As some of you may be aware, science and religion aren't always the best of friends. There have been attempts to bridge the divide, though, of which the most famous is Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA. This stands for Non Overlapping MAgisteria, and should quite surely have actually been called NOM.
Incidentally, this isn't the only scientific misnomer ending in -om (or not doing). The word atom comes from the Greek a tomos, meaning not split, as atoms were supposed to be unsplittable. Atomism is the philosophical belief that the world can be reduced to basic chunks of stuff. Unfortunately atoms turned out to be about as unsplittable as cake, and should by rights have been renamed toms.
Getting back temporarily to the point, according to the theory of NOMA the net, or magisterium, of science covers the empirical realm: what the universe is made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over ultimate meaning and moral value. When it comes to the latter, we neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can't comment on it as scientists.
Now this kind of thing is like a red rag to a bull to Richard Dawkins, and he demolishes it in The God Delusion. I'm not going to rehash this argument, as I think you can probably all guess where I stand, but he then goes on to discuss what he calls the Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists. These are scientists and philosophers who take the view that criticism of religion as a whole should be avoided, so that a tactical alliance can be made with moderately religious people against the creationists, who are a serious menace to science education in America.
I think Dawkins is right, that we should nail our colours to the mast in the larger battle against religious belief and practice in general, and more importantly for science and reason and against bullshit and ignorance wherever they raise any of their Hydra heads, but when he refers to the Neville Chamberlain school the version of history that he appeals to is based on a common misunderstanding. The error isn't his, or at least it's no more his than it is anyone's. This is actually a history piece not a science piece, because it's that historical misunderstanding that I want to pick apart. Didn't see that coming, did you? Given the choice I'd always rather sneak round the back, even if I don't actually have any contraband.
According to the version of events which most people believe, and which Dawkins uses in his metaphor, the British Government (and the French) appeased Hitler until it was too late, because the thought of a war was too much to face after the slaughter in the first one. By the time they did stand up to him it was too late, and it took the joint efforts of Dirk Bogarde, David Niven and Steve McQueen to rectify the situation.
For a more considered reading of events, you have to retrace events from the 1750s. Yes you do. The time is the Seven Years War. We are a couple of years in, and the war is going badly for Britain. After a political crisis, William Pitt has assumed political power. One day he'll be known as Pitt the Elder. Like Baldrick, and yet not, he has a cunning plan.
He has realised that the crucial battle for Britain isn't in Europe, but in the Colonies. He takes troops from the home defence armies, and sends them far away, to defend British possessions and conquer new territories in North America, the Caribbean and India. He sends some troops to help the Prussians, but mainly supports the European war by sending money. To stop France invading Britain, he relies not on the army but on the navy.
The strategy works. The Navy defeat the French at the battle of Quiberon Bay (a much more significant battle than Trafalgar, which was actually something of a walkover). The Army win in the crucial battles in North America, and the French are driven out. They also lose in India. The shape of the British Empire is set.
A decade later, the British lose half their possessions in America. The southern colonies win their independence, and set up the United States of America. Although painted as a colonial victory by American nationalists, this is actually a military victory for the French, who do the main work of defeating the British.
Otherwise, the British policy succeeds for well over a century. Throughout the Napoleonic Wars they concentrate on holding their Empire, and use the income generated from it to bankroll European armies to fight Napoleon. Oh, they send an army to Spain, and Sean Bean runs round being valiant, but Napoleon really loses when he invades Russia in 1812, and his Grande Armee freezes to death. I know, but I can't do accents in here.
The hundred years from Waterloo to the start of the first world war are known in British history as a time of peace, but this is a parochial view. In Europe, there were wars between Germany and Austria, the campaign for Italian unification and the Franco-Prussian war, just to name a few little local difficulties off the top of my head. Britain, though, steered clear of these wars (with the exception of the Crimean), and concentrated on building up the Empire. They fight not in the Ardennes or the Carpathians, but against the Boers, the Afghans, the Sudanese. In the end, they control Burmese oil and rubber, Guyanese logging, African gold and diamonds, Caribbean sugar, and everything else you need to fuel an industrial revolution.
So when they got dragged into World War One they weren't best pleased. Four years of destruction, and it was supposed to have been over by Christmas. And at the end of it, hardly any new territories to exploit, just trouble in Palestine and increasingly restless natives. From their point of view, it was a complete waste of time.
And now there were new threats on the horizon. The Americans were becoming a global economic force, although they were kept out of the Empire by a system of tariffs. Imperial preference, it was called, and it meant that British businesses were allowed to sell in India and Africa, and American ones weren't.
Meanwhile Russia, long considered a threat to India through Afghanistan, had gone communist (which reminds me - what's unusual about the word Afghanistan? That's right, it's got three successive letters of the alphabet in it, in order - can you think of any others? They don't have to rhyme with orange, but extra points if they do). Communism didn't seem to offer any way for a chap to make a decent profit at all, so no-one in the British Establishment was really all that keen.
All this meant that when Hitler started strutting his fancy stuff across the European stage, they had other things on their mind. Papers reveal that far from imagining that Hitler had limited territorial demands they knew early on that he was thinking on a larger scale, but knew that they weren't strong enough to fight him - and the Japanese.
For it was the Japanese that threatened India, Burma and Singapore, which to the British were a much bigger deal than Austria and Czechoslovakia. Cabinet papers show that Chamberlain and the British Cabinet calculated that they weren't strong enough to fight Germany in Europe and defend the Asian and Australasian parts of the Empire against Japan. Under pressure, they reverted to the tried and trusted strategy - defend the money.
So, the Munich agreement can be seen not as cowardice and delusion, but as a hardnosed calculation of priorities. And the other powers were no different. Roosevelt wanted to break into the Imperial markets, and made this a condition of assistance to Britain during and after the war. In the late 1940s they imposed a system of free trade on victors and vanquished alike, because they knew they had a headstart, being the only modern industrial economy which hadn't been devastated in the war. The Japanese wanted coal, oil and rubber, which the home islands didn't have. Hitler wanted the natural resources of Eastern Europe, especially the Ukraine, and Stalin wanted to stop him getting them. Which he did.
This is how it's always been. Wars are fought, or not fought, because someone somewhere thinks they'll get control of resources, or markets, or cheap labour. End of.
I've enjoyed doing a bit of history again. It's been a while, but I'll probably give you some more.