Why we can’t let this man shape our view of world
On Saturday night, I witnessed something that I never thought possible: Richard Dawkins speaking in Ian Paisley's old stronghold, Martyrs Memorial Church in Belfast.
But don't get too excited. The Free Presbyterians hadn't had a sudden attack of brotherly love for their favourite arch-atheist. He's still the enemy; in fact, I'm surprised he hasn't grown a set of little devil horns yet.
Dawkins actually popped up in a video clip, like a cartoon baddie, as part of a presentation by one of the world's leading Young Earth creationists, Ken Ham, who's been touring Northern Ireland this week.
I say presentation, but that makes it sound far too polite and tame. This was a blood-red battle-cry of Christian militancy.
Dawkins was invoked as the embodiment of all that is wrong with our evil, sin-ridden world. Ham said that it was time that Christians g0t tough, stopped pussy-footing around, realised they had a war on their hands, and started fighting back.
Grizzled, tanned and super-confident, Australian-born Ham is a true showman, with the swaggering ego to match. He's president of the global fundamentalist Christian organisation, Answers In Genesis, and founder of the gargantuan, privately-funded Creation Museum in Kentucky, where you can see dinosaurs (vegetarian, despite their sharp claws and teeth, because that's what the Bible said) gambolling amongst prehistoric children, and witness Noah's Ark under construction.
It's all part of Ham's uncompromisingly literalist vision: that every single word of the Bible, from Genesis onward, is absolute fact, provable by science. Ham believes that evolution is both an “anti-God religion” and “a disease”.
“If there's no original sin, and Adam and Eve are not real people, tell me who you are and where you came from?” he demanded. His message was delivered in a rapid, hectoring machine-gun rattle which, perhaps significantly, gave listeners no time to think for themselves.
I came to Martyrs Memorial on Saturday night (turning down other, more, er, worldly options for the evening) because I want to understand why creationists, in defiance of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, continue to believe that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. Put simply, such a conviction beggars belief.
For fundamentalist Christians, life is an epic fight to the death between the forces of good and evil. In this artificially black and white universe, there's no room for interpretation. The Bible is either true or it's not. You're either Richard Dawkins or Ken Ham; you're saved or your damned; you're with us or against us.
Perhaps this is why creationists cling so determinedly to their belief: it appears to offer safety and certainty in a frighteningly chaotic world. But the world isn't safe or certain. And that belief comes at a price — delusion and the abandonment of reason.
It would be easy to dismiss Ham's one-dimensional, apocalyptic vision as the rantings of a misguided man, preaching to a small group of people who could find happier ways to spend their Saturday night. Yet that would be dangerously complacent.
The truth is that the creationist lobby, both here in Northern Ireland and around the world, is increasingly politically powerful. These are the kind of guys you need to keep a very close eye on. Don't think for a moment that they're going to stop with their small victory at the Giant's Causeway.
Their views may sound like they came straight out of the Ark, but they are equipped with the ultra-modern tools of global communication, large-scale fundraising and the language of equal rights.
What's more, their main objective is to intensively target young people, through museums, visitor attractions and even schools, indoctrinating them with their own extreme beliefs, which are held up as measurable scientific truth.
On Saturday night, Ken Ham said that “we need to be training these kids from a young age, right from when they're born.” Do we want our children to be his recruits?
It doesn't have to be this way, of course. When the young Irish boxer, Katie Taylor, won gold at the Olympics, her first reaction was to thank God. No proselytising, no fear-mongering, no attempts to force her beliefs down anyone else's throat, just a simple, heart-felt expression of faith.
People like Ken Ham and Richard Dawkins have more in common than they realise. They are both militants, engaged in a clash of fundamentalisms: the anti-scientific and the anti-religious. Meanwhile, in the real world, the rest of us get on with our lives.