Letters: Dawkins and theology

There's no need for Dawkins to debate academic theologians
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The Independent Online

Sir: I am bemused by the letters of Professor Bowen and the Revd Richard Hall (19 September) in response to Richard Dawkins. Sure, there is a well-developed subject called "theology" which is pursued by many universities. What relevance this has to Dawkins' arguments escapes me.

Science deals with physical reality by proposing hypotheses and testing them by observations designed to prove them wrong. Those hypotheses that survive become part of the provisional body of knowledge we call natural law. Applying that knowledge, by and large, has taken us from a state of miserable disease-ridden ignorance to a stage where, for all its faults, many people in many countries have a decent material existence and a remarkable degree of control over their physical world. Science survives because it works.

At the heart of religion is the proposition that some supernatural being, outside the universe as we know it, created physical reality. When a theologist can propose an experimental test which is capable of falsifying the hypothesis then his subject might start to contribute something useful to our understanding. There is no evidence that any such creator exists. To my mind, whatever the sophistication of theology as an academic subject, it has the same relation to science as astrology has to astronomy.

As for the existence of academic departments devoted to theology, we must remember, first, that universities originally started as religious institutions; second, the close relationship in many societies between political power, education, and religion as a means of social control (which persists in some places to this day); third, the reluctance of any institution to vote (or study) itself out of existence.

Dawkins is perfectly correct to focus on the impact of religion at the "McDonalds" level because that's where it impacts society by influencing mass behaviour. I doubt that we have many professors of theology believing that the sooner all Christians ascend to heaven in a rapture while the rest of us burn the better.

Dr John Haine

Cambridge

Only diplomacy will work with Mugabe

Sir: At first glance, Gordon Brown's threat to boycott the EU-Africa summit in Lisbon should Robert Mugabe attend seems a laudable effort to raise international pressure against a leader whose undemocratic and savage rule has reduced a country to a wreck (report, 20 September). On closer inspection however, his comments only serve to empower a leader whose twisted rhetoric relies on such remarks to feed his own allegations of colonialist intentions by the West.

Thabo Mbeki leads the Southern African Development Community (SADC) delegation whose mission is to persuade Mugabe to surrender power to an elected successor in 2008 rather than continue his rule. This is a delicate task in itself with loyalties and sympathies amongst the SADC varying: some members side with Mugabe who helped free the country from colonial rule in 1980.

This delegation forms the most realistic hope of removing Mugabe and paving the way for free elections. As honourable as Gordon Brown's intentions may be, it is naive (and counterproductive) to believe that harsh words from the West will have any effect on a Government that is already subject to numerous travel and economic sanctions. In this case, diplomacy is the best route and Britain should support Mbeki's mission in negotiating a positive outcome.

James Hughes

London N4

Sir : To hope, let alone to expect, that Thabo Mbeki, or indeed any other African leader, will take meaningful steps to terminate Robert Mugabe's presidency of Zimbabwe is simply asinine naivety. To Mbeki, bowed down by a sense of humiliation and racial grievance that is almost pathological in its intensity, Mugabe is a man of surpassing heroism. As leader of the strategically successful former Zanu guerrilla army, he remains the only black man to have put one over the white man in Africa since, briefly, Chief Cetshwayo of the Zulus in 1879. In the polarised ethnic landscape of southern Africa he is thus a totemic symbol of achievement. His reward is perpetual indulgence. It's as simple and childish as that. The sufferings of the people of Zimbabwe are of no account whatever. In politics only a fool underestimates the compulsive emotional force of the chip on the shoulder.

David Hargreaves

London sw11

Sir: Christian Aid welcomes Gordon Brown's refusal to attend the EU/AU summit if the President of Zimbabwe is invited. He rightly points out that President Mugabe is the only African leader to face an EU travel ban. The catastrophic economic situation in Zimbabwe which has seen life expectancy plummet to 37 and the ongoing human-rights violations fully justify this ban.

Christian Aid believes it is vital that human rights and accountable governance in Zimbabwe are high on the agenda at the summit. The government of Zimbabwe must respect its international human-rights commitments. We support calls from inside Zimbabwe for the abrogation of all laws that restrict human rights and basic freedoms.

Christian Aid partner organisations, especially the Zimbabwe Christian Alliance, are deeply involved in working for greater accountability from their government. They are also working to ensure the post-Mugabe era has a peaceful transition with a new constitution, an accurate electoral roll and free and fair elections.

Human rights and accountable governance are issues not only for Zimbabwe; it is a pan-African issue, affecting millions of people. The EU leaders should urge their African counterparts to respect the human-rights treaties they have signed. In turn, the EU should pursue a consistent and coherent human-rights policy in Africa.

Babatunde Olugboji

Head, Africa Policy Unit,Christian Aid,London SE1

Stop subsidising the airline industry

Sir: Both the Lib Dems and the Conservatives should be praised for the serious consideration they have given to the introduction of "green taxes", particularly on air travel; the fastest-growing contributor to greenhouse gases.

Perhaps some of the criticism levelled at this idea would be avoided if it were marketed as a positive – by removing the subsidies to flying which every tax payer is currently forced to contribute, whether they fly or not. The aviation industry claims to be worth £13bn a year to the UK economy, but receives £10bn annually in subsidies, in the form of tax-free fuel, VAT-free status, and Government funding for infrastructure projects.

Removing such subsidies would save the taxpayer a considerable sum, which could be transferred instead to provide subsidised green transport, drugs on the NHS (currently denied on financial grounds) and grants for education. This would force the polluter to pay directly. Why should we all be forced to subsidise cheap and frivolous flying for the few?

At the G8 summit at Gleneagles two years ago, France called for a tax on aviation fuel, and the proposal was signed by 66 countries. A European aviation-fuel tax would be quite feasible. Britain, as the world's second-largest aviation polluter, has a duty to lead in such a scheme.

Sue Landon

Braughing, Hertfordshire

Sir: Nigel Tuesley scaremongers with his "early stage runaway climatic change" (Letters, September 21). A glance at the Hadley Climate Research Unit's tabulation of global mean temperatures shows that 1998 was the warmest year of recent times. Subsequently, for almost a decade, the temperature has oscillated but with no substantial rising trend. This might be a plateau on the graph, but 10 years is too short a time to be sure of anything.

Last year Professor Mike Hulme, Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climatic Change Research, told us that "It seems that it is we, the professional climate scientists, who are now the [catastrophe] sceptics".

Many steps need to be taken to protect our global environment. They never will be if the public decides there is a scare campaign afoot. Mr Tuesley doees not help.

Dr JOHN ETHERINGTON

Llanhowell, Pembrokeshire

Sir: Pascal's Wager is relevant to our attitudes to climate change. Pascal observed that if there is no God and no heaven, when we die we end in oblivion, so our behaviour on earth is of no consequence. But if there is a God, the consequences of behaving badly and failing to believe in Him will be dire indeed – an eternity in the fiery pit – while the reward for believing in him is eternal bliss.

So as the two consequences are so unequal: oblivion versus eternal torment – or for the believer, oblivion versus eternal bliss, it is clearly a better bet to behave as though there were a God.

Pascal's Wager could be adapted to our attitude to climate change and the possibility of action to control it. If we believe in climate change and take action to halt its progress, life may go on, albeit with some inconvenice. If we disbelieve and take no action, the result may be the end of life on the planet. It doesn't seem a very difficult choice.

Michael Power

London N16

No hero's welcome for returning soldiers

Sir: The head of the British Army deplores the lack of sympathy and understanding for troops returning from conflicts in the Middle East (report, 22 September). He should have consulted some military historians before opening his mouth. While always happy to celebrate martial triumphs in foreign fields, the British public and establishment have never shown much compassion for the men who achieved them. Even after just wars.

Lloyd George's much-vaunted "heroes" came back to squalid depression and mass unemployment. My grandfather, a healthy young Irishman, volunteered to fight in Britain's war against Germany in 1914. He spent the next four years in waterlogged trenches and was gassed twice. After his discharge in 1918 he spent the next 20 years, until his premature death from angina at the age of 42, begging the British government for an invalidity pension, which was never granted.

Today, when unscrupulous politicians are using professional armies as extensions of their ambitious egos, there is even less reason why Britain should adopt the kind of mawkish sentimentality that surrounds any mention of "the military" in the US.

And let us not forget the shining example of former Prime Minister Blair, who avoided meeting or being seen with injured service personnel and service families bereaved as a result of his policies. If he didn't care, why should anyone else?

Adrian Marlowe

The Hague, Netherlands

Supermarkets unfair to dairy farmers

Sir: The Office of Fair Trading concluded that the "big four" supermarkets – Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury's – colluded with major dairies to keep the price of dairy goods artificially high, leading to a £270m overpay by consumers (report, 21 September).

These findings are a direct vindication of what dairy farmers have been saying for years, namely that some of the larger supermarkets were adopting pricing policies that forced farmers to accept less than the cost of production for their milk, while dairy products were being sold on to the public at massive mark-ups.

The result has been devastating for the Scottish dairy sector, with many hundreds of farmers going out of business and selling their herds. Scotland now has only 1,400 dairy farmers left in a sector that used to boast more than 5,000.

I hope the greed of the supermarkets is now severely punished by the European Commission's Competition Directorate General with hefty fines.

STRUAN STEVENSON, MEP

(Conservative, Scotland)The European Parliament, Brussels

Judi's slo-mo swoon

Sir: Thomas Sutcliffe is broadly correct in his article on "slow motion in the theatre" (21 September). However, one instance where the effect did work, with spectacular success, was in the early scenes of Trevor Nunn's classic RSC production of The Winter's Tale in 1970. Not only did it help smooth out the apparent "non sequiturs" of Leontes' jealousy, but Judi Dench's slow-motion "swoon" as Hermione was not only a technical tour de force, but one of the most beautiful tragic things ever seen at the RSC.

Colum Gallivan

London SW17

Health and Safety laws

Sir: According to Colin Bower (Letters, 22 September) the Health and Safety Executive is "farcical". The TUC has calculated that, since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act, deaths caused by work have fallen by over 75 per cent, and 89 per cent of employers who have had contact with the HSE have seen it as a "helpful" organisation.

As a teenage bus conductor in the 1960s I was struck by the number of damaged, mutilated hands that offered fares on workers' services. Is this the world Mr Bower really wants to return to?

Richard Charnley

lEAMINGTON SPA

Ageism against Menzies

Sir: During the week of this year's Lib-Dem conference, you had two leading articles on Sir Menzies Campbell, the first saying that his age was no reason to criticise him; but his performance was. This I would agree with, and his performance really hasn't been what was required.

However, your words are belied by the three cartoons of him that you published in the same period. Their primary message was one of mocking Sir Menzies simply for his age. A picture being supposedly worth a thousand words, it's obvious what your real opinion is.

John Hall

Telford

A price to pay

Sir: Mr Frew asks "what next?" on being asked to pay £4.50 to BT to for the privilege of paying his bill (Letters, 22 September). What indeed; I have been invited to pay to tax my car by credit card online by paying an extra fee of £2.50! By what right do these people demand that they are paid under a certain procedure convenient to them, on pain of a fine? We are customers, for goodness' sake!

David Applegate,

Taunton, Somerset

Sir: While Paul Frew's suggestion that supermarkets will soon start charging customers a fee for using their tills might seem tongue-in-cheek, has it escaped readers' notice that with the advent of self-service tills these companies are happy to use customers as unpaid checkout operators. Free labour as a stealth charge, perhaps?

Simon Dunn

Leeds

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