2001 : WHAT NOW?

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Evolutionary Biologist; Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, Oxford; Author, The Greatest Show on Earth, The Magic of Reality
Elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society

I have read all the contributions to this discussion and I feel strangely (the right word, in these terrible circumstances) uplifted. More or less randomly chosen examples are Robert Provine's calm and insightful application of signal detection theory, David Myers' social psychology, George Dyson's inspired shift from hub and-spoke travel to packet-switching, Karl Sabbagh's world-wise savvy, Nick Humphrey's constructive humanity, and Bruce Sterling's sober futurology. Unlike Colin Tudge, I come away with enhanced respect for the scientific mind and what it has to offer, even outside the field of science, narrowly defined. It heightens my sensitivity to what – should we become plunged into a new Dark Age – we have to lose: the culture of scientific rationalism which every one of the Edge contributors exemplifies and takes for granted: a culture which, it must be admitted, is almost as alien to many in Britain and America as it is to the Taliban.

With perverse injustice, a wave of anti-American verbal nastiness – accompanied by nice, liberal self-doubt – was triggered by the physical anti-Americanism of September 11th. We hear talk of Coca Cola, MacDonalds and other unpopular icons of supposed American culture. These are not what I would be sorry to lose, and they are relatively trivial. Modern America is the principal inheritor, and today's leading exponent, of European scientific and rational civilisation. And that means the highest civilisation ever, not excluding the Greeks and Chinese.

When we bend over backwards to see the other point of view and blame ourselves for everything; when we fall over ourselves to sympathise with religious 'hurt', 'offence' and legitimate grievance; when we tie ourselves in knots to avoid anything that could conceivably be misinterpreted as racist, let us keep a sense of proportion. The chips are down, and I suddenly know whose side I am on. A world without Islam, indeed a world from which all three Abrahamic religions had been lost, would not be an obviously worse world in which to live. You may take that as British understatement if you choose. But a world which had lost enlightened scientific reason (which is at its best in America, and not only because more resources are spent on it) would be impoverished beyond all telling. So I hope I shall not sound too corny if I want to stand up as a friend of America. Even (and it feels like pulling teeth to say so) Bush's America.

George Lakoff wants us to mobilise moderate and liberal Muslims. This is, no doubt, a worthy aim. My own constructive suggestion is that we should listen to and support those brave former Muslims who have renounced their faith altogether. The Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society (ISIS) carries on its web site a perceptive and knowledgeable commentary on the recent atrocity, by Ibn Warraq (not his real name – as a Koranic scholar he knows the punishment for apostasy). He is a leading post-Muslim intellectual and the author of Why I am not a Muslim, a book which I strongly recommend. Please read him at (http://www.secularislam.org/)

I have withdrawn most of the rest of my contribution, in deference to what seems to be an American taboo against offending religious opinion. I remain baffled by the fact that liberal arbiters freely allow us to offend against political, economic, musical, artistic and literary opinion, but religious opinion is almost universally regarded as off limits, even by atheists. Douglas Adams called attention to the same paradox, in a speech in 1998 (http://www.biota.org/people/douglasadams/index.html ).

I agree with Steve Grand that an appropriate response to the current atrocity would be for us all to stop being so damned respectful.