Written by Rupert Goodwins for The Independent Newspaper (London).
I FOUND JESUS IN MY LAP-TOP!
Modern technology is keeping alive a debate that first famously flared at a
meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, at
Oxford in 1860. Then Thomas Huxley and the Bishop of Oxford, 'Soapy Sam'
Wilberforce, set the tone for the creation-versus-evolution argument which,
for many, epitomises the conflict between science and religion. Now,
personal computers and terminals are carrying the same discussion, as
active as ever, across the world.
The source of the desktop theology comes from the United States, where
proponents of 'scientific creationism' still stalk the land. They believe
that the literal word of the Bible can be scientifically proved, although
this contradicts great swathes of biology, geology and genetics. Their
ideas, and those of their detractors, are propagated through Internet, a
computer network linking more than four million people in 100 countries or
more. Its origins in educational and industrial establishments are shown
clearly in the mixture of academic, scientific and computer types who
populate its rowdy corridors.
Everyone on Internet can receive and contribute to news-groups, the
thematic discussion areas dedicated to a wide range of human activities.
The creation debate centres on one group called 'talk.origins', where those
who believe in the literal reading of the Bible come face to face with
unreconstructed rationalists. Electronic conferencing is a natural
bedfellow of religious debate, combining rhetorical cut and thrust with the
change to think through and research an answer to a statement; if ever a
synthesis of ideas can be achieved, it is here.
As well as the regular core of 20 or so participants, there is a much
larger pool of contributors and the occasional newcomer. These are
particularly cherished, not so much for any novel angle they might throw on
the debate but for the brash naivety that comes with a recent convert.
Currently, the news-group is waiting for details of the mathematical and
logical disproofs which, we are assured by one Daniel Tracy of El Cajon,
California, have long since disposed of evolution.
To the jaded and battle-weary pro-evolution contingent, such bold and
unsubstantiated claims are pleasurable breaks in an otherwise hard slog.
Occasionally, a new theory appears and flourishes briefly; nobody is quite
sure how to approach a strand of Muslim thought that claims white
scientists are suppressing the truth that coloured men ruled the earth 66
trilion years ago.
The hard core of debaters, known as the T O Regulars, make up efficient,
well supplied fighting units. Because of the high level of participation
from students, scientific papers are frequently quoted and misquoted, and
it is not uncommon for the authors of a paper to be traced to amplify or
refute a particular point.
Another weapon used almost solely by the rationalists, is the Frequently
Asked Question list. The FAQs are distillations of the most common
questions or assertions made in the news-group, together with the canonical
answers; when a neophyte arrives and shows signs of technical ignorance, a
FAQ is immediately sent to their electronic mailbox. These are often
thousands of lines long; dedication is demanded of the participants.
At its best, the debate is erudite, specific and good humoured - but at its
worst, the frustration on both sides leads to invective and insults.
Called 'flaming', this isn't without its entertainment value but allows
many to ignore questions and change the subject. Few personal attacks come
close to the celebrated exchange between Huxley and the bishop, where Soapy
Sam asked whether Huxley was descended from an ape on his grandfather's or
grandmother's side. Huxley's reply - that he would rather be descended
from an ape than from a learned man who meddled in matters of which he knew
nothing - set the tone for the fierce partisanship that has characterised
the argument since.
Having watched talk.origins for more than a year, I have watched certain
patterns of debate emerge. A creationist attacks evolution, either
generally or with some specific claims. These are rebutted, usually within
a day, by one or more T O Regulars. The rebuttals are ignored, challenged
or ridiculed, according to the thoughtfulness of the original proponent:
the fight is joined. That's the easy part.
At the beginning of the year, the debate spilled over on to Cix, a
London-based conferencing system. This time, there is only one creationist
whose personal creed includes eternal death for going to church on Sunday,
a ban on Christmas trees and the dogma that Jesus had short hair.
In an impressive feat of stamina, he has withstood the counterblasts of the
rationalists, mainstream Christians, Pagans and assorted hackers for five
months. At the last count, a quarter of a million words have been expended
on the debate, making about as much impression on the solitary
fundamentalist as termites did on the Ark.
In all the history of talk.origins, in all the mythologies and
counterclaims that flit across the globe, one event is rarely observed or
proclaimed: conversion of a disbeliever, from either side. It is not
uncommon for the more naive creationist to by flattened in days by the
regualr artillery of the Regulars; the first time a bystander sees this
happen, it seems certain that this is the end of it. Sometimes it is - the
hapless newcomer is never heard of again. Often, though, there's a pause
of a month or so and back comes the target, arguments unchanged but
attitude hardended. Logic is left behind in favour of restatement of
position and denial of the existence of the difficult questions.
For the naive rationalist, convinced of the power of reason and objective
observation, this can come as a shock. For many it is especially galling
that 'scientific creationism' inspires such blind faith in its adherents,
despite its assumption of the scientific method, which would seem to make
it vulnerable to logic and physical evidence such as fossils.
As an object lesson in the nature of fundamentalism and the difficulties in
countering it through liberal discourse, talk.origins performs a far more
valuable function than that of its stated aim, to boldly talk where so many
have talked before.