George Claassen

Harry Potter, religion 'alike'

2005-07-22 08:50

Scientists could only listen with a wry smile to the hysteria over the past week's Harry Potter phenomenon.

Not because there should be any criticism against the wonderful reality that people are also prepared to stand long hours in meandering lines to buy a book - and not only to buy tickets for a football, rugby or baseball match.

But because religious leaders and theologians had the audacity to vent their anger at the Potter success story to get children - and many adults, for that matter - reading again.

Their reason? It would corrupt children's souls, JK Rowling was sent by the devil to introduce innocent children to the dark and evil world of magic, and children, should rather read their own religion's holy books than indulge in the fantasy world of Harry Potter.

The wry smile of science about these astonishing claims by religious leaders can also be seen when those same leaders poke their noses into the affairs of science.

According to the American natural scientist and theologian Ian Barbour there are four possible models or classifications for the relationship between science and religion: the Conflict Model, the Independent Model, the Dialogue Model, and the Integration Model.

Science and religion 'should be integrated'

Barbour is in favour that there should be a dialogue between science and religion and in some instances also an integration of the two. He finds the Conflict and Independent Models unacceptable.

The Harvard scientist Stephen Jay Gould thought differently and proposed the principle of Noma - Non Overlapping Magisteria - when the relationship between science and religion is put on the table.

Gould proposed that the domains of religion and science should productively co-exist as the Magisterium of Science and the Magisterium of Morality/Religion, a form of the Independent Model.

In a paper delivered at the first Human Genome in Africa Conference in March 2003, the president of the Academy of Science of South Africa, Wieland Gevers, said that "if teaching/learning in biology is to be driven within the 'Magisterium of Science' (to which it clearly belongs) then evolution as demonstrably the most important and productive conceptual framework for understanding and learning biology is absolutely necessary by any reasoning".

However, warned Gevers, if the Magisterium of Morality/Religion, holds that such teaching/learning is subject to societal contestation and pressure, then we have an uncomfortable and unsustainable interaction between the supposedly separate thought/function domains that is precisely the opposite of what Gould hoped his proposition would achieve.

Richard Dawkins, Charles Simonyi professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, is far more blunt about religious interference into the world of science.

Religious propaganda

He believes - and I tend to agree with him - that the separate magisteria or Independent Model fails "on the deniable fact that religions still make claims about the world which, on analysis, turn out to be scientific claims - they make wanton use of miracle stories, which are blatant intrusions into scientific territory," he writes in A Devils Chaplain (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

"The Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Raising of Lazarus, the manifestations of Mary and the Saints around the Catholic world, even the Old Testament miracles, all are freely used for religious propaganda, and very effective they are with an audience of unsophisticates and children."

Dawkins emphasises that each of these miracles amounts to a scientific claim, "a violation of the normal running of the natural world. Theologians, if they want to remain honest, should make a choice," Dawkins challenges.

They can claim their own magisterium, separate from science's, but still deserving of respect. But in that case they have to renounce miracles.

My question is: What is the difference between the fantasy world of Harry Potter and the fantasy world religions hold up every day to their followers?

Not one of them is based on the laws of nature and the Universe as described by science and its evidence based on reason and observation.

Both claim miracles, both are merely a form of escapism, whether it is to fly magically through the air, or make us elude the tentacles of everlasting Death. And both are highly effective with an audience of the ignorant and children.

  • George Claassen is science editor of Die Burger, the largest Afrikaans daily in South Africa. His book, Geloof, Bygeloof en Ander Wensdenkery - Hoe Vals Hoop en Vrees Mense Mislei (Faith, Superstition and Other Wishful Thoughts - How False Hope and Fear Mislead) will appear early in 2006 at Protea Boekhuis.

    Send your comments to George or discuss this column now in our debating forum.

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