On the recommendation of a fellow Xoogler I've been reading a truly excellent book by William Bernstein called "The Birth of Plenty : How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created". Although it's ostensibly about economics it relevantly touches on religion and philosophy as well. Bernstein argues (convincingly IMO) that scientific rationalism is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for economic growth and prosperity. (The other three necessary conditions are property rights, capital markets, and an efficient communication and transportation infrastructure.)
Berstein insightfully identifies the willingness to discard old ideas in favor of new ones as one of the defining characteristics of scientific rationalism, and indeed as the principal distinction between modern Western culture and all other human cultures throughout history. This is significant because if Bernstein is right (and it seems like a no-brainer to me, but read his book if you need to be convinced) then the potential dangers of fundamentalism go far beyond the fears of even the most paranoid among us. If Bernstein is right then the fundamentalist's rejection of scientific rationalism will lead us back to the economic dark ages just as surely as the Communist's rejection of private property did the same during the latter part of the 20th century. For that reason alone I believe that it is vitally important that fundamentalism be resisted by any means necessary.
I actually believe that there are fundamentalists who think that breaking the back of the modern capitalist economy would be a good thing, but I think these are a tiny, tiny minority. I think most fundamentalists -- certainly most Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. -- know in their heart of hearts that getting rid of science would be a Bad Thing all in all, hence the odd spactacles of so-called Creation Science and Intelligent Design, Al Quaeda recruiting on the Internet, and Pentacostals praying to God that their Power Point presentations will work properly.
The problem is that science is based on the premise that reality is the ultimate arbiter of Truth, and reality is a harsh taskmaster. You realy can't fool Mother Nature. That is why fundamentalists tend to focus on things like evolution where much of the scientific evidence is subtle or not readily accessible or even lost in the mists of time. Scientists (and I mean that with a capital "S") fall readily into the fundamentalists' rhetorical trap, which is one of the reasons that fundamentalism is gaining so much ground these days. Fundamentalism may not be correct, but fundamentalists are very, very good at making it feel as though it is. Fundamentalism has a much, much better marketing department than most of its competitors.
I have said it before but it bears repeating: I have no quarrel with religion, only with fundamentalism. I believe that religion serves a genuine human need, and the failure of atheists like Richard Dawkins to recognize this, let alone propose a credible alternative for fulfilling that need, is one of the reasons for the rise of fundamentalism. (Karen Armstrong thinks so too.)
One indication of the utter futility of rational debate when it comes to fundamentalism is the amount of effort spent on arguing about things like whether or not humans were contemporaneous with dinosaurs. If you're going to try to take Genesis seriously as an alternative scientific hypothesis you have much, much bigger worries than dinosaurs. Let's take a brief tour of Genesis, shall we?
In the beginning God created the heavans and the earth. And the earth was without form and void...
So... what shape was the earth at that point? Well, it didn't have a shape. That's what "without form" means. So what does it mean for the earth to have been created but not have a shape?
...and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
So earth didn't have a shape, but the waters still had a "face" for God to move upon. And how, exactly, does God "move"? I don't mean to ask by what mechanism God moves, I'm asking what it actually means for God to move. On the usual meaning of the word move it means to change location from one place to another. But that is only possible for a thing that has a definite location to begin with, and modern Christian fundamentalist dogma holds that God is everywhere at all times. So how can He possibly move?
We're not two verses in and already there are a host of questions that are perfectly legitimate to ask from a scientific point of view, but which are utterly unanswerable except by e.g. holding that words mean different things when they apply to God, at which points all bets are off. To quote Tom Stoppard, "The only point of using language at all is that words are taken to stand for certain thoughts and ideas and not for other thoughts and ideas."
And God said, "Let there be light" and there was light.
Where was the light coming from at this point? Remember, this is only the First Day, and the sun and stars don't get created until the Third Day.
And the evening and the morning were the first day.
Here in verse 5 we collide headlong against a scientific brick wall. What does it mean for there to be "evening" and "morning" in a universe where the earth has no shape and there is no sun?
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament and divided the waters which were above the firmament from the waters which were below the firmament. And God called the firmament Heaven.
Leaving aside the linguistic question of how God can create "heaven" on day 2 after already having created "the heavens" on day 1, this is quite possibly the most transparent indication that Genesis is just a bronze-age creation myth like any other. Bronze-age people thought that the sky was blue because it was full of water. Forget dinosaurs, where are the waters above the firmament?
There's so much just in the first chapter of Genesis which is utterly ridiculous from a scientific point of view that it is hard to know where to stop. God creates plants on day 3, but doesn't create the sun until day 4. The sun and the moon are called "two great lights" despite the fact that the moon is not a light, it's a big rock. The sun, moon and stars are created "to divide the light from the darkness" but the light was already divided from the darkness back in verse 4. And then we get to chapter 2 where the whole story is told over again, except this time man is created before the animals instead of after (the animals are created specifically to keep man company, but the plan doesn't work so God has to try again, at which point He creates Eve). As a scientific hypothesis, Genesis is utterly and transparently hopeless long, long before we ever get to Noah. It's not even a close call. And yet the arguments go on. And on and on and on and on and on.
The problem is not that Creationism is wrong, the problem is that it is wrong only from a particular point of view. Genesis is wrong from a scientific point of view, not from the point of view of faith. But Creationists are adept at flitting back and forth between these two points of view while the Scientists (and the scientists) are stuck in their Baconian and Popperian epistemologies. The success of science is so overwhelming that they cannot accept that there might be truth beyond science despite the fact that there is scientific evidence that this is in fact the case! The placebo effect, for example, is scientific proof that believing in things that aren't scientifically true can have materially beneficial effects.
Faith is a placebo, and I do not mean that in any sort of pejorative way. Placebos can be effective. Sometimes they are the most or even the only effective medicine available for certain maladies, and the modern world suffers from such maladies much more than atheists generally acknowledge. And in that regard atheists have their heads buried more deeply in the sand than the fundamentalists, with the net result that the fundamentalists are winning.
And as someone who enjoys the creature comforts that modern economies provide, that's bad. Really really bad.