Science vs Religion
30 May 2007

For some reason (perhaps a philosopher can explain this to me) we Westerners tend to think in dualistic terms. We see the world in terms of black and white, either/or, them and us. In political culture you are either right-wing or left-wing, progressive or conservative, wet or dry. To this list some people would add a further set of divisions – religious vs secular, scientific vs irrational, tolerant vs intolerant. This, I suspect, is how the world looks through the eyes of a current crop of bestselling anti-religion authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, authors of The God Delusion and God Is Not Great – The Case Against Religion respectively.

For these people and their supporters, the battlelines are drawn. On one side are the forces of truth, science, rationality, and Enlightenment values such as tolerance, human rights, democracy and progress. On the other side are the forces of Religion, which (in their minds) goes hand-in-hand with irrationality, superstition, fanaticism, intolerance, authoritarianism and stagnation.

It is a truism that if you go looking for an enemy then you are guaranteed to find one. There are plenty of people who find value of all sorts in religion – a sense of life-purpose, community, solace, hope... the list goes on. Some of these people are bound to feel threatened by science when people like Dawkins say that the claims of science and religion cannot be reconciled because the theory of evolution makes the bible out to be a pack of lies.

How do we respond when we feel threatened? How do we respond when someone tells us that they are right and we are wrong? How do we respond when somebody attacks the ideas that we hold most dear?

Most people respond by putting up walls, getting defensive and counter-attacking. Books are written attacking evolution and promoting a literal interpretation of the biblical account of creation in six days. A museum of 'creationism' is built in the US, explaining how dinosaurs were also carried on Noah's Ark. It is hard to think what all this hostility will achieve, other than revenues for the book authors and publishers. Who's minds are going to be changed? Instead, I suspect, positions are hardened and minds are closed.

It seems to me that the real issue is whether people can accept and learn from difference. Religion has a poor track record here. Not so long ago in Europe people were tortured and killed for having different beliefs. The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on human rights and separating religion from politics, was in part a response to this dark age of religious intolerance. But to think that we can solve the problem by rubbishing religion is wrong. Those who think that religion is just going to fade away in the face of the triumphant march of science clearly don't understand it at all.

So to help those scientists who are frustrated by irrational religious believers, and to help those believers who are frustrated by arrogant heathen scientists, I offer this fable (not my own). It might hold some lessons for people wanting to change aspects of other's behaviour that they don't like.

There was once a king who had a problem. His only son, the prince, became convinced that he was a rooster and spent his days crawling around on the floor, naked, pecking crumbs off the ground and crowing. Doctors and psychiatrists could do nothing. Magicians cast spells – to no avail. Hypnotists tried and failed. Priests and counsellors were at a loss. Finally an old travelling salesman heard of the King's plight and offered to help. 'Give me a week alone with the boy, your majesty, nobody is to come in except to bring food and water'. In desperation the king agreed.

The old man entered the room where the prince was crawling around crowing. The first thing he did was take off his clothes and join the boy on the floor. After some initial surprise, the prince was rather glad as it had been lonely being the only rooster, and they had some great fun seeing who could crow the loudest. Then after a while the old man stood up. 'Why are you standing up?' said the prince. 'Roosters don't stand up!'

'I know,' said the old man, 'but it's cold on the floor and my back is sore, so if you don't mind I will stand... but it doesn't alter the fact that I'm still a rooster.'

The boy accepted this argument, and after a while began to think that the floor was indeed cold and his back was also a bit sore. So, a little sheepishly, the boy also stood up.

The following day the old man started to put on some clothes. 'Why are you wearing clothes?' said the prince. 'Roosters don't wear clothes!'

'I know,' explained the old man, 'but it's cold and my skin is turning blue, so if you don't mind I will wear some clothes... but it doesn't alter the fact that I'm still a rooster.'

The boy thought about this for a while, and then decided that as he was also cold it wouldn't hurt for him to wear clothes as well.

And so things went on. By the end of the week the boy was wearing his full prince's regalia, sitting at the table eating with the best silver and discussing matters of statecraft. Before he left, the old man said 'A word of advice: You and I know about being roosters, but out there hardly anyone else does, so it would be a good idea not to say anything about it.' The boy nodded and went on to become a very successful monarch. And nobody knew that he was really a rooster.


I like this fable because it says that when we want to change someone, the first thing we must do is show empathy - to try to see the world through their eyes. Then we are in a good place to show better ways of doing things. The one thing we must NEVER do is directly attack the core beliefs which form part of a person's sense of identity.


The fable is so expressive. It just needs a lot of training to be able to be a rooster when you are not and do not want to be one! To be a rooster you have to:
1. Learn a lot about roosters.
2. Love all roosters.
3.Be ready to share with them their ways of living without grumbling.
4.Never forget that you are not a rooster.
Hoda amin
hoda amin, 05 June 2007

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