We are all religious

“In Egypt everyone is religious”. This was one of the most remarkable defences of Darwin and the theory of evolution I have ever heard. It came from the official representative of Bibliotheca Alexandria – the new, large library in Alexandria – during the closing debate at a conference about Darwin and society in November 2009.

God created beautiful human beings

The conference was arranged by the British Council. Over a period of 3 days, scientists and students from more than 30 countries were gathered to hear 140 lecturers speak about Darwin, evolution, and society. It was a very rewarding multicultural experience.

Fortunately, there were many purely scientific lectures. That is the necessary first step in any conversation concerning evolution: the fact that you know what you are talking about. But there were also a number of lectures concerning education, culture, religion, and the barriers regarding the theory of evolution that unfortunately are present in many countries all over the world.

We came a long way with regards to understanding the fundamental mechanisms of these barriers and that has hopefully given us some tools that will help us break them down. But there is still a long way to go. The majority of the participants did not see evolution in a scientific light but as an element in a battle of culture, society, and religion. Fortunately, there were only very few fundamentalists present. But they were present. During the closing session, one of them grabbed the microphone. She could not accept that the rest of us in all seriousness were able to talk about our kinship with the apes.

According to her, there was no wavering, no doubt, and therefore no evolution. God had created Adam and Eve as the most beautiful human beings. We are all their descendants. Therefore, it was completely unacceptable for us to suggest that such beautiful people could be related to such hairy beasts. That was the statement that prompted the official representative of Bibliotheca Alexandria. He attempted to calm her – and all others in the room with the opening words: “In Egypt everyone is religious”. It was quite possible to be religious while simultaneously recognising the theory of evolution because here, we were all religious.

Even those without religion

Earlier in the day, a similar situation occurred. Here, a lecturer had talked about how the great religions of the world had affected our scientific realization and subsequently the theory of evolution. But he forgot to mention Islam.

Fortunately, that was brought to his attention and everything was fine. This conference gave us all a unique opportunity to meet across religions and cultures – and therefore, it was important not to exclude anyone. It was made clear that: “This is where the dialog begins. We have to include everyone”. And then it was added: “even those without religion”. It was not a unique situation but the common starting point was that while we may have had different religions, when all was said and done, we were all religious.

Science is our common language

For me personally, the fact that in the public forum the question of evolution is consistently placed within a religious context is one of the most frustrating aspects of being a scientist of evolution. Evolution is interesting due to the consequences for religion. Darwin is interesting due to the competition with God.

But no, that is not the way it works. That is not the way it should be and that is not how it is going to be. As in any other science, we should be able to talk freely about our scientific results without censorship or the fear of reprisal. Fortunately, we can discard people’s personal opinions, cultural backgrounds and religious beliefs. We can and we have to separate knowledge and faith. Science gives us a common language. This is where the dialog begins.

The right to be an atheist

The right and freedom of religion applies to everyone of course. It is amazing to observe how over the last few years it has become common all over the world to look down on people without religion. What was previously completely common and unproblematic has become increasingly difficult for people in a world and an everyday life where religion is becoming more and more prevalent.

I have many colleagues who no longer feel comfortable saying that they have no religion in public. That cannot be right. The cross-cultural dialog starts before the big question is confronted. The scientific discussion starts without. Everyone has the right to their own private religion. And naturally, everyone also has the right to have no religion.

I am an atheist. I have no religion. But that is insignificant in this context.

Peter C. Kjærgaard

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