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Monday, October 10, 2005                                                                                       View Comments

End times a'coming

In Our Time
Wayne Brown

It was Wordsworth who first delineated the interdependence of religiosity and the infantile ego. In his 'Immortality Ode' (1807), he affirmed famously that we come into the world 'trailing clouds of glory.from God, who is our home,' so that 'Heaven lies about us in our infancy!'

And the necessary loss of the infantile illusion of centrality involved in maturing - a process, as this column remarked last week, marked by a growing grasp of the facts of differentiation and otherness, and a consequent diminution of the infantile ego - was one he lamented:

'Shades of the prison-house begin to close/ upon the growing boy'; until the adult perceives the divine light 'fade into the light of common day.'

Nonetheless, Wordsworth was determined to celebrate not only 'those shadowy recollections' of our participation in the Godhead, but also what might be termed 'life after God':

'Though nothing can bring back the sight/ Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower,/ We will grieve not, rather find/ strength in what remains behind.'

Like that, he arrives at precisely that impersonal reverence for the mystery of life and the wonder of the world which this column proffered last week as the mature expression of a religious sensibility, in contrast to the self-centered infantilism of 'religiosity' - that childish mix of sentimentality and bellicosity which leads the evangelical Christian habitually to invoke the New Testament's caring God as his personal mentor, while hurling the vengeance of the Old Testament's wrathful God against his real or imagined enemies.

The 'Immortality Ode' ends by affirming:
'.the faith that looks through death,
.years that bring the philosophic mind.
.Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.'

'Thoughts,' writes Wordsworth. And he signals their impersonal grandeur by that 'too deep for tears'.

I have gone on about this, because I have long been bewildered by the dismaying floodtide of rightwing Christian evangelism here in the West - till recently a civilisation based on reason, descended from the European Enlightenment, and codified in the US by the likes of Jefferson and Paine (who, in addition to his famous declaration, 'These are the times that try men's souls,' was also quite emphatic: 'I do not believe in the creed professed by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.')

And mine is by no means a purely philosophical dismay. Democracy, and the science-based and rational worldview upon which it depends, cannot long survive the theocratic fervour now rampant in the US - where, as this is being written, another Christian fundamentalist, one of Mr Bush's female cronies, is in the process of being inserted onto the Supreme Court - and here in Jamaica too, for that matter.

The shock troopers of this evangelism are now fully engaged in what may be a decisive political battle. Their enemy is the theory of evolution, the very bedrock of Science's explanation of life. To it they're opposing a 'theory' of Intelligent Design; and that is the legal battle that was joined in a Pennsylvania courthouse a fortnight ago. There, 11 parents are suing a school board for requiring science teachers to teach 'alternatives' to evolution, including Intelligent Design. The case could mark the tipping point of America's plunge into The Dark.

Now, this column is no more prepared to waste time 'debating' Creationism - which holds that the world and everything in it was created by God, a mere 6,000 years ago - than arguing against the 'theory' that the earth is the centre of the universe.

(Although, the way things are going, some unfortunate columnist may well find himself, 50 years from now, having to do just that. History, after all, has repeatedly shown that a regressing civilisation has its own deathward momentum.) But it's worth noting that the psychological payoff of this scientific gibberish is in each case the same: each panders to the infantile ego and its illusion of centrality.

You and I are much more important as God-appointed lords of a brand new universe specifically created by Him as our estate, than if we were merely the highest-evolved (for now) species of a small planet in a peripheral solar system in a dime-a-dozen galaxy in a universe comprising many billions of galaxies many billions of years old. It's not hard to discern infantilism's hyphen linking the Creationist to the sentimental, 'God gave me the victory' religiosity of innumerable athletes, warlords, etc.

This doesn't mean, of course, that Creationism isn't winning. It's certainly rampant - and not only in the USA. A Jamaican friend tells me, eg, that in the Galapagos Islands there's a Jehovah Witness church; and it's situated on (sic) Darwin Avenue.

That's the point of it, of course: to take the fight into the heart of 'enemy' territory. Like GW Bush summoning the cameras into Baghdad to record his imperial legions tearing down the statue of Saddam. (It was in the Galapagos, of course, that Darwin observed the species that led him to formulate the theory of evolution.)

Now, on its face, Intelligent Design (ID) is harder to rebut than Creationism, with its unabashed primitivism. Though essentially nothing more than the prettified face of the latter, the vehicle aboard which Faith's crusaders intend to overwhelm the citadel of science, ID cannily refrains from espousing the 6,000-year-old-universe silliness (in which, I am sorry to report, fully 18 of 24 students in my recent CARIMAC class staunchly professed belief) or explicitly claiming the existence of God.

Instead, its proponents content themselves with insisting that certain features of life and the universe exhibit the characteristics of a designed product, and thus must be the work of a designer and not of an unguided process like natural selection.

ID proponents find gaps within current evolutionary theory and fill them in with speculative beliefs. They argue that while evidence pointing to the existence of an Intelligent Designer may not be observable, the latter's effects on nature can be detected.

This is a surge towards power of Aquinas' 13th Century teleological argument - 'Design' was the fifth of his five 'proofs' for God's existence - which he in turn got from Aristotle, 1,500 years earlier. And it isn't a scientific theory at all, but a faith-based assertion.

The theory of evolution has observable and repeatable facts to support it - countless, scientifically observed examples of mutations, gene flow, genetic drift, adaptation and speciation through natural selection. By contrast, ID is not empirically testable; is unsusceptible to those requirements of science, falsifiability and progressive ongoing adjustment; and it violates Occam's Razor (look it up) as well.

In fact, proponents of ID batten upon the necessary tentativeness of science to say triumphantly, 'Look! You still can't explain this (or that)!' Not 'haven't yet,' notice, but 'can't'. And if they triumph, as - astonishing thought though it is! - they may well do in the United States, they will make sure that 'haven't yet' becomes 'can't' - by banning such things as stem cell research, for example.

Of course, in thinking circles, ID is easily enough parodied. One current satire claims to speak from the perspective of ID. It notes that to date there's no theory of gravity that's mathematically reconcilable with quantum mechanics; takes that to mean that gravity is 'a theory in crisis'; and then affirms its own 'theory'.

This is that things fall not because they're acted upon by a gravitational force, but because there's an Intelligent Designer pushing them down. The satire concludes with the demand that this 'competing theory of gravity' be taught in schools alongside Newtonian mathematics, since - as Mr Bush, supporting the teaching of ID in schools, averred - 'Debate is healthy.'

But The Darkness is too near at hand to be funny. And besides, look at the state of the world in our time! Fantasies of the Apocalypse may have at their root the same infantile illusion of centrality - for of course you must be pretty special, and arguably one of The Chosen, to have the world end in your time! But so much of the news of late has been of disasters of 'biblical' proportions.

9-11. The crashing return of the Christian Crusaders, armed with 'shock and awe', back in the heart of Islam. The Asian tsunami. Those explosions on the London Underground (they were clearly intended to collapse Earth itself on top of the bombers and their victims). This summer's 'biblical' Floods that destroyed New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast.

Try to visualise this scene, from an NYT report of a New Orleans jail where the jailors simply fled, leaving behind them 600 inmates - many incarcerated for minor offences like public drunkenness - in locked and flooding cells.

"As the water began rising, the prisoners on the ground level could be heard calling for help. 'We was calling down to the guys in the cells under us,' one inmate is quoted as saying, 'talking to them every few minutes.

They were crying; they were scared.' Those on the upper level broke windows and either leapt out or set fire to pieces of clothing and held them outside the windows to signal to rescuers. The prisoners inside spent four days without power, food or water, standing in sewage-tainted water up to their chests - or necks.Inmates say they saw bodies floating in the water."

It's vision of Hell worthy of Dante. Surely God - the Old Testament's wrathful God - is terminally angry! Surely the Second Coming is at hand!

Such heraldic alarm may, as I say, be nothing more than that 'exciting' mix of infantilism and religiosity having its 15 minutes in front of the camera, in Earth's serene and stone-blind scheme of things. But in fact, a world may well be ending: Galileo's and Jefferson's lovely world of skeptical inquiry and thought.

And if not your or my children, or even grandchildren, then their grandchildren may well be required to learn by rote at school:
'God made the world in seven days, 6,000 years ago.

And then came the Flood, and Noah's Ark, in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado. The body is God's temple: genetic inquiry is the work of the Devil. Dinosaur 'fossils' were planted in the ground by Hollywood prop men.'

...from the Jamacia Observer