The rise of ISIS

December 6, 2015

In the last month ISIS terror attacks have left 130 dead in Paris, 43 dead in Beirut and 224 people dead in after they downed a Russian airliner over Egypt. That makes 400 victims in under a month. But those who have been living under ISIS rule since 2014 have already experienced the terror of their rule. It was on June 10 2014 that the group showed its intentions. After a mere four days of fighting, 1,300 Isis fighters captured Iraq’s northern capital Mosul defeating the Iraqi forces which were said to number 60,000. They then set about killing their enemies, demolishing historic shrines ad generally spreading terror. On June 29 its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed himself caliph (successor to the Prophet Mohammed and rightful leader of all Muslims). Islamic State now controls an area roughly the size of Britain, with a population of at least six million.

As I have mentioned before, I don’t follow the news as much as I should do and the whole ISIS thing passed me by until their macabre videos started appearing on the internet. I won’t make any excuses for my ignorance but what is more surprising is that Barack Obama admitted that the U.S. defence and intelligence establishment had underestimated the threat posed by the terror group until they took over large swathes of Syria and Iraq. Given the events of the last fifteen years or so, with the rise of Islamist insurgencies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen, this is a surprising admission. In order to remedy my own ignorance I decided to read a couple of books, The Rise of ISIS by Patrick Cockburn and Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick.

Warrick’s book focuses a lot on the origins of the group in Iraq after the Second Gulf War. The key figure, the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, actually died before ISIS came into existence. He was the leader of the Al Qaida “franchise” in Iraq. This high school dropout was a man of the street, who had hit the bottle, experimented with drug use, been in fights and had his body covered in tattoos. He was not the kind of person you would imagine leading a radical religious group. He was not a significant player but then the Bush administration had the brilliant idea of naming Zarqawi as the connection between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. Much has been made of the lack of weapons of mass destruction, but a far more egregious lie was that of the connection between Al Qaida and Saddam Hussein. Zarqawi, just like most of these jihadists, detested Saddam Hussein and his government, which systemically persecuted them. America’s intelligence experts knew there was no truth to that connection and yet, we it was made anyway.

Alas, this was not the only mistake that the Americans would make. The worst thing that they did was to disband the Iraqi army and outlaw the Ba’ath Party, creating a natural constituency of rebellion. This played into Zarqawi’s strategy to create chaos in Iraq. There was the deadly vacuum that was left after the war. They then went on the attack against the Shia majority to provoke retaliation. By maximizing chaos they could push Iraq into civil war. Zarqawi was eventually killed in 2006 by an American bomb dropped from an F-16. But the template was in place.

His eventual successor, the man who would declare the Islamic State in June 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was very different to Zarqawi. Had it not been for the invasion of Iraq, he may well have spent his career teaching Sharia law in an Iraqi university.  Instead, he ended up rising through the ranks. And in 2010, when a number of the other leaders of the Islamic State were killed, he suddenly found himself at the top of the organization.

The Syrian civil war, which began in March 2011, provided the perfect scenario for the organisation. There was a perfect storm. The Assad regime overreacted to the demonstrations. Governments, such as those in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar were sending large amounts of money to the jihadist militants in Syria. This support is another important factor. This obsession with promoting Sunni organisations is driving a lot of violence. Apart from the money there is the exporting of Wahhabism, the fundamentalist, eighteenth-century version of Islam. This is an ultraconservative movement within Islam that seeks the imposition of sharia law, and treats women as second-class citizens. It considers Shia and Sufi Muslims as non-Muslims, meaning that they should be persecuted along with Christians, Jews and any other apostates.  There are many elements to ISIS but to claim that it has nothing to do with Islam is bizarre. Voltaire famously quipped that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. But Islamic State is both Islamic and at the moment it controls a state.

In late 2013 and early 2014 the ISIS leaders in Syria saw an opportunity in Iraq. Huge caravans of ISIS fighters began pouring across the border and were very quickly able to overcome much the larger divisions of US-trained and supplied Iraqi troops.  Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, fell in just two days. The Iraqi army just fell apart.

ISIS took Zarqawi’s strategy and built on it, thanks to the new social media – Twitter, Facebook and Instagram; they are very media-savvy. Not only were the videos of the beheadings, crucifixions etc. a way of intimidating potential adversaries, they also proved to be a vital recruiting tool. What is particularly frightening about ISIS is that they now have a state apparatus at their disposal. According to Warrick this is unique in the history of modern terrorism. Their access to funding, especially the oil, in the areas they control is a significant factor. I mentioned the resource curse in previous posts:

Having a large supply of oil enables autocrats to pay off their supporters and accumulate enormous personal wealth. It is tragic that while oil revenues provide the resources to deal with these countries’ problems, they actually create the political incentives to make the situation worse

Not having to collect so much from the local population, ISIS has few incentives to win their hearts and minds.

What are my conclusions? I am a little bit sceptical about the utility of bombing Iraq. And putting 100.000 troops on the ground is a complicated enterprise. Another lesson I have learned is that things can always get worse. Come back Taliban all is forgiven! When the Taliban were running Afghanistan, I couldn’t imagine anything worse. But ISIS almost makes them look good. It really is a vile ideology. But it is not a death cult. There is method in their terror. And so far it has proved horribly effective.

Regimes like those of Saddam, Gadaffi and Assad may appear terrible, but leaving a power vacuum can be worse. The project of the US and its Western allies allying with the theocratic Sunni absolute monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to spread democracy and enhance human rights in Iraq, Libya and Syria was always rather delusional. The fact that ISIS has a state could make it easier to attack. But it is not easy to form a coalition with all the disparate interests. Something will have to be done at the very least to contain the threat. Let’s just hope that whatever the intervention, it is better thought out than the last few.

The “creation” of Islamophobia and the challenge to free speech

March 22, 2015

Earlier this month the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), a registered British charity, announced its annual award for ‘the world’s most Islamophobic person or publication’ in 2015. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US president Barack Obama and American television host Bill Maher were among the candidates vying for the title. However, the winner was the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. Staff at the publication were unable to accept the award as many of them had been murdered for mocking Mohammed. The IHRC says their award is tongue in cheek. Bullet in the head is perhaps a better description.

According to the Muslim website 5Pillars, the award was given to Charlie Hebdo because of its “continual stoking of Islamophobic sentiment by caricaturing Muslims as terrorists and ridiculing their beliefs. …Charlie Hebdo’s repeated mocking of Muslims is part of a culture of hate that is intended to marginalise, further alienate and further endanger a community that has effectively been “otherised” in much the same way that Jews were in Nazi Germany.”

Whenever people invoke the Nazis, alarm bells go off for me. To maintain the fiction that Muslims in Europe are being “otherised” in the manner of Jews in Nazi Germany is outrageous. And as far as I know there are no plans to build extermination camps. What’s more Muslims in Europe enjoy full rights – far more so than in any Islamic country in the world today or ever.

Islamophobia seems to be the creation of political elites rather than being a grassroots campaign to win equality or liberty for a particular minority. It entered into common English usage in 1997 with the publication of a report by the Runnymede Trust condemning negative emotions such as fear, hatred, and dread directed at Islam or Muslims. ‘Islamophobia is the new racism’ has become the new orthodoxy. But are we conflating the normal prejudice that is part of the human condition with a national epidemic of irrational hatred against Muslims?  Brendan O’Neil is scathing about the introduction of this term:

Islamophobia is in essence a multicultural conceit, the invention of infinitesimally small, aloof, crisis-ridden elites keen to clamp down on any heated or overly judgmental discussion of non-Western values.”

My difficulties with this word are not because hatred of, or discrimination against, Muslims does not exist. Clearly they do. There is no doubt that Islam is seen by some as a monolithic bloc, static and unresponsive to change. When someone calls for a ban on building mosques that is clearly bigotry. I think that is a link between Islam and violence, but that this is hardly unique to Islam. Anyone looking at the Bible will find lots of references to violence. There is a well established history of religious violence throughout history. And even if I could abolish religion tomorrow, I would not eradicate violence. This, like prejudice, is part of the human condition. We cannot blame Muslims for the two world wars, the Holocaust or the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? There is plenty of violence from all corners of the globe for which blame can be apportioned.

However, invoking Islamophobia blurs the line between legitimate criticism and hatred. Any attack on Islamic doctrine can be construed as hatred. As I pointed out in a previous post about free speech, Islam is neither a race nor an ethnicity, but a set of beliefs and customs. Criticising these ideas does not mean we are suffering from a mental disorder. The conflation of criticism and hatred makes it impossible to have a rational discussion.

I do feel that Islam as a whole needs to a better job of self-criticism and modernisation. Like American fundamentalist Christians with the Bible, many seem to believe that the Qur’an is the literal word of God. I find this kind of certainty extremely dangerous. There is no truck with doubt.  Rather than engage in the soul-searching that the state of the Muslim world they prefer to blame all problems on the West. Now I do think we need to re-evaluate our role in the Islamic world. Our support of Saudi Arabia, which promotes Wahhabism, a retrograde form of Islam, cannot be justified. How apostates are treated is a litmus test. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali woman who writes and lectures about the status of women in much of the Muslim world, and is incidentally a former recipient if the IHRC Islamophobe of the Year, travels with bodyguards and has to live in hiding. There can be no possible justification for this state of affairs. And to argue that Islam has nothing to do with the oppression of women in the Islamic world strikes me as perverse.

So once again I want to defend free speech. This applies to Islamophobic speech and to awards like the Islamophobe of the Year. Banning speech is counter-productive. Free speech laws are not about the right to express inoffensive ideas. It is about those ideas which cause offence which need to be permitted.

Bill Maher On Islam

March 22, 2015

Here are a couple of videos from Bill Maher, a candidate for Islamophobe of the year. They includes an interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali:


From avatars to the Singularity

November 30, 2014

I first heard the term avatar in connection with computers. It was the time of Second Life, the online virtual world that became famous around a decade ago. Second Life users create virtual representations of themselves, called avatars, which are able to interact with other avatars, places or objects. Then in 2009 James Cameron’s film came out and the word had truly arrived. According to Wikipedia avatar also refers to a village in Qazvin Province, Iran, a guitar synthesizer and a Swedish melodic death metal band. I was vaguely aware of the terms Hindu origins, but it was not until I heard an episode of BBC Radio 4’s programme about religion Beyond Belief that I began to have a clearer understanding of what an avatar really is.

Derived from the Sanskrit avatra, meaning descent, an avatar is a deity takes human form in order to return to Earth. The purpose of the visit is to restore order. Krishna and Ram are both avatars. And, according to some beliefs schools, so are Jesus and Buddha.

These parallels with Christianity are interesting. The common translation of avatar as incarnation is rather misleading. Appearance or manifestation would be perhaps more accurate. In mainstream Christianity Jesus and God are one in the same. The concept of an avatar corresponds to versions of Christianity that fell by the wayside and which came to be regarded as heresies. Docetism is defined as “the doctrine according to which the phenomenon of Christ, his historical and bodily existence, and thus above all the human form of Jesus, was altogether mere semblance without any true reality.” The idea was that Jesus only seemed to be human, and that his human form was an illusion. Docetism was unequivocally rejected at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and is regarded as heretical by just about every branch of Christianity.

I am also interested in the use of avatars in our secular age. The programme features a company called They collect what you have created during lifetime, and using complex Artificial Intelligence algorithms, process this huge amount of information. With this they can generate an avatar that imitates your personality. This avatar will then be able to interact with family and friends once you have passed away. Here is what they say on their website:

But what if you could be remembered forever?


A legacy for your family


What if your children or grand children would know more about you and your life? What if they would be more like you, think more like you?


Everything you did


What if all the important events, adventures and thoughts in your life would be accessible to future generations, who never met the real you?


A living proof of you


And what if, more than that, they could really interact with your memories, as if they were talking to you in person?

Creepy is the word that most obviously comes to mind. But I do have curiosity about this idea. Of course in one sense it is not new. Photographs have been a source of comfort for years. The Victorians would even take photographs of the dead. Post-mortem photographs may strike us as morbid, but they were believed to help in the grieving process. Being the only visual remembrance of the deceased, they were among a family’s most precious possessions. Here is one of a deceased baby:

dead baby

More recently videos have performed a similar function. Séances were an attempt to interact with loved ones. Although as one wag said: Talking to the dead is easy. Getting the dead to talk back is the hard part. You would think that or most people interacting with this ersatz family member would not be satisfying, but who knows how future generations will react.

We may be living in a secular age, but utopian thinking is very much alive and plans to perpetuate itself for ever. The Singularity is the most famous example of this worldview.

Ray Kurzweil, its most famous evangeliser summed it up like this:

The Singularity is an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today — the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity.”

By 2045, some futurists believe, humans will be able to achieve digital immortality by uploading their minds to computers. It is a fascinating possibility, but for critics it is a secular version of the hypothetical Christian Rapture. Philosopher John Gray says “the Singularity echoes apocalyptic myths in which history is about to be interrupted by a world-transforming event.” Like Gray I am sceptical that Kurzweil’s vision of immortality is something I would want. Would it not be just a cartoon version of us? But I suppose the Singularity and as a means of cheating death will have to be a topic for another post. I will leave you with Gray’s sceptical view on the subject.

Near-Death Experiences

November 2, 2014

Over the Summer I saw the film Heaven Is For Real:

Here is an alternative trailer:

It has to be said that the film is not exactly a masterpiece, but I am interested in the phenomenon described in the movie – the Near-Death Experience, a sensation or vision of the afterlife reported by a person who has come close to death One of the earliest accounts of an NDE is the Myth of Er, featured by Plato in The Republic. A soldier revives on his funeral-pyre and describes his journey in the afterlife.

What is an NDE? They typically occur when a patient has either been close to clinical death or has recovered after having been declared dead. There are some common experiences that characterise them. You typically hear about bright lights, dark tunnels and celestial music. The subjects’ lives flash before them. It is frequently an out of body experience with subjects reporting hovering above the operating table. Without physical bodies, they are able to travel through walls and doors and project themselves wherever they want. Ultimately they are told that it is not their time yet and that they have to go back to the land of the living.

In the 1980s, NDEs gained a certain degree of “credibility” through the work of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, an American psychiatrist. Incidentally, she was also the one who pioneered the theory of the five stages of grief. Kübler-Ross provided this classic example of an NDE:

Mrs. Schwartz came into the hospital and told us how she had had a near-death experience. She was a housewife from Indiana, a very simple and unsophisticated woman. She had advanced cancer, had haemorrhaged and was put into a private hospital, very close to death. The doctors attempted for 45 minutes to revive her, after which she had no vital signs and was declared dead. She told me later that while they were working on her, she had an experience of simply floating out of her physical body and hovering a few feet above the bed, watching the resuscitation team work very frantically. She described to me the designs of the doctors’ ties, she repeated a joke one of the young doctors told, she remembered absolutely everything. And all she wanted to tell them was relax, take it easy, it is all right, don’t struggle so hard. The more she tried to tell them, the more frantically they worked to revive her. Then, in her own language, she “gave up” on them and lost consciousness. After they declared her dead, she made a comeback and lived for another year and a half.

I have to say that I am underwhelmed by the claims about NDEs. They are not as the neurosurgeon Eben Alexander has claimed in a best selling “non-fiction” book, proof of God’s existence. I am sure they feel real to those who experience them, but that doesn’t mean they actually happened. In some cases it may be down to drugs that have been administered to the patient. Lack of oxygen to the brain can interfere with the normal rate of firing by nerve cells in the visual cortex. This may trigger the images that subjects see. I have already mentioned in another post the fallible nature of memory. Memory does not work like a VCR. You don’t just record the event and play it back later. What happens is that every time we recall them we reconstructing them anew. This can explain why eyewitness testimony can be so unreliable. When recovering from an NDE, the brain has absolutely no problem inventing a continuous narrative to fill in the blanks. This is exactly how our minds work; we want a coherent story. Confirmation bias is also at work here. We hear these stories about subjects remembering things that they could not have possibly known. But when they get something wrong nobody notices. This is why they say that the plural of anecdote is not data. NDEs remain one of the great unsolved mysteries of psychology. We do not have all the answers yet. But we need to apply Occam’s Razor. Which is more likely, that an NDE is a phenomenon that science has been unable to explain completely up until now or that it is proof of an afterlife?

An interview with the Burpos

November 2, 2014

The film Heaven Is For Real is about the Burpo family.  In the book, Burpo relates what his four year-old son Colton told him about what he remembered of his alleged trip to heaven. I haven’t read the book but I found this summary on a sceptical website:

 John the Baptist is “nice.”

Jesus has a rainbow-coloured horse

There are lots of colours in heaven, because heaven is where all the rainbow colours are.

Jesus has “markers” (red-coloured wounds in his hands and feet). He has brown hair and a beard. His eyes are very pretty. He wears white clothes with a purple sash, and he is the only one in heaven who wears purple. He has a circular “gold thing” on his head with a pink-coloured “diamond thing” in the centre.

Jesus teaches children in heaven, and gives them homework.

Everybody has wings in heaven, and everybody flies. But not Jesus. Jesus is the only one in heaven who does not have wings. He just goes up and down “like an elevator.”

People in heaven look like angels and have lights above their head. They all wear white with yellow sashes. They wear different colours than the angels do.

The angel Gabriel sits on the left side of God’s throne. He is “really nice.”

In heaven, Colton sat in a little chair next to the Holy Spirit, who was “kind of blue.”

No one is old in heaven, and no one wears glasses.

Jesus “shoots down power” to pastors when they are about to preach.

Angels carry swords in heaven to keep Satan out.

Besides Jesus’ rainbow horse, there are other animals in heaven, including dogs, birds, and a friendly lion.

Colton met Mary, the mother of Jesus. She “still loves him like a mom.”

And here you can see them being interviewed by the notorious Pat Robertson. You may remember that Robertson and      Jerry Falwell appeared to suggest homosexuals, abortion-rights supporters and liberal civil-rights activists were partly to blame for the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Anyway, enjoy the interview:

The complete IDiot’s guide to teaching evolution

June 8, 2013

Kansas Outlaws Practice Of Evolution

In response to a Nov. 7 referendum, Kansas lawmakers passed emergency legislation outlawing evolution, the highly controversial process responsible for the development and diversity of species and the continued survival of all life. Lawmakers decried spontaneous genetic mutations.

“From now on, the streets, forests, plains, and rivers of Kansas will be safe from the godless practice of evolution, and species will be able to procreate without deviating from God’s intended design,” said Bob Bethell, a member of the state House of Representatives. “This is about protecting the integrity of all creation.”

…”Barn swallows that develop lighter, more streamlined builds to enable faster migration, for example, could live out the rest of their brief lives in prison,” said Indiana University chemist and pro-intelligent-design author Robert Hellenbaum, who helped compose the language of the law. “And butterflies who mimic the wing patterns and colours of other butterflies for an adaptive advantage, well, their days of flouting God’s will are over.” The Onion, Nov 28, 2006 


A few weeks ago a fourth grader’s science quiz went viral on the internet. It was a creationist exam and the questions and answers included:

The earth is billions of years old.   FALSE

On what day did God make the dinosaurs? THE SIXTH

Dinosaurs lived with people. TRUE

What is the “history book of the universe?”  BIBLE

What did Noah tell God to build?  AN ARK

What caused there to be fossils? THE GLOBAL FLOOD

The next time someone says the Earth is billions (or millions) of years old, what can you say?  WERE YOU THERE?

There have always been many Christians who have rejected the theory of evolution. But before 1925 it was very much a religious dispute between fundamentalists and modernists. However, as public education expanded, what high school students were learning in their science classes began to attract more attention. And it all came to head in one of America’s trials of the century – a trial about an idea.

The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes is popularly known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. It took place in July 1925 and was immortalised in the film Inherit the Wind. However, this presented a rather simplified vision of events. In fact, the reality was in many ways was much more interesting. The trial, which was the first to be broadcast on national radio, was quite frankly a bit of a media circus. It was deliberately staged in order to attract publicity to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, which had seen its local industry decimated in the years before the trial. Indeed, Scopes, a substitute high school teacher, was unsure whether he had ever actually taught evolution, but he allowed himself to be incriminated himself so that the case could have a defendant. Scopes was charged with violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which made it illegal to teach human evolution in any public school.

At the heart of the story were three larger-than-life characters – Clarence Darrow William Jennings Bryan and Henry Louis Mencken. Darrow was the big-shot lawyer and religious sceptic who, for the only time in his career, waived his usually hefty fees in order to represent the defendant. Bryan, the prosecution lawyer, was a devout Christian, a genuine radical and a brilliant orator, who had unsuccessfully stood for the American presidency three times. An opponent of laissez-faire capitalism, social Darwinism, eugenics, and militarism, he argued that the citizens had should have their say over what was taught in public schools. He just didn’t trust science, which he perceived as an elitist enterprise. Finally, there was the professional cynic H.L. Mencken, who had a glorious time laying into the locals. A mob almost lynched him after he called the people of Dayton “yokels,” “primates,” morons,” and “hillbillies.” But Mencken saved his worst barbs for Bryan:

It is a tragedy, indeed, to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon. But let no one, laughing at him, underestimate the magic that lies in his black, malignant eye, his frayed but still eloquent voice. He can shake and inflame these poor ignoramuses as no other man among us can shake and inflame them, and he is desperately eager to order the charge.”

Generally, when you hear about the trial you get an image of Bryan as the religious nutter. That is how Darrow wanted to portray him in his famous cross-examination. The fact that the prosecution lawyer was cross-examined by defence counsel was rather unusual. Here are some of Darrow’s questions to Bryan:

If Eve was actually created from Adam’s rib, where did Cain get his wife?

How many people lived in Ancient Egypt?

But, when you read that Jonah swallowed the whale – or that the whale swallowed Jonah, excuse me, please, how do you literally interpret that?

Do you believe Joshua made the sun stand still?

Do you believe at that time the entire sun went around the earth?

Darrow wanted to portray him as a biblical literalist but Bryan’s views were more nuanced:

“But I think it would be just as easy for the kind of God we believe in to make the earth in six days as in six years or in 6,000,000 years or in 600,000,000 years. I do not think it important whether we believe one or the other.

We don’t often hear about the textbook at the centre of the controversy. Hunter’s Civic Biology, which was published in 1914, did undoubtedly reflect early 20th century mores. Here are a couple of extracts which capture the flavour:

The Races of Man.At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest race type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.

Eugenics When people marry there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand. The most important of these is freedom from germ diseases which might be handed down to the offspring. Tuberculosis, syphilis, that dread disease which cripples and kills hundreds of thousands of innocent children, epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity. The science of being well born is called eugenics.

This makes chilling reading but it has nothing to do with whether evolution is legitimate science or not. Eugenics, which had a lot of supporters on both the left and right, but this will have to be a subject for another post. Anyway, back to the trial. Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, but the verdict was subsequently overturned on a technicality. Bryan died in Dayton less than a week after the trial, but the struggle continued. The anti-evolution statute was upheld maintained and similar measures were brought in by other states and school districts.

There has been an ongoing debate about the teaching of evolution ever since. The fist step in this battle was to ban teaching of evolution outright. And this happened until the launch of Sputnik I created a panic about the scientific race with the USSR. Evolution came back into favour in school biology classes. Now the demand was for equal time for creationism and evolution. When this was unsuccessful, creationism morphed into creation science. But in Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that a Louisiana law requiring that creation science be taught in public schools, along with evolution, was unconstitutional because the law was specifically intended to endorse a particular religion.

The final incarnation has been intelligent design. The basic idea is that the design we see is too complex to have emerged by itself. Therefore, there must be a creator at work. This assumes that design must be top-down, but evolution is a bottom-up process in which design and complexity emerge out of blind but non-random processes. If we look around us, we can see that bottom-up design all around us. Many species have genetically determined structures which appear to have lost most or all of their ancestral function. This is known as vestigiality. In whales there are small vestigial leg bones deeply buried within the back of the body. The wings of ostriches, emus, and other flightless birds remind us that their ancestors were able to fly. In humans the coccyx, is the remnant of a lost tail.

Whereas scientists do not seriously dispute that evolution is a robust theory, ordinary Americans think very differently. Opinion polls suggest that only 15% of the public believe that humans evolved without any divine help, whereas 46% think that God created humans in their present form and 32% think that humans evolved but with God’s help. American fundamentalist Christians are the most notorious example but evolution is under threat from many religions around the world. There are Hindu creationists in Asia, and Islamic creationists in Turkey. There are a variety of views in Judaism with regard to creationism. Many orthodox Jewish groups accept Darwinian evolution while many conservative Jewish groups reject it. Why do we always hear about the American case? I suppose that this is partly because it is shocking that in the country with the best scientists in the world these ideas still persist. But maybe it is also considered culturally inappropriate to criticise other religions.

Creation science and intelligent design are bullshit, whatever the source. This is pseudoscience which posits supernatural causes which lie outside the realm of methodological naturalism and scientific experiment. Science can only test empirical, natural claims. By invoking miracles they go beyond what science can deliver. Their claims are not falsifiable i.e. there is no way to show the theory to be false, regardless of any conceivable observations or experiments.

But, creation science and intelligent design are also bad religion. If there is a God, it will not be through science and reason that you find Him/Her, but through faith and revelation. There is no incompatibility between evolution and religion.