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Truth is the first casualty of war

By Michael Viljoen - posted Friday, 29 January 2010


Truth is the first casualty of war. The saying has its idiomatic cousins. Families have their “skeletons in the closet”, where awkward or unpleasant truth is carefully concealed. Our capacities for forestalling or evasion, our Ablett like deftness in dodging and weaving, supplement our inability to face truth and talk about things openly. Why choose January 26th for our national holiday? The question bristles. Best let’s avoid it.

As Basil Fawlty was at pains to remind everyone, “Don’t mention the War.”

I recall my secondary education, where topics such as politics, sex-education, and religion conveniently couldn’t find space within the curriculum. Sports excepted, in all of secondary school I never once heard a teacher say any words of controversy: Labor, Liberal, condom, abstinence, creation, evolution. While you could divert any class by asking the teacher, “From where did that umpire pull that ridiculous decision?” or “From which state should Australia’s cricketers be selected?” I’m left to guess the possible response had a student asked, “Where do our best leaders come from?” “Where do babies come from?” “Where did we all come from?”

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That was high school. We proceed to university where we’re free to speak our mind. The demons of previous centuries following the wars of religion have been exorcised. We’re now enlightened by the miracles of scientific discovery. So I arrived at Latrobe University in 1985 with a green and eager sense of inquiry.

Latrobe University was founded in the 1960s in vacant paddocks on Melbourne’s outskirts. Unlike older universities such as Melbourne or Cambridge, it was not built around cemeteries, chapels, or missionary training colleges. The architects weren’t proposing any. The paddocks held no ghosts and none were invited. Darwin’s Origins had recently celebrated its 100-year anniversary, and its form of naturalism enjoyed total triumph.

That year at Latrobe, I happened to meet one particular lecturer in biology, Charles Pallaghy, who had acquired a position of tenure. Tenure is an academic practice designed to ensure freedom of thought, for any fellow with it can’t be dismissed for being radical or avant garde.

Yet Charles’ studies in biology had brought him to question the validity of the Darwinian view, and he was challenging certain lines of thought concerning biological origins normally taught at the university. The university asked Charles to please avoid associating himself with the name Latrobe when publically airing his controversial views. The matter was delicate. The university was looking for a sheet to hide the bones in the closet. I learned that even at university, there are some things about which we still can’t afford to be candid.

Charles kept to his convictions. And ultimately, Darwin’s namesake went on to have a productive career in biology and kept a good relationship with the university. Yet consider the predicament for younger academics who don’t have tenure.

So what of the Mother of all sensitive questions, “Is there a God?” Possible answers include: yes, no, maybe, can’t know, don’t care. But my question is: When will we be capable of talking about it freely?

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Well, the world’s leading atheists are coming to Melbourne for the Global Atheist Convention, “The Rise of Atheism”, March 12-14, 2010. Atheists champion freedom of expression and won’t be vacillating.

The convention’s draw card presenter, Richard Dawkins’ 2006 book, the God Delusion, was little short of a declaration of war. “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, blood thirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

The audacious Dawkins can be admired for his frankness. He openly declares that studies in evolution have and do lead people to atheism. He has no time for those hedging to evade confrontation, those who delicately weave the line that evolution is somehow compatible with a God of purpose and intention. “Let’s be nice and pretend there’s no conflict,” Dawkins does not say. It is evolution that allows him to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

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About the Author

Michael Viljoen studied mathematics and philosophy before working as a high school music teacher, and then a translator in Africa. He currently works for Wycliffe Bible Translators Australia, an organisation committed to minority peoples and languages around the world in the fields of linguistics, literacy, and literature production.

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