Just what was I thinking, exactly?

At one point early on in life, I never honestly thought I would ever meet a religious person younger than me. Religion was obviously on the way out, and this was not only true where I was growing up in the West, but also in large parts of the developing world, where secular governments usually of a socialist and/or post-colonial tilt had been promising a step-change away from tradition, superstition and ignorance towards science, development and progress. When I was at university, I expected that by the time I got to the age I am now, creeping up on 40, the only religious people would be some old folks barely able to keep the church lawn mowed.

Of course, you can say I was a fool — that as far as the Muslim world was concerned especially, the forces of Westernisation were in corruption-fuelled decline by the 80s, and a religious revival was already in vigorous full swing. One could hardly fail to notice both the home-grown variety, as in Iran, and the kind developed deliberately with huge outside financial and political support, like the mujahadeen in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But also in the Christian world, there were signs of renewed religious fervour in the 80s, some very near to me: the strengthening anti-abortion movement in the US, for example. Still, despite their proximity and volume, they seemed like desperate last-ditch efforts of anti-electricity types to me — inasmuch as I gave them any thought at all, they appeared as the last of a dying breed. When some lunatic drove a bus into a local cinema because he didn’t like the way the film being shown portrayed Jesus, everyone I knew and everyone they knew just put it down to one lone nutter, not the tip of a trend.

So, I got it wrong, obviously. Today, I don’t really think the Enlightenment is dead, but I certainly no longer believe that progress — specifically, progress toward a more rational world — is in anyway inevitable. The last five years in particular have seen such a revival of religious tension internationally, that “clash of civilisations” has somehow gone from pure book-jacket marketing malarkey to tragic self-fulfilling prophesy. The kind of tribal thinking brought on by war has forced communities to take sides all over the world, with fear of the other tribe rising and a “conflict mentality” settling in the US just as much as anywhere else.

And it’s not just that there are a few lone lunatics out there willing to drive vehicles into buildings; it’s that there are a huge number of “moderates” willing to justify the actions of the extremists of their religious side, as Sam Harris and others have pointed out. So, we get radical, religiously biased public speech, even in the op-ed pages of the LA Times.

Honestly, this is not the world I thought my children would grow up in.

When I was in university, I studied evolutionary biology. I enjoyed it a lot, but I was interested in public affairs and making a difference in the world, and it seemed evolution was a battle long ago won by the good guys, by the forces of rationalism. Fighting with creationists seemed about as challenging as taking on flat-earthers. Really, there will be no public discussion about this in a few years, I thought.

And yet, there is, still, in 2006. I don’t think creationism — or ID as it’s now packaged — is accepted by everyone in the US, or even a majority for that matter, but I do think there are huge numbers of coreligionists unwilling to reject the irrational extremists in their midst, and there are another significant number of agnostics unwilling to challenge them for fear of being labelled intolerant to others’ beliefs — even when those beliefs are completely unprovable and no more scientific than astrology. It is the same with other religions, of course.

I’ve been meaning to get some of these thoughts down for a while and even jump into some of the online discussion, but for various reasons, I’ve been holding off. I was, however, inspired this week by the website “Why won’t god heal amputees?” So, here I go, back into the fray.

Maybe it’s too late. Maybe I should have never foolishly taken rational progress for granted. But I really thought my generation would be one of the last to contain any religious people at all, and the idea that anyone younger than I was would be religious sounded impossible. (Of course, I also found it strange when I first encountered a policeman younger than me, but that was more an unwillingness to admit I’m getting older.) Today, I see 20-somethings and younger people far more religious than their parents, and I think: what a loss of a generation.

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