid bottleneck. A bit of arthritis at this spot, and the victim rapidly becomes crippled, losing their balance and ability to walk. Then again, we know of many long-since extinct species that have existed on this planet, e.g. trilobites, dinosaurs, mammoths, and early primates, ancestors of our own species. But if such early life-forms were part of the original grand ‘design’, one has to ask why. Why create species that were doomed to die out?

To seek to understand the universe and our place in it, we do need to start by recognising that everything is interrelated and interacting, hence forever changing.

This understanding is what has helped develop our understanding of genetics, likewise of plate tectonics, continental drift, astronomy, ecology and many other fields of scientific discovery. In a time when the genomes of humans and other species are being mapped in detail, when DNA analysis enables us to discover so much about humankind’s past migrations and kinships, and with the realisation that we are teetering on the brink of yet more amazing discoveries, it would be craziness of a high order for schools to teach, in science classes, creationist superstition and obsolete flat-earth ideas. After all, we would not expect science teachers to teach alchemy or medical schools to teach faith-healing. Superstitious ignorance and education are as incompatible as the house-mates in TV’s Celebrity Big Brother.

Social Morality

What then of the claim made that religion serves a useful purpose by providing us with a sense of morality? To argue this is grossly insulting to the many – very moral – people, past and present, who either never took up religion or else consciously rejected it. Moreover, it is not hard to find teachings and stories in the Bible which are very far from moral. The Old Testament tells how God told Abraham to take his son up a mountain and kill him, as proof of his obedience. The same all-powerful God organised some very nasty experiences for those he got angry with. The New Testament is no better. Jesus is reported to have said: “I come not to bring peace but a sword” – not very different to the O.T. teaching of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”..

But when we learn from science, we come to have an awareness that our nearest primate relatives, especially chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos, have a strong sense of how cooperative social behaviour and interactions help the individual as a member of a social group.

Those who hold that religious teaching is the source of human morality are ignoring the fact that humans have evolved as a social species, just as other primates did, a point that is argued by Dutch primatologist, Francis de Waal:

It is not hard to recognise the two pillars of human morality in the behaviour of other animals. These pillars are... summed up in the golden rule that transcends the world’s cultures and religions. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This unites empathy (attention to another’s feelings) with reciprocity (if others follow the same rule, you too will be treated well). Human morality as we know it is unthinkable without empathy and reciprocity...
... Humans enforce social norms that dictate how we treat others and promote communal interests, but at morality’s core we find an ancient primate psychology.
The animal roots of human morality
, NEW SCIENTIST, 14 October 2006

In de Waal’s recent book, PRIMATES AND PHILOSOPHERS: HOW MORALITY EVOLVED (Princeton, 2006), he argues against what he calls ‘Veneer Theory’, the old Aunt Sally caricature of Darwinism, the “dog-eat-dog” view which sees “human morality as a thin crust on a churning urn of boiling funk” (review in THE SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, December 2006).

The very basis of our existence as a social species depends on our ability to co-operate with one another. It was from this social co-operation that our early ancestors developed language, that essential ability which has enabled us to progress by means of cultural evolution, able to hand on to the next generation whatever new discoveries and inventions are developed in our lifetime. The social aspect of our behaviour means that those who claim we need a supernatural deity to tell us what’s right and wrong, and punish us if we go wrong, are utterly mistaken.

It is our evolved social ‘human nature’ itself which is the root of our social morality. Cooperation is very far from being “against human nature”: on the contrary, without social cooperation we could not be human.

As Socialists would argue:

Mind, or the collection of thoughts, is a social product. Without society there is no mind. There is no such thing as a physical, a biological, or a non-social mind. The ideas, or the thoughts, of any given epoch are determined in general by the social conditions of that epoch, which also includes relics of past ideas. As these conditions change so do the ideas, over a longer or shorter time. That is why moral outlooks have undergone such fundamental changes over the centuries.
SPGB, HISTORICAL MATERIALISM, 1975, p16

That human codes of morality do change, as society changes, is obvious. Take, for instance, the view that chattel slavery is so utterly abhorrent that Tony Blair found himself saying “sorry” for the slave trade.

Yet, until the 19th century, many defended the institution of slavery, basing their arguments on selected passages in the Bible. Likewise, in the 20th century, South Africa’s racist apartheid regime was held by its supporters to be backed by Scripture.

Codes of morality are created by humans in response to given historic social conditions and relationships, and are generally supposed to serve a useful, cohesive, social function.

However, in today’s warlike, competitive world, religion often serves an anti-social function. Like other ideologies – ‘democracy’, nationalism and racism –, religions are used to mobilise groups of workers against each other, leading them to fight one another in the interest of their masters and exploiters. Atrocities are committed and justified by the claim that this is a “just war”, backed by religion. Paul Lafargue commented, in the 19th century, in terms which seem even more appropriate now than when he was writing, that:

The social function of exploiter of labour requires the capitalist to propagate the Christian religion, preaching humility and submission to God, who chooses the masters and sets off the servants, and to complete the teachings of Christianity by the eternal principles of democracy. It is quite to his interest that the wage-workers exhaust their brain power in controversies on the truths of religion and in discussions on Justice, Liberty, Ethics, Patriotism and other such booby-traps, in order that they may not have a minute left to reflect on their wretched condition and the means for improving it.
THE EVOLUTION OF PROPERTY and SOCIAL AND PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES, New Park Edition, p131

Religion as a crutch?

Importantly, religion also has another undesirable, antisocial function: it serves as a crutch, helping to make the unbearable tolerable. For many workers, that belief in “pie in the sky when I die” is apparently enough. As Francisco Ayala (biologist and philosopher, University of California), wrote:

Religion allows billions of people to live a life that makes sense – they can put up with the difficulties of life, hunger and disease. I don’t want to take that away from them.
NEW SCIENTIST, 18 November 2006

That we live in an age when “hunger and disease” are still rampant is an indication that much needs to be changed. These are, in the main, problems of poverty, caused by the inequalities of world capitalism.

Religion would have us acquiesce in such evils – to “put up with” them, accepting life in slums and poverty as “God’s Will”. Unfortunately, too many workers are still stuck in the dark ages, down on their bended knees, praying for miracles to happen. Socialists, and probably most scientists, know that much can and should be done to create a better society, and to rid the world of poverty, hunger, disease and war. It is escapist delusion and sheer make-believe to suppose that the ‘Almighty’ will do something for us about social conditions of our own making.

Religions justify and legitimate social evils, and hence are complicit accomplices in the class exploitation, cut-throat competition, crimes, violence, greed, corruption and endless conflicts which characterise modern capitalism.

Moreover, it is the ignorant supporters of religion whose naive, knee-jerk argument against Socialism is simply to object: “But what about human nature? What of the greedy people, the lazy people?

They appear unaware that greed and laziness are actually encouraged by the capitalist system, whilst in a Socialist society the welfare of the individual would be dependent on and inseparable from the welfare of the community, and that, for long aeons before humans ever became ‘civilised’, competitive, violent and warlike, the normal forms of social interaction were based on principles of social cooperation and sharing. But just as capitalism has not existed for ever, so one day, like its predecessors, it will be superseded by a new social system.

It is only in Socialism, based on common ownership, that humankind will be able to rediscover that customary ethic of fairness and social reciprocity which was the norm in prehistoric communities, which is still found in our primate cousins, and which still underlies our capitalist veneer of exploitation, competitiveness, violence and greed. While Socialism is the way forward, religion is simply an obsolete force of reaction, holding workers bogged down in an archaic mind-set, defending the indefensible, and passively accepting as God’s Will the persistence of poverty, war and exploitation.

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