Robyn Williams: Well I do trust you’ve had a delightful Christmas with plenty of crackers and lots of stuffing. But were you spiritual as well?

Philip Ponder, who teaches chemistry at a High School in Melbourne, is concerned about this. He’s bothered that there’s been a kind of wave of what he calls fundamentalist atheism, and his botheration is all the more interesting as he himself doesn’t believe in God. But he sees the need for some sort of religious belief to help us in various ways that he’ll explain. In the meantime, it’s worth bearing in mind that there will be an International Atheism Conference in Melbourne in March next year, attended by Richard Dawkins, and me.

Philip Ponder: It is with a growing sense of unease that I observe the rise of aggressive Atheism, with the eminent Professor Richard Dawkins in the vanguard as its High Priest. Ever since it stopped being dangerous to openly profess a disbelief in the existence of a deity, atheists have mostly been content to quietly bask in the smugness of their contempt for believers. In more recent years however, several prominent atheists have tried to get fellow non-believers to be more proactive.

An unworthy motivation would be an intolerance of irrational belief. It is understandable that an educator might find it offensive to observe so many wallowing in superstitious ignorance, and they feel obliged to use logic to point out the error of their ways. However, most of us do things that, when analysed impartially, are not particularly rational and they can simply be endearing characteristics of human beings.

Perhaps a more valid justification for pouring scorn on religious belief is the fear that religious fundamentalism may once again undermine scientific progress. The persecution and humiliation of Galileo by the Catholic Church is merely one instance amongst many where literal interpretation of a religious text has held back scientific advances. Nor would we want our understanding of the natural world to be undermined by those who are determined, as a matter of faith, that there can be no error in the ancient theological musings of a few scientifically ignorant members of a minor and downtrodden Middle Eastern tribe.

I would like to try to reconcile creationism and evolution by suggesting that every major religion was created or evolved to answer Four Big Questions.

The first question was always ‘How do we account for the mysterious?’ Our early ancestors would have wanted explanations for such wonders as the sun, the moon and the stars, thunder and lightning, the seasons, childbirth, and natural disasters such as famines, floods, volcanoes, earthquakes etc., it must have seemed only natural to assume that such things were under the control of supernatural beings and every early society created a pantheon of deities. The faithful will choose to believe that God, in His infinite wisdom and understanding, created man. The historical evidence would tend to suggest the opposite: that human beings, due to their limited wisdom and understanding, created Gods.

Advances in scientific knowledge have meant that we no longer require the existence of supernatural beings to explain much of what was previously mysterious and this has led many atheists to refer disparagingly to ‘the God of the Gaps’ as if the only function of such a deity is to explain the ever-diminishing number of mysteries that science as yet, cannot.

But wait! There are still three questions to go.

The second one evolved from the first. Having created their deities, the next question was: ‘How can I encourage the deity to intervene favourably on my behalf or on behalf of my social group?’

Thus was born the notion of prayer and supplication. Prior to the invention of lotteries no-one expected to get something for nothing, so it must have seemed reasonable that some sort of sacrifice would be required in order to earn a favourable intercession, or to appease the displeasure of an angry God. Initially, these sacrifices were often brutal, with the butchering of animals or even humans being the norm.

It seems that members of an impoverished Middle Eastern tribe were the first to recognise the economic benefit of adopting monotheism, with only one God requiring sacrifices. An offshoot of their religion even managed to find a way to eliminate ongoing sacrifices altogether. It remains a powerful concept that one’s misdeeds can be forgiven simply because a good man made the ultimate sacrifice and was tortured to death in a disgustingly sadistic manner. The allusion of the prayer that begins, ‘Oh lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world’ is fairly obvious; the regular sacrificial lamb has been permanently replaced by a single human sacrifice. To many however, this notion is somewhat abhorrent, with the cross not being seen as a symbol of redemption, but as a symbol of sadism.

A serious problem arises when the deity appears to be indiscriminatingly cruel or seems to ignore the prayers of the righteous. Even worse, sometimes the lack of piety of the unrighteous appears to be rewarded. The common, although generally unsatisfactory explanation seems to be that ‘God moves in mysterious ways’. A strict application of Ockham’s Razor might suggest that it is more logical to suppose that the deity doesn’t move at all. After all, there would be no atheists if there were any overwhelmingly compelling evidence that divine intervention in response to the wishes of human beings. But if God is non-interventionist, as the evidence seems to suggest, does this make prayer and supplication a pointless exercise? Well, not necessarily.

There is abundant evidence for the psychological benefit of meditation, and the mind-calming aspects of heartfelt prayer will presumably work in a similar manner. It may not be logical to the atheist, but there ought to be a reluctance to suggest that a true believer should be denied this benefit. Many people clearly find great comfort in prayer, especially in times of crisis, and the non-believer has the misfortune of missing out on this source of solace.

It would not have taken long for the smart members of most societies to set themselves up with a cushy job of acting as a intermediary between ordinary people and their Gods (thus avoiding any real work), and they must have soon realised that their religion gave them an answer to a third big question: How can we stop stupid and/or selfish people from doing whatever they like, to the detriment of our society?

Thus was born religious law and its very effective carrot and stick approach. Obey the laws and receive your reward, either now or in the afterlife. Disregard the laws and suffer divine retribution (even if only in the hereafter).

There can be little doubt that one of the main attractions of Islam as a religion is the very codified nature of its religious law. Many in the west would regard some aspects as being unduly harsh, but it seems obvious that the original lawmakers were seeking a means for their society to run more smoothly, with the greatest good for the greatest number.

The atheist will argue that secular law can now achieve this end, but there are some problems with this view. In the past, High Priests frequently abused their privileged position by manipulating religious law for their own advantage. Similarly, it is not unknown for the high priests of secular law in our society (namely the lawyers) to manipulate it in a similar way.

In the adversarial legal system in particular, winning a case often seems to take precedence over ensuring a genuinely just outcome. Wealthy criminals frequently evade justice by paying a lawyer to find loopholes in the law through which they can squirm. Also, many criminals are smart enough (or think they’re smart enough) to avoid being snared by secular laws and secular punishment. A genuine fear of divine retribution may well be a far greater disincentive for criminal behaviour, and it’s possible that many intellectuals profess to support religion (despite the apparent absurdities) because they see it as the best means for keeping stupid people ‘in line’ and are fearful for their personal safety in a Godless world.

Furthermore, religious laws and practices tend to become incorporated into the culture of a society and the culture will eventually come to be regarded as having been divinely ordained. This is especially true for Arabic and Southern European cultures, and makes it very difficult to claim that someone’s God is a delusion without effectively saying that the person’s culture is meaningless. A wise person will tread very warily of entering this dangerous territory.

Finally, there is the fourth question that will always provide sustenance for philosophers: ‘What is the meaning of my existence (and what happens when I die)?’

The author of The God Delusion, Professor Richard Dawkins, may be right to assume that we are merely transmitters of a self gene and thus insignificant specks in space and time. However, it is likely that human vanity will insist on a more significant role. It is a fact that many people like to think that they are part of some Grand Plan and this seems to imply the necessity for a belief in a Grand Planner. Many will feel that their life would be pointless if there were no God to get things organised, and many a miserable existence is doubtless made more bearable by the prospect of a better afterlife.

There can be no definitive scientific answer to this fourth question, and although some people want to search for their own answers, it is clear that many others prefer those provided by organised religions. It is probably unreasonable to force a person to investigate his or her spirituality, and religion will always have a place in society because it makes so many feel comfortable about their existence. It also provides a reason for people to get together as a community and acts as a vehicle for the promotion of many worthy causes. If only religious tolerance could be one of them!

Which brings us back to the fear that religious fundamentalism may once again undermine scientific progress.

How should we respond to those who are determined to impose their beliefs on a secondary school science curriculum, as has happened first with Creationism and more lately with Intelligent Design? The current Australian political climate makes this an unlikely threat, but if it should arise again in the future, a possible approach might be to follow the lead of the mathematicians.

It has long been accepted that aspects of mathematics such as calculus and complex numbers are beyond the intellectual grasp of a majority of students and only the most capable are exposed to these concepts. Likewise, the evidence suggests that only a minority of students are capable of formulating hypotheses and designing experiments to test them. In addition, many students have neither the interest in, nor the ability to understand the complex evidence for evolution.

In mathematics, the solution has been to give students the option of choosing from separate streams, with the less capable concentrating on the far less demanding maths required to make and manipulate money. This maths is likely to be of more use in their lives, and avoids the more complicated topics.

In a similar manner it should be possible to separate science into two streams that may be referred to as Science A and Science E. There is much science of the ‘how does it work’ variety that is of great use in our technologically oriented society, and is inoffensive to those of a religious persuasion. This could form the basis of a Science A course, the science for passive accepters who just want to be told answers and who tend to be apathetic towards the investigative approach that forms the basis of the Scientific Method. If schools were ever compelled to include Intelligent Design in a science syllabus, or heaven bid, creationism, then Science A would be the only possible for them.

Science E, on the other hand, would involve evidence, enquiry, and experimentation, and would be most suited to the more capable students. There would be no time available for concepts that rely simply on faith, or the pronouncements found in ancient theological texts. The less academically challenging mathematics is usually referred to by students in a self-deprecating manner as ‘Veggie Maths’, and it is probably that Science A would soon come to be similarly labelled.

In combating religious fundamentalism in science education, it is probably unhelpful to take the sarcastic approach of claiming to be a ‘Pastafarian’ and demanding the ‘Gospel according to The Flying Spaghetti Monster’ be given equal time with Biblical account. I suspect the cause of science would be far better promoted if students themselves were disparaging about such pseudo science as ‘Intelligent Design’ and regarded it as ‘Veggie Science’.

Robyn Williams: Yes, well, Philip, but what about Veggie Religion? Or is that a tautology?

Philip Ponder teaches chemistry (fundamentalist chemistry) in Melbourne.

Next week, to bring in the New Year Ray Norris talks about Emu Dreaming and the surprise of Aboriginal Astronomy. He’s at the CSIRO.

I’m Robyn Williams.

Transcript from Ockham’s Razor, HERE. Listen, Download, HERE