Atheists, Humanists Push Campaign for 'Darwin Day'

Thu Feb 12, 9:27 AM ET By Robert Evans GENEVA (Reuters) -

Atheist, agnostic and humanist organizations in the Americas, Europe and Asia are gearing up for a five-year campaign aimed at achieving international recognition of Feb. 12 as "Darwin Day." Their target date is 2009 -- the bicentenary of the birth of British biologist Charles Darwin whose own faith in a deity who created the world collapsed before the theory of evolution he set out in 1859 in his ground-breaking "The Origin of Species." Why push for an annual celebration of Darwin now? His ideas are widely shared and even religious leaders from churches that once denounced him as a heretic accept that life on Earth evolved over 3 billion years from primitive forms. "Because a Darwin Day would send out a signal that science matters in an era when pseudo-science and fear of science seem to be gaining ground," argues the British Humanist Association, which is playing a key role in the campaign. In the United States, where a survey in 2002 found that 45 percent of the population believe an all-powerful deity created the universe and all life in it within the last 10,000 years, this concern has even stronger force. Under the administration President Bush (news - web sites), who says he is a born-again Christian, U.S. humanists and atheists say there has been a broad offensive by "creationists" aimed at undermining or even halting the teaching of evolution in schools. The creationist stance has been boosted by a newer movement arguing that, while the Earth may indeed be billions of years old, evolution leaves open many questions that can only be answered by the existence of an "Intelligent Designer." CREATIONISM 'VERY SCARY' "It is very, very scary," says Amanda Chesworth, head of the U.S. Darwin Day movement which works to counter the trend by organizing community festivals marking the biologist's birthday. "Creationism is spreading further and further." "Our nation went from the Earth to the moon a few years ago and discovered these worlds date back billions of years. Now it is sticking its head in the sand, claiming the whole lot was made in a flash a few millennia ago by one entity." In Britain, where, unlike the United States, religious observance is weak, there are strong concerns among secularist groupings over the promotion by British Prime Minister Tony Blair (news - web sites), a professed Christian, of "faith-based" education. Blair's Labor government has allowed creationists to take over funding and administration of at least one state school where pupils are taught creationism. Other schools may follow, Keith Porteous Wood of Britain's National Secular Society says, unless critics speak out. In India, where humanism and atheism have a strong tradition and are not so distant from traditional Hindu thought, which rejects "ultimate truths," rationalists are alarmed at the rise of an aggressively militant version of Hinduism. Narisetti Innaiah, a leader of the country's Rationalist Association, argues that children should be taught about all religions in schools "but on scientific lines." "They should be taught that gods and demons, devils and apparitions, heaven and hell, are all human creations, and that the world's scriptures are all human works," Innaiah says. "Children should have freedom to choose any religion, or none." Events marking Darwin's birthday this year are scheduled in the United States, Canada, Mexico, India, Nepal, Australia, South Africa, Zambia, Argentina, Brazil and Peru. LATIN AMERICAN CHALLENGE Latin American humanists, arguing that Catholic teachings of humility have done little to encourage populations mired in poverty to fight exploitation, face a mounting challenge from evangelical Protestant groups funded from the United States. In a church a stone's throw from the Darwin Research Station on Ecuador's Galapagos Islands (news - web sites) -- where the biologist gathered much of his evidence for evolution -- fiery evangelical sermons on hellfire awaiting unbelievers are on the daily menu. In Europe, humanists in former Soviet-bloc countries where Catholicism is strong -- like Poland and Slovakia -- are also struggling to raise their voices against what they see as religious indoctrination in state schools. Slovak humanists plan protests around Feb. 12 over a concordat that their country's government has just signed with the Vatican (news - web sites) mandating religious education in schools. But in Muslim countries, proponents of Darwin Day say the idea is a nonstarter, for the moment. In many, the nonreligious and even scientists who take a Darwinist view can face prison, or death, for propagating agnosticism or atheism. "However, even there a change may come," says a former Asian Muslim who renounced his faith and has written several widely read books, under the pseudonym Ibn Warraq, questioning the basis of Islam. "There are millions of people across the Islamic world who hold rationalist views and will hopefully one day be able to voice them in freedom."