A Flight of Fancy

Alan Rogers

A Greek Myth relates that Daedalus, a superb architect and craftsman, created wings made of bird feathers and bee’s wax so the he and his son Icarus could fly.

Daedalus instructed Icarus not to fly too low nor too high. Flying low relates to complacency or lack of ambition, flying high to hubris. Icarus, whether by design or accident, flew too high and the sun melted the wax holding the feathers in place, the wings disintegrated and he crashed to his death.

So we have a work of the human imagination which can make some kind of moral point. A rather sad point since it appears to warn mankind not to be adventurous and innovative. No sensible person today could fail to recognize this yarn as fiction. A work of the human imagination. How can we in the 21st century be sure that it is fiction? There are several clear reasons why in the present age we know that the story is not true. Engineering science tells us that the human musculature is not adequate in power to weight ratio to allow manned self powered flight by means of flapping wings. We have the wrong kind of muscles and the wrong kind of bones. Evolution did not design us to fly. Atmospheric science tells us that as one moves upwards in the atmosphere temperatures, at first, fall rather than rise. Through the troposphere (where we live), stratosphere (where our airliners fly) and the mesosphere where, at about 80,000 metres, temperature begins to rise, only reaching surface temperatures at about 70 miles up. The melting point of bee’s wax is 62-64 degrees Celsius. This temperature is only reached at well above 80 miles high. Icharus would died of hypoxia well before he had flapped to that height. Indeed the air pressure would be so low his blood would have boiled.

The human imagination is a triumph of evolution. That a mammalian brain could achieve such complexity and power is truly astounding. Imagination is what makes the species H.sapiens so competent and effective in the game of survival. It allows us to move forward and backward in time, anticipating the future and recalling the past. It allows us to plan for events we have not yet experienced. It allows us to try out in our minds strategies which we may or may not employ in future. It is the basis of all art.

Imagination is also vital for scientific progress. Albert Einstein used his imagination to begin thinking about the consequences of the experimentally discovered, universal constant speed of light. He imagined himself travelling on a light beam. The outcome was the Special Theory of Relativity.

But there is a problem. It occurs when imagined events are taken to be real events. Mythology is fine and is performing useful tasks when it is understood to be the product of the human imagination. However when it is taken to be factual it can be dangerously misleading. It allows the possibility of a work of the imagination to be passed off as a fact. If a salesman of Icarus plc were to try to pass off a pair of bird wings with straps to fix then to your arms as a means of flying then you would be well advised to regard his pitch with scepticism.

However there is a phenomenon in human civilisation which permits such deception to be practiced and it is considered to be ill-mannered to point out that the imagined event or events are works of the imagination rather than fact. It is also considered to be entirely acceptable for such imagined events to be taught to children as facts. Those who wish to present mythology as fact are particularly anxious to teach children because children do not in general have the necessary knowledge and scepticism to distinguish myth from fact thus making the task easier.

I am, of course , referring to religion. It is no coincidence that a new religion, Scientology, was devised by a writer of science fiction Lafayette Ronald Hubbard but the works of his imagination concerning Scientology are accepted as fact by the adherents of this religion.

The mythology which underpins religion may be ancient or modern. The Virgin Birth myth pre-dates Christianity in stories of gods making women pregnant.

The Christian version insists that the issue was male and human. But we know now about X and Y chromosomes so an XX female cannot, without the involvement of an XY male produce an XY male child. Parthenogenesis in humans is myth. The myth of the creation in seven days with each species made individually by a supernatural entity is clearly a fiction. There are 350,000 known species of beetle. The current estimate of the actual number of beetle species is over 4 million. It seems our supernatural entity suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when creating beetles. But far more importantly, we now have a narrative for the origin of the present biosphere which is consistent with not just one branch of science but with many. Indeed the search for an explanation of biological evolution led to the discovery of DNA and the founding of new science – genetics.

Such is the importance to religion of maintaining that myth is fact, the Director of the Evangelical Alliance in Wales seriously wants the ancient Jewish myth of creation of species by a supernatural entity to be taught alongside the scientific explanation as if it were fact [1].

When I was in school and about twelve years old the book my class read for English lessons was called Norse Legends. It related the adventures, quarrels and general bad behaviour of imaginary supernatural entities believed in by the Norsemen. All very entertaining but we were not required to believe these gods were real entities. However in Religious Instruction lessons (yes, RI not RE in the 1950’s) we were taught stories every bit as mythical as those of the Norse gods and were expected to believe them to be factual.

In Wales, following the Donaldson Report [2], we are expecting a revision of the teaching of religion. The hope is that a new subject will integrate aspects of citizenship responsibilities, morality, philosophy and comparative religion. A key aspect of such a development would be the teaching of the difference between works of the imagination and facts established by careful research.

The Independent reported in 2015 before the Election for the Fifth Assembly.

Wales is poised to scrap Religious Education lessons in its schools, it has been revealed. Instead, the Welsh Government’s Minister for Education and Skills Huw Lewis, argued it should be renamed to focus on the teaching of “religion, philosophy and ethics”.[3]

There was also an article in the Guardian. [4]

Huw Lewis retired from politics before the Assembly Election and, as a result of that election, Kirsty Williams, Liberal Democrat AM for Powys, was appointed Cabinet Secretary for Education.

We need Kirsty Williams to press on with the transformation and repositioning of Religious Education in the schools of Wales and I hope that the Humanist Association in Wales and the National Secular Society will be able to monitor the progress of this transformation and keep members informed about this project.

[1] http://www.eauk.org/current-affairs/media/press-releases/welsh-church-leader-baffled-by-top-scientists.cfm

[2] https://hwbplus.wales.gov.uk/schools/6714052/Documents/Donaldson%20Report.pdf

[3] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/wales-poised-to-scrap-teaching-of-religious-education-in-schools-10435880.html

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/education/shortcuts/2015/aug/04/wales-new-plans-for-re-classes-with-less-religion

One response to “A Flight of Fancy

  1. Although the link for [1] is correct, there seems to be a problem with access to the EA site from the link. I therefor reproduce the item published by the E.A. below.

    Welsh church leader baffled by top scientists

    A Welsh church leader has expressed his bewilderment at a statement made by a group of leading scientists.

    This group, under the sponsorship of the British Humanist Association, is calling on the UK government to ban the teaching of creationism or intelligent design ideas in state fund schools.

    According to the BHA’s web site: “Creationism and ‘intelligent design’ are not scientific theories, but they are portrayed as scientific theories by some religious fundamentalists who attempt to have their views promoted in publicly-funded schools. There should be enforceable statutory guidance that they may not be presented as scientific theories in any publicly-funded school of whatever type.”

    Elfed Godding, national director of Evangelical Alliance Wales said: ” I am baffled by the statement issued by this eminent group. Education at all levels involves the careful analysis of a variety of ideas and viewpoints. To insist on the validity of one theory alone to the detriment of all others exemplifies intolerance and doesn’t belong in the classrooms of Wales and the rest of the UK.”

    “Christians hold different views when it comes to the origins of the universe. Although believing passionately in the creative activity of a loving God, Christians hold a range of scientific opinions in relation to how the universe has taken shape.”

    “Children and young people are entitled to be exposed to these opinions within the context of a balanced curriculum.”


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