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Humour, pathos, and a little bit of majesty: Phil reviews the origin of the species debate

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G'day. Webdiary's beliefs columnist, Phil Uebergang, organised Webdiary's Origin of the species debate, which closed last week. Today he reviews the debate.

One can not reason with these brainless fools - no wonder Jesus met the end he did. This debate should not be taking place; it is an insult to all 'evolved' beings. Phil, you should be ashamed of yourself. If you are not then perhaps a good Christian flagellation is in order!’

Creationism is religious bigotry spitting in the face of the Enlightenment. That said, these fools are probably not as great a threat to our civilisation as the mad mullahs of the Taliban were to theirs. But they express something of the same spirit.’

I love irony, and life is full of it.

We won’t understand death until we die. You have to be cruel to be kind. The more we know, the more we realise we don’t know.

That sort of thing.

As the Creation/Evolution debate unfolded in Webdiary, it was with increasing trepidation that I approached the task of writing a conclusion, given the level of contribution. I had suspected that the issue of human origins is important to our concept of who and what we are, regardless of the fact that many people don’t want to confront the consequences. There were a lot of comments along the lines of 'this discussion isn’t worth having', with no logical explanation given apart from 'it won’t change anybody’s ideas'. 

But the level of response speaks for itself. This is an important issue.

I’ve barely had time to read a third of the 1,355 comments posted, but the majority were thoughtfully presented with a number of interesting debates within debates.

However the above two comments are good examples of an approach that ran monotonously through the discussion threads.  It wasn’t so much the comments themselves but the consistency that struck me as unusual, even by Webdiary’s often controversial standards.  While such comments may contain delicious layers of irony, they are in fact good examples of the moral dangers we all face as humans.

Perhaps they can be put down to people feeling a strong desire to protect their ethos, as guardians of what they consider to be truth.  'This is where I come from'.  A bold statement.  That is what the debate was supposed to have been about, after all.

But here we are faced with irony.  Believing in a truth and defending it means invalidating another’s defence of their truth, and vice versa.  In fact, even believing in a truth invalidates any other that is different to ours.  The only way out of this dilemma is for there to be only one ultimate truth. 

Now this presents us with more irony.  If there is an ultimate truth nobody knows for certain what it is, so therefore none of our beliefs are defensible.  Does anybody have the right then, to defend a belief?

We can’t help it of course, because what we believe is what we are, and we must reconcile ourselves with the world to be able to live in it.  And we all know that living ain’t easy.  Given that this belief defence is thus a part of the human condition, when does our need and right to defend ourselves become ... well ... not right?

The Oxford Dictionary defines a bigot as a person who is prejudiced in their views and intolerant of the opinions of others. It’s noteworthy that this definition doesn’t go so far as to explicitly define those views or opinions.  It is ëtheir’ views and ëothers’ opinions.  Ownership is all that matters.

On both sides of the Creation/Evolution debate there was character assassination, wilful misunderstanding, deliberate misrepresentation, unqualified intellectual arrogance, childish insulting, and all without much effort to really listen to the other side.

This sort of thing happens when people are prejudiced in their views and intolerant of the opinions of others.  And then we end up with genocide and wars and all sorts of other suffering and violence.

Seem a little harsh?  What if, rather than Creationists and Evolutionists, the debate had been between white people and black people?  Palestinians and Jews?  The opinions, or the views, don’t need to be defined.  And here lies the moral danger - if you are intolerant of the opinions of anyone, you are their bigot. 

Just because you are nice to Jews and stray cats doesn’t mean that your bigotry against Evolutionists is somehow paid for.  It’s tempting to think that opinions we don’t agree with are foolish, and thus lose a sense of responsibility in our approach to the people who hold those opinions. 'How is that bigotry?' we ask, 'when they’re only Creationists (Jews/Muslims/blacks...)'.  Call it racism, bigotry, whatever you want.  It’s all the same.

So how does a person go about having a belief, and defending it, without falling into the moral quagmire of intolerance of another’s belief? 

The answer, I think, lies in the first part of the definition of bigotry.  We must first find a way around our own belief-based prejudices, and the only way to do that is to seek out and examine the differences between ourselves and others.  Here then is another irony - to defend our beliefs gracefully we must first, in a sense, give them up.

The only way to do this is to listen to others.  It’s a difficult thing to do as it means ignoring ourselves.  In fact it’s one of the hardest things to do consistently, and we all fail to some degree.  But apart from providing us with a solid platform to represent and justify ourselves, tolerating and listening to others has many side benefits.  You may actually find your own beliefs enriched by theirs, whether that be through the acceptance of other ideas or the clarification of your own.  That is growing spiritually, if you like.

So yes, there’s a certain irony that goes with defending belief, and mastering it is one of the great challenges of life, lest we fall in the path of moral danger.  This can also be said for the myriad other ironies that make up our lives, which we have to negotiate with a moral prerogative.

I can think of no better way to finish than with my favourite comment from the debate.  This participant was tireless in his patience, logic and grace in the defence of his beliefs, and to my mind has set the standard for all Webdiary contributors.  This paragraph in particular, with its humour, pathos and just that little bit of majesty, clarifies the tone of his efforts.  Evolutionist, Creationist, or anything else, this one’s for everyone.

For example, once fertilization of a human ovum takes place, we now have a new human. Our moral nature leads to heated debate about exactly what the status of the new single cell is, but that’s another point (and I don’t want to get into that here). Now this single cell, whether we want to admit it or not, is in fact a human (I am speaking here technically, not in a moral sense). It just doesn’t know it yet. It has a remarkable journey to experience before it emerges and reveals itself for who it always was. The reason that this single cell is no different to us is because it contains within itself a blueprint for self-construction. The blueprint beavers away and after nine months of the greatest engineering feat imaginable, here is a recognizable human. Of course, that’s a bit like putting a set of blueprints in a big hole and coming back to find that a skyscraper has built itself. That is the marvel of life.

Posted by John Loiterton at June 24, 2005 at 09:54 AM.

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re: Humour, pathos, and a little bit of majesty: Phil reviews t

No, Phil, its not "bigotry" that motivates the comments you refer to. What if a group wanted the Flat Earth theory taught in public schools, and given equal time to the Round Earth theory? Wouldn't even you strenuously object in the strongest terms, on the grounds that such "dumbing down" is the very last thing young people need? The same applies to your notion of cretinism. You obviously resent being compared to the Taliban, but hey, aren't their views deserving of "equal time" in our public schools? Shouldn't our children be exposed to all points of view in public schools? (I'm being facetious here in case you don't get it.)

In the interests of harmony, permit me to offer a solution to your dilemma. All available evidence does indeed indicate a creation event some 15 billion years ago. Ever since then, the universe has been evolving in fantastically creative ways. If I was an Intelligent Designer and wanted to make a universe that was maximally creative and abundant, I would create it just this way, with laws of physics designed to lead to various forms of creative evolution. Makes me wonder why more Christians and Muslims don't embrace the Big Bang theory with enthusiasm.

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