The persistence of religious obscurantism

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

A little while ago, the fellow-candidate of John McCain, potential president of the United States, Sarah Palin, unhesitatingly supported the thesis that man and the dinosaurs co-habited the Earth 6000 years ago; whereas science demonstrated that the last dinosaurs disappeared from the surface of the planet more than 65,000,000 years ago, well over 64 million years before the appearance of the first homo sapiens. This ignorance of the historic evolution of the species comes directly from the religious creationist doctrine still widely broadcast today. The vogue of this dogma is shown in the reinvention of the universe through a flourishing of creationist Christian museums in the United States since 2005 (notably in Kentucky, Cincinnati, in Ohio, and in a theme park in Lancashire, England, on the initiative of a group of American businessmen "explaining" the birth of the Universe in 7 days in accordance with a literal reading of the Bible). It's difficult to take these Disneylands or comic opera Jurassic Parks seriously, with their Hollywood approach and their exploitation of ignorance and credulity. However, the success of this obscurantist ideology is worrying: more than 20% of the Flemish population and almost one out of every two Americans for example, according to opinion polls, lean towards a creationist vision of the world and are hostile to the theory of evolution demonstrated by Charles Darwin.

The Darwinian theory of evolution against creationism

A hundred and fifty years ago, in November 1859, Darwin published The Origins of Species. This work, which was based on the accumulation of observations of nature, and of experimentation, overturned the whole vision of the origins of man and his place in the universe. It demonstrated for the first time that a common base existed for the development of species and of living beings, founding itself on and going beyond the previous work of naturalists such as Buffon, Linnaeus and Lamarck[1]. The theory of Darwin aimed to demonstrate, in a rigorous and scientific dialectical fashion, the faculty of adaption of living beings within their environment and to integrate this theory into a new conception of the evolution of species. It provided evidence for the existence of a common genealogy to living beings, so placing them in a direct line within which the human being was no longer a superior type chosen and created by God, but the chance product of a differentiation between species. It was a radical questioning of the teachings of the Bible and of its Genesis, which refuted the idea of a divine creation and showed up the weakness of all the monotheist religious traditions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam). This materialist and scientific work of Darwin was straightaway violently attacked, notably from the same religious dogmas that had pilloried Galileo and then Copernicus (theoreticians who were first by their scientific discoveries to have rejected the religious geocentricism which pretended that the Earth was the centre of the Universe and, above all, the centre of divine creation).

The scandal created by this discovery of Darwin lay not so much in showing the evolution of species but in the fact that the interactions at work in this evolution did not submit to any finality in nature[2]. "The tree of life" did not resemble a great hierarchical genealogical tree with a base and a summit whose outcome was man, homo sapiens, but a bushy tree whose base founded all the most ancient forms of life of which man was only one particular species among the millions of innumerable ramifications still present on Earth. This vision induced a relationship and common descent between man and the most elementary forms of life such as the amoeba. This seemed insupportable to those who were, often unconsciously, still affected by religious backwardness. Still today, Darwin's approach and method are called into question with virulence, whereas all the scientific contributions in palaeontology, biology, genetics and in many other domains of knowledge, have only confirmed the validity of Darwin's theory[3]. The religions have however, been constrained to mask the pursuit of their anti-Darwin crusade by propagating an ideology aiming to maintain religious thought behind an alternative pseudo-"scientific construction": "intelligent design". In effect, creationism is no longer defended by the church as at the time of Darwin. One remembers the debate which opposed the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, to Thomas Huxley, an ardent defender of evolutionism in 1860. Wilberforce mocked the latter, asking him if it was "from your grandfather's or grandmother's side that he was descended from a monkey". Huxley replied that he "would have no shame in having a monkey for a grandmother, but would have if I was related to a man who used his talent to obscure the truth!" The Catholic Church never dared to put The Origin of Species on the list of banned books but it officially condemned it and for a long time refused to talk of evolution in the scholarly programmes that it lavishly produced. Religion has adapted today by putting forward a craftier and more pernicious doctrine: "intelligent design".  According to this "theory", there has been evolution but it has been desired and "guided" by a divine power. Thus man is not a product of nature but rather the fruit of the will of an all-powerful creator who "programmed" it.

This variant of creationism profits from the present revival of the popularity of spiritualist, obscurantist and sect-like ideologies. These reactionary ideologies are often spread by certain factions of the bourgeoisie who find among them material to manipulate populations disorientated and despairing as a result of the misery and barbarity of the capitalist world and its lack of any perspective. This pushes them to avoid objective reality, by taking refuge in faith, blind belief in a beyond, in a "superior order", invisible and all-powerful, which escapes all rational thought. The belief in an omnipotent creator God, as in the resurgence of all sorts of sects (which, moreover, profit from their clientele like all good capitalists), is used by the ideologies of the New Age to crystallise all the fears and concerns produced by the impasse of capitalist society. This demonstrates the pertinence of the analysis given by Marx in 1843 in his Critique of the political philosophy of Hegel: "Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people".

Religion is always the first bulwark of conservative and reactionary forces to dull consciousness against scientific advances. It tries to adapt itself in order to preserve the status quo by pretending to be a refuge from the misfortunes of society.

The reactionary theory of "intelligent design"

"Intelligent design" tries to insert itself into the ranks of scientific theory, under cover of trying to conciliate evolution and creationism. It presents the one and the other as competitive "philosophical" choices by fraudulently trying to give the latter a scientific base. The precursor of "intelligent design", the Jesuit, Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), tried in the 1920s for example, to show that there existed a teleology, a finality of evolution called "the Omega point", defined as the divine pole of convergence and harmonisation culminating in the "no-osphere", a sort of celestial beatitude animated by the divine spirit... Much more than Catholicism, it's in Protestantism and its diverse varieties of "Evangelical Churches", basing themselves on a literal reading of the Bible, that the most relentless adversaries of Darwin are found (it is moreover the reason for the success of Intelligent Design in the United States throughout the "Bush years" where the government more or less openly supported it). The objectives of the present propagandists of the "intelligent plan" have been clearly defined by the Think Tank at the origins of the movement, the Discovery Institute, in a document for internal use called The Wedge. Leaks from this document were made known in 1999. In this document, the principal objectives of the Discovery Institute are defined without the least ambiguity[4]: in the first place the question posed for it is "to vanquish scientific materialism and its moral, cultural and scientific heritages through the understanding that nature and human beings have been created by God". It plans for the short and medium term "to see the theory of intelligent design become an accepted alternative in the sciences, and in scientific research undertaken since the perspective of the theory of design; to help to begin the influence of the theory of design in spheres other than natural science; even new major debates in education, the relative subjects of life, penal and personal responsibility pushed to the front of the national agenda". It is in fact in the key areas of education and the law that the offensive of this dogma is pushed, while it tries to sow confusion in scientific circles. It is disseminated in all spheres of society, through numerous forms of publicity and opinion-making. The Internet has opened up an immense reservoir for spreading its propaganda, just like the missionaries and their "conversions" at the time of the colonisation of new territories. The main aim is to pass "intelligent design" off as a "scientific" hypothesis in competition with Darwinism. It also demonstrates its ambition of "seeing the theory of intelligent design as the dominant perspective in science; of seeing applications of the theory of design in specific fields including molecular biology, biochemistry, palaeontology, physics and cosmology in the natural sciences; psychology, ethics, politics, theology, philosophy, literary matters and even into the arts". But this public exposure of the fundamentalist aims of "intelligent design" has its reverse side: it has dealt a major blow to its promoters who, unable to deny the existence of the document, today peddle a more mitigated version of it.

However, this undertaking has already been spread around and this is particularly so in the Muslim world. In Turkey, Harun Yahia, real name, Adnan Oktar, at the head of mafia-like lobby, has offered to distribute this propaganda for free and widely among teachers and the bosses of colleges and schools. He has flooded schools throughout the world with his Atlas of Creation and also via the Internet. He has also produced more than 200 documentary films and 300 works already translated into sixty languages. The attempts to render unrecognisable the real history of life on this planet, like all the lies invented by ruling classes throughout the history of humanity, are part of the same effort to block the development of the consciousness of the greatest number (and of the proletariat in particular), to stupefy them and prevent them from freeing themselves from their chains. Obscurantism serves to mask the real reasons for the putrefaction of capitalist society.

Science and consciousness

Religious belief is opposed to science and the scientific approach. For religion and the theological tradition, knowing something, the knowledge of what could be, is, in the final account, a divine essence and remains inaccessible to the majority of mortals. The materialist approach of science (facts and the study of reactions, differences or similarities, and the conditions that underlie them, are the basis of scientific experiment) is neither a "philosophy" nor an "ideology" but the necessary condition for a conscious and historical approach towards understanding the relations between man and his natural conditions, including his own behaviour as an object of study; it is an approach towards the limits of knowledge that does not fix any limits in advance. The development of science is totally associated with the development of consciousness in humanity. Science has a history but it is not linear, nor mechanically linked to technical progress or to advanced technologies (which excludes all "positivism" and any idea of "progressivism"). It closely fits in with the social relations of production by which it is conditioned. Belief bases itself on the fears of the unknown.  Opposite to religious prejudice (which is above all an ideology at the service of the existing order), the development of consciousness is the motor element which accompanies the development of science. Thus the scientific method does not fear its hypotheses being called into question or its acquisitions being overturned because this is the way that it evolves, this is what makes it dynamic. As Patrick Tort said (l'effet Darwin, page 170):  "Science invents and transforms itself. Ideology recuperates, adjusts and re-shapes itself".

And, as he said in an article in Monde de l'Education dated June 2005: "the ‘dialogue' between science and religion is a fiction invented by politics. Nothing in fact can negotiate                                                                 nor be exchanged between the immanent search for objective knowledge and the appeal to the supernatural that characterises the posture of belief. If one admits just once that an element of the supernatural can contribute to constructing the scientific explanation of a phenomenon, one would straightaway renounce the methodology of all science. The scientific method does not negotiate. It's necessary that all the trickery of individualist liberalism is used (...) in order to convince us that there's a choice between scientific explanation and theological interpretation, or that they could be  combined, as if the law of a falling body was the business of personal conviction, of elective democracy or of ‘liberty'."  

In fact, "politics" has no sense in this quote except as the politics of the dominant class. Here's why the scientific approach of a Copernicus, a Marx, an Engels or a Darwin has been and still is for the most part fought against and deformed with such desperation by the supporters of an unchanging social order.

Some precursors to Darwin

Buffon, Linnaeus and Lamark were, after the publication of Darwin's theory of evolution, largely decried and even partly thrown into the dustbin of history. All the excessive parts of their theses were designated as gross and shameful errors. However, in reality, each one of them contributed to the advancement of knowledge, the work of one and its limits being overcome by the others. This is why we can say that these three precursors of Darwin were authorities for his work.

Thus, it's not by chance, that they point to resemblances between man and ape and the possibility of a common genealogy.

The attention that Buffon (1707-1788) gives to the internal anatomy places it among the precursors of comparative anatomy. "The insides of living beings are basically the design of nature", he wrote in les Quadrupedes. Buffon went against religion: he deliberately placed man at the heart of the animal kingdom. Even if he didn't stop at the exterior aspect, man having a "soul" endowed with reason which placed him at the summit of creation, he affirmed that man is similar to the animals by his physiology.  He showed that there existed many varieties of man, black as well as white; after several generations, a group of white men in a particular environment would become black; there only existed a single human species and not several. He concluded that the human varieties came from an initial stock which adapted according to the conditions that it lived in.

Linnaeus (1707-1788) was a "determinist" naturalist. For him, living species had been created by God at the time of Genesis and had not varied since. The first aim of his system is to demonstrate the grandeur of the divine creation. However, from the fact of the importance that he accords to the reproductive organs of plants, it's important to note that the pertinence of his system of classification inevitably invokes an evolutionary hypothesis.  Thus, if such a species surprisingly resembles such a neighbouring species, why not presume that one preceded the other in time? The choice of organs of reproduction as criteria also went in the sense of a dynamic and evolutionary interpretation of history.

Lamark (1744-1829) is a naturalist known for having proposed the first materialist and mechanist theory of life and the evolution of living beings. He is equally one of the rare evolutionists to have understood the theoretical necessity of the evolution of living beings. His transformist theory is based on two principles: his thesis on evolution stipulates that individuals adapt during their lifetimes notably by more or less using certain organic functions which develop or weaken in relation with the usage or non-usage of the organs. Here's an example that Lamark wrote about the giraffe: "Relative to its practice, it is curious to observe the product of it in the particular form and size of the giraffe (camelo-pardalis): we know that this animal, the largest of the mammals, lives in the African interior, and it nearly always lives in places that are arid and without pasture, obliging it to graze the foliage of trees and continually forcing itself to reach it. The result of this long-time constant habit, in all individuals of this race, is that its front legs become longer than those at the back, and that its neck is so stretched that the giraffe, without standing up on its back legs, raises its head and reaches up to six metres in height (nearly 20 feet)" (Lamark, Philosophie zoologique, p. 256).

W, 24/11/9

[1] See the box for a brief resume of the work of these three scientists.

[2] On could add to these "scandals" caused by science the resistance to advances made by palaeontology (confirmed moreover by Darwin's deductions) which pointed to the high plateaux of Africa as the birthplace of humanity, which also dealt a fatal blow to the so-called "superiority of the white race as the bearer of civilisation" (see The Origins of Man by Richard Leaky).

[3] We have seen in previous articles that the Darwinian vision has equally been greatly perverted and deformed, with reactionary interpretations going from the "social Darwinism" of Spencer to the eugenics of Galton. These ideas were however explicitly rejected by Darwin himself (see ‘Social Darwinism: a reactionary ideology of capitalism' on the ICC's website).

[4] See the articles "Creationism" and "Intelligent Design" on the Wikipedia website.