Written by Rupert Goodwins for The Independent Newspaper (London). I FOUND JESUS IN MY LAP

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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.

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