The Christchurch Press makes its way up to Nelson overnight and arrives at our front entrance between 7 am and 7.30 am most mornings. Saturday's paper is the biggie of the week. A regular columnist is Martin Van Beynen. Last week he wrote a promotion in favour of atheism, against the rationality of the existence of God, and against religion in general as a waste of time.
Having received a few letters - perhaps quite a few letters because he can single out a few as written by people whose 'tone and gentle attempt at persuasion made me feel like a nasty mean atheist' - Van Beynen decides to have another go at God and religion! (Page C10 - no link yet)
You can probably guess the gist of the line he takes: science makes religion redundant and 'The science most destructive to religion is of course the theory of evolution.'
One challenge this line has to overcome is the phenomenon of ethical humanity. In his initial attempt to tackle this hurdle, Van Beynen cites a reviewer of Dawkins' The God Delusion to the effect that even virtues such as loyalty, charity and honesty can be explained by evolution.
Supposing this to be so (which I do not), another challenge is why we should respect each other, committing to the sacredness of life, rather than, as the occasion arises, 'getting rid of a few here and there so we can improve our chances of survival'?
A good question requires a good answer, but I find Van Beynen's answer quite odd, and very unconvincing. This is what he says:
"The answer is that such actions are wrong because they breach the very thing that makes us different [to other species]-our fundamental humanity. These are the common virtues which define us and which ensure our collective wellbeing. Our humanity is a code in itself and contains the resources we need to create better lives for ourselves and others without recourse to superstition and supernatural forces."
This is incredibly weak as an argument. Notions of 'fundamental humanity' and 'code' in this context imply an all-governing, inexorable moral force shaping our human destiny as strongly as the life force of evolution which drives us to mate with each other in ways which improve our DNA's chances of survival through improved fitness from generation to generation. But in fact we rebel against that force, often taking up the opportunity to get rid of a few here and there (actually, in the case of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong, two at least of whom count among the more famous atheists, many millions).
I think I shall stick with Genesis 1 as the key to the ethics of respect for human life,and Genesis 3 as the definitive account of why we rebel against the finest of virtues!