The RPA at 100
This is a time for congratulations, for being thankful that the RPA has existed for a hundred years, and that it has done such good work.
It is certainly also appropriate to express the wish that it will continue successfully into the future. But rationalists are pledged to see things as they really are, and not to indulge in wishful thinking. So we should not let the occasion pass without also recognising that the RPA has been in decline for much of the second half of that hundred years, and that there is now more rationalism outside the RPA than there is inside it. It is difficult for us to imagine what the world was like in 1899; but perhaps it would help if we remember that it would be four years before the Wright brothers would make the first aeroplane flight, and that Marconi had only recently begun to experiment with wireless.
In the last hundred years, progress in our knowledge of how the world works, and in the technological comforts based on that knowledge, has been both rapid and constantly accelerating. But there has been an imbalance between our progress in the physical, biological, and engineering sciences, with the benefits that has brought, and our failure to make comparable progress in applying the same sort of thinking to human affairs. That imbalance lies at the root of most of the problems that face us; and as long as it persists, the gap will grow wider, and the problems will become worse.
Rationalists reject the notion that there exist any areas or problems in which the intellect is not competent, in which one cannot or must not think. Our abiding task is to press for the spread of rational, scientific, heuristic thinking into areas where it has traditionally not been accepted, or at least not properly used.
But the situation is far from hopeless. Not long ago, I gave a paper on 'The heuristic way to knowledge' to a scientific conference. It was pure rationalism, and I had expected to meet opposition, possibly even outrage, from some of my audience. In the event, my presentation was greeted throughout with nodding heads and, although there was a lively discussion, there was not one dissenting voice.
The main opponents of progress in knowledge have always been the ancient popular religions, but there are many areas where advancing knowledge has loosened their grip. We have now reached a point where biology has discovered far more about the origin of life, and cosmology far more about the origin of the universe, than theological speculation ever did.
Rationalists were once half-humorously described as 'Darwin's Witnesses', and the debate about human evolution versus separate creation was typical of the clashes between rapidly developing science and ancient popular religion. But today, with the advances that have been made in genetics and related fields, serious interest in Darwinism has never been greater. An important development is the diversification of its basic concepts to new areas. One example was the advance of cybernetics and hence, among other things, of artificial intelligence. Another is our increasing understanding of how the brain works and of human consciousness, throwing new light-with important theological implications-on what is still sometimes called 'the mind-body problem'. A recent development is the study of evolutionary models of information transmission, opening up the exciting new science of memetics, which has profound implications for rationalism.
Even in the area of biblical and historical criticism, rational study has inexorably driven traditionalists back to the point where they have had to devise new interpretations of their ancient beliefs-'non-realist theology' for example. The only alternative open to them has been to take refuge in the kind of state of denial which is familiar in the realm of psychopathology-sometimes accompanied by increasingly strident and dishonest 'evangelicalism'.
If you follow current debate in the churches, you will know that 'scientific rationalism' (they now often call it by that name) is frequently identified as their most serious enemy. But, perhaps to our shame, we have to admit that the RPA itself has played little part in any of this.
I have here briefly mentioned some of the many indications that the conditions for spreading rationalism could well be better now than they have ever been. The game has changed completely, and entirely to our advantage, in the hundred years since the RPA was founded, and we ought to be reclaiming the initiative and building on these demonstrable successes-even though they have mostly not been our successes. Perhaps it is not too late to reverse the decline.