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Why We Are Drawn to the Divine

July 1, 2010 4 comments

Rounding out this set of religious entries, here is an article that came out more of a 10-page rant.  I was never happy with the overall arc of the piece, and I never had it published, but I thought I made a few salient points.

WHY WE ARE DRAWN TO THE DIVINE

By Jay Hartlove

Having been science-educated during an era of well rounded public education, I am entirely opposed to efforts to try to sneak religious teaching into the classroom under pseudoscientific names.  But I am also offended by the scorched-Earth approach many atheist biologists have adopted in confronting the proponents of Creationism and Intelligent design.  They insist all religion is factually unsupportable, and so we must discard all of it.  I agree the well-funded Right Wing zealots who want to discredit Evolution and replace it with bad science and watered-down religion must be stopped.  But in stopping what is a political agenda, do we have to say that the illogic of religious belief must be crushed under the wheels of rigorous scientific scrutiny? 

Many liberal thinking educated people who were brought up with the dogma of their parents’ churches get caught up in this cognitive dissonance.  Our intellectual thirst for provable answers gets set at odds with the equally powerful need for the comfort given by faith in familiar parables and reassurances of divine love.  To say we are being intellectually dishonest, or childish for wanting to believe in the divine, denies a very real part of the human experience.

What if our propensity to religious belief is so much a part of our make up that it cannot be eliminated by rationality?  Then denying it and calling it denigrating names will only alienate the very people the biologists are trying to convince.

A vast majority of Americans say they believe in the supernatural and take the words of the Bible as literal truth.  This majority also refutes the scientific findings of Evolution that say the creation stories of religious traditions, particularly the Bible, are simply not true.  In our technologically advanced world, which owes so much to scientific discoveries, why do so many people reject the findings of biologists who are honestly trying to explain the world?  Because they have been told that accepting Evolution as fact must displace their faith in the Bible.  But this is simply not true.

There are lots of things in life that cannot be quantified.  Despite the efforts of generations of biologists and sociologists, we still have only a smattering of disconnected half-baked explanations for why and how people fall in love.  Maybe science will perfect an explanation some day, but I doubt any one theory is going to cover a phenomenon with so many variables.

Sigmund Freud wrestled with not being able to quantify the concepts he broke ground on, and had to invent pseudo-entities like the Id, the Ego and the Superego so he would have something to test.  He knew someone might come along someday and show there were no corresponding structures in the brain.  But he had to get a handle on the observable phenomena.  This tool of imagining a mechanism for immeasurable activity is an important part of how hypotheses are developed in even the most rigorous scientific research.  The process is called Realism.

Realism is just one example of how we are incapable of being satisfied with partial explanations.  If we have observations, but only scant concrete explanations, it is the nature of human curiosity to fill in the gaps with whatever fits.

Among these unquantifiable but observable things is what Christian theologians have labeled the Holy Spirit.  People observe the Holy Spirit in different ways.  It can be the visceral excitement one feels when hearing choral music.  It can be the breathtaking awe when one first sees something more grandiose than was expected.  It can be the source of determination to continue a task against the odds.  However it is experienced, it is real to the person experiencing it.  It is so attractive a sensation that every major faith on Earth has identified it.  Our affinity for this feeling fuels the argument that there is a natural attraction to seek the divine.

Sure, people want to believe the soul they have spent their lives fine tuning doesn’t just evaporate when they die.  And of course people want to believe their loved ones have gone to a better place and have not just been shut off like some appliance.  But however compelling immortality may be, I don’t think people are just looking for a way to beat death when they come to church every Sunday.

I posit that our attraction to seek the divine is biologically a part of us.  Questioning why people have it is like questioning why we have legs.  And the only question left to faith is whether that attraction was planted in us by God or by evolution.  Either way you answer that question, you still can’t deny the reality of the attraction. 

I base my position on three interrelated concepts, 1) we are pack animals, 2) our brains make us imagine “Other” intelligences, and 3) we evolved here.

Humans are social animals.  All higher primates form cooperative tribes of multiple families.  It is part of who we are to need to belong to something bigger than ourselves.  Combine our pack instincts with our intelligence and self-aware consciousness, and we end up needing to feel comfortable with our place in the universe.  To be comfortable with your place in the universe, you need to know why things work, not just how.  And when our intellects can only answer how, we reach for any other source for the why.

Christians, Muslims and Jews are told to accept unwanted change in their lives as part of God’s plan for them.  Hindus, Taoists and Zoroastrians see themselves living in a world run by much more powerful forces than us.  Buddhists believe any disconnect between your expectations and what happens to you is entirely the fault of your wrong assumptions.  Pick a religion, and it will give you the why, especially when there is no way to really know why something happens.

People also want to believe they live in a world driven by the forces of good. When we reach for supernatural explanations of the inexplicable, we tend to give God credit for the good accidents and write off the bad accidents to chance or human foible (or some personification of evil, if you believe in one.)  This attribution is not just because the alternative – a world driven by evil – is frightening and depressing, but it is also a leftover from our tribal origins.  We need to associate good things with what is inside the tribe, and put bad things outside the tribe.  This kind of thinking led to the ruthlessness and remorselessness that we needed to survive back then.  But we are still more forgiving of our own than of others.  And we are still giving credit for good things to the god of our tribe.

In his landmark 1976 book, “The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” psychologist Julian Jaynes argues that our ability to introspect comes from asymmetries in the functions of our two brain hemispheres.  Only one of our hemispheres, the left, has the ability to voice its thoughts.  The right side, where most of our emotional wiring lies, is therefore relegated to giving the left side orders.  This conversation between the hemispheres has given rise to our ability to have conversations with ourselves, and therefore to think in the theoretical. 

It also leads us to automatically fill in gaps in our actual observations of the world to create a seamless field of perception in spite of incomplete data.  In other words, it isn’t just our curiosity that makes up data to smooth out our perceptions, we are hard wired to do this.  In this context, tools like Realism look like very human responses to the unknown.

Jaynes further postulates that in ancient times, before this language bridge brought us introspection, people took the messages from the right hemisphere to be divine advice.  He then concludes that religious experiences in modern man are momentary lapses back to that early configuration.  In other words, God lives in the right hemisphere.

Even though his book was ridiculed at the time for being too aggressive in its suppositions, and without enough evidence to be taken seriously, his theory has gained acceptance over the years, especially the parts about language being necessary for higher cognitive function, and cognition being tied to our automatically filling in gaps in our actual perceptions.

When I closed this book, I was taken by what I will call the notion of the “Other.”  Even in a fully integrated, non-hallucinating, self-aware brain, the silent voice of the right hemisphere whispering in our left hemisphere’s “ear” leads us to unquestioningly accept the possibility of information coming to us from outside our consciousness.  It is then no surprise that unexplained noises get attributed to intelligent ghosts as often as unintelligent wind.  And that dumb luck gets attributed to angelic intervention.  We are wired to attribute the unexplained to Other intelligences.

In sociologist Edward O. Wilson’s 1984 book, “Biophilia,” he argues that humans find young mammals cute, and undeveloped nature beautiful because it was of evolutionary advantage to early man to raise animals and find unsoiled hunting grounds.

I don’t think Wilson went far enough with his theory.  What if the whole gamut of reactions that seem beyond our control is in fact our biological inheritance?  The race of your heart at the wink of a prospective mate, vertigo, the rush from hearing a particular chord of music, the a-ha of an explanation falling into place, all the things that seem to happen to us without us doing anything, these things can all easily be triggered by genetic leftovers from times when such things were survival traits, but no longer are in our current world.  But since these reactions are based on mechanisms of which we have no conscious awareness, these things feel like we are being acted upon from outside of ourselves.

So we are creatures with curiosities and wiring that won’t rest until we have filled in all the gaps even if that means making stuff up, that must know why things happen when we rarely have enough information to determine the why, who are wired to accept that intelligences outside of ourselves can inform us, and with bodies that come pre-loaded with reactions that make us feel like we are being acted upon from outside.  How can we not be drawn to the divine?

Particular histories, personalities, even geographies have filled in the stories that address this need with individual dogmas.  Dogmas have been given a bad name by churches that have taken unfair advantage of people’s need for spirituality.  Dogmas and religious traditions serve the valuable purpose of putting important moral lessons into cultural context so they make sense to the faithful.  It is not surprising that so many dogmas directly disagree with each other, given our tribal and competitive nature.  But the fact that dogmas disagree should not be taken to mean religions are lies that must be eliminated.  They all fill a very real need.

But are the stories in religious traditions true?  Even hardened atheist mythologists admit that cultural narratives are usually based in fact.

And what of the actual existence of an intelligent, beneficent, personified God?  Shouldn’t an understanding of what forces us to seek the divine bring us closer to proving or disproving the existence of God?  Not really.  Faith in God is a choice of how one will frame one’s view of the universe.  Simple explanations can sometimes be a tool to getting at the truth.  The philosophical tool called Arkum’s Razor says when all other things are equal, the simplest explanation is probably correct.  Atheists say this principle indicts religion as preposterous.  But believers argue that it is easier to believe in God than to try to integrate the complexities of all our scientific findings into our personal world views.  Having an explanation for how something works doesn’t necessarily lead to a change in how people choose to perceive the thing being explained.  This does not mean people are ignorant or hardheaded.  Even in the face of a scientific explanation, people should hold onto beliefs that fulfill other needs, like the ones we have been discussing.

I offer a solution that goes back to my original example of how science can’t fully explain even everyday phenomena – falling in love.  Love is such an overwhelming experience that many cultures in history have given it supernatural origins.  The ancient Greeks actually believed in Cupid and Eros and explained their world in terms of what fallen fruit Zeus had left in the wake of his amorous adventures on Earth.  These people were not stupid.  These people invented logic.  The myths made sense to them, they offered explanations where no other data existed, and they gave a comfort level to their brutal, uncivilized world.  If you were to explain to an ancient Greek that we have discovered how the body’s systems work, and how the whole process of falling in love makes so much biological sense, he could still come back, logically, and ask questions like what organ can you pierce or which vein can you pinch and eliminate someone’s ability to fall in love.  To that we would say, it is more complicated than that.  And he would ask, what part of our complicated explanation proves there is no divine part of the formula.

Even though we still feel the same sensations the ancient Greeks felt when they fell in love, we were brought up with the scientific explanations.  No matter how swept away we get, no one actually thinks Cupid or some other supernatural agent has intervened to make us feel this way.  Believers probably thank God, but we talked about how we attribute good things to God.  We even dismiss the most flagrant episodes of love as letting ourselves lose control of our hormones.

My point here is simple.  Do we fall less in love, not believing in love gods, than the ancient Greeks did?  Do we enjoy the experience less, knowing what we know?  No.  Knowing that love has biological roots does not make love a lie.  So why should understanding the science of why we believe in God diminish our experience of religion, or even our faith in the existence of God?

With this propensity to religion so much a part of our make up, the opponents of Creationism must be careful to acknowledge that faith, and its institutions, are not going to go away, no matter what science discovers.  There is no reason we cannot be honest with the facts of how the universe works while simultaneously being honest with the fact that we are the product of those same processes, even though evolution has left us wired to believe in extra-scientific causes.  And there is no reason that our understanding must lessen our embrace of everything that goes into the human experience, especially things that are so inspirational and fulfilling at such a deep level.

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Categories: Religion

An Intermediate Form Looks Forward to His Replacement

Here is one of my favorite religious commentaries, from January 2009.  I throw a great long rope around everything in sight, and manage to tie it all together.  Enjoy!

AN INTERMEDIATE FORM LOOKS FORWARD TO HIS REPLACEMENT

By Jay Hartlove

OUR RESISTANCE TO CHANGE

Since we can’t dig up an intact specimen of every creature that has ever appeared on Earth, the timeline scientists have built for the evolution of life on Earth will never be complete.  But to insist that miraculous interventions occurred during those gaps is an embarrassingly weak argument against the patterns established by the multitude of data points we have.  So why would anyone be so desperate to disprove the Theory of Evolution?

The fundamentalist motivation is actually quite understandable.  If all those extinct animals were intermediate forms that evolved into something else, then that makes us just intermediate forms on an evolutionary pathway to turn into something else.  Our 200,000 years on Earth looking more or less like the people we are today is a very short period of time for a process that, even with the fits and starts that we have observed, still takes hundreds of generations for even the smallest change to become universal in a population.  Over such a small period of time, things look deceptively permanent. 

But permanence is comforting.  Permanence is seductive to people who lead overbusy urban lives filled with temptations and distractions and unwelcome change.  Change becomes the enemy.  And any theory that explains the universe in terms of continuous change is rejected as too disturbing to be embraced.

But intellectuals have been wrestling with the concept of change for a long time.  600 years before Christ, Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha, became “enlightened” when he realized that everything is in a constant flux of change, and that all of our suffering comes from us trying to hold onto things as if they were permanent.  Best friends become worst enemies because what once was is no longer.  The person is still important to you, but now you hate him, because he took your friend away.  People become depressed when they face the pain of deteriorating health.  Even if they can deal with the pain itself, the fact that their youth and vitality changed is crushing.  The hard part of this philosophy is what to do about change.  Buddha taught the only way out of this suffering is to accept change as normal, to be genuinely happy with whatever you have after the change.  This is an enormous pill to swallow, and the reason why Buddhists have always been and always will be a very small fraction of the population.

Our Western traditions are grounded in mastering nature, and being agents of change.  While the Chinese see the dragon (nature) as a gift-giver to be revered, the Europeans see the dragon as something to be conquered or subjugated.  But even in Western religions, the world is supposed to belong to God, and we are supposed to be ever thankful that God gave us this world out of nothing more than His love for us.  Whatever unwelcome change happens to us, we are to trust that this is just part of God’s plan for us.

With Buddha saying be happy with what you get, and Jesus saying trust in God’s plan for you, aren’t Eastern and Western thought really saying the same thing?  The human condition is defined by whether we fight what we can’t change or accept it and move on to change what we can.  This is an important lesson for anyone resisting or accepting unwanted changes in his/her life.

So where does that leave us on that evolutionary timeline of big changes?  Current research says humans made our evolutionary split from the apes between 5 and 7 million years ago, we diverged from our last closest relative the Neanderthal about half a million years ago, got to our current body structure 200,000 years ago, developed language 50,000 years ago, started agriculture 10,000 years ago, and started building cities 6,000 years ago.  And we seem to have figured out how to free ourselves from suffering 2,600 years ago, even if we then decided it was too much trouble.  (If the time between these milestones seems to be compressing, it is.  More about this later.)  But how many of these changes are evolutionary and how many just reflect our progress as a civilization?

RANDOM GENETIC CHANGE

One of the more subtle and least understood parts of the Theory of Evolution is random genetic change.  Everyone knows the pretty shape of the DNA double-helix molecule.  What is not obvious is that it is actually a zipper.  It unzips and exposes a sequence of molecules.  The molecules around the DNA strand are more of the same bits that make up the strand.  So these bits attach to the exposed sequence and form a chain in the mirror sequence.  That chain then unpeels and is sent as instructions out into the cell for making, fixing, starting or stopping some process.  Each strand in every cell in your body is constantly unzipping, replicating, and zipping back up again thousands of times every minute.  When the cell starts to wear out, the strand completely unzips and duplicates its entire length.  The cell then divides and forms two fresh healthy complete cells, each with a full set of instructions.  Over the course of a year, every cell in your body is replaced at least once each, with many kinds of cells replaced much more often.  With this many “transactions” run by your DNA, trillions per year, it is no surprise that occasionally a mistake is made.

Most of these transactional errors are inconsequential, and are either corrected by further sequencing or accumulate to the wearing down of the whole organism that we call aging.  The ones that matter to evolution are the errors that happen during reproduction.  Tiny unseen changes in each successive generation, changes that are not just a recombination of existing traits, create a storehouse of potential adaptations for the species to draw on in case of any environmental change.

When the Ice Ages hit, the genes needed to narrow the bridge of the nose and to lighten the skin of Europeans were already present.  It only took a few generations of dark skies and bitter cold to force those adaptations to manifest and contribute to survival.  But the genetic pool had enough options for that population to change in time to survive the sudden environmental shift.  The vast majority of the genetic makeup did not change, which is why Europeans can still reproduce with Africans.

As a contextual side note, the idea that gene pools build up options that are then “pressured” into manifestations by environmental change is hardly a new idea.  The Hindu Vedas, written almost 4000 years ago, describe the universe in cycles.  Each cycle gains in sophistication from the successes of the previous cycle.  Individuals are encouraged to live good lives on the promise of a more sophisticated reincarnated form.  Each cycle does the best it can and the circumstances of the new cycle dictate what will be used from the last.  Now that we understand the mechanisms of evolution, this pattern looks a lot like the succession of species.

Scientists have now mastered DNA sequencing and can track these subtle changes across generations.  What is useful about this number crunching is we can predict how long it will take for these accumulated changes to start showing up as features.  One group of scientists recently predicted and then witnessed an adaptive evolutionary change in a bacteria colony.  (Yes, one of the tests of the validity of a theory is its ability to predict.  We have demonstrated that Evolution passes this test.)  We can also back calculate when a trait first showed up on an evolutionary pathway.

A lot of brainpower is being spent on this kind of molecular detective work.  Researchers are digging up scars in our genetic makeup left by ancient plagues.  Others have looked at the unchanging DNA in a factory-like mechanism within the cell called the mitochondrion and discovered the lineage of all humans alive today traces back to as few as one woman who lived in Africa about 140,000 years ago.  She has been dubbed the Mitochondrial Eve.  Even more exciting is research, using the random change sequencing I described above, that found there was a significant change in human brain chemistry about 6,000 years ago.

CHANGES IN OUR BRAINS

 The change was in how the brain produces and uses a certain group of proteins in the Limbic System.  We don’t know exactly what these proteins do in the brain, since no one alive today lacks them.  But mankind prior to 6,000 years ago did not have them.  Prior to 6,000 years ago, mankind lived in no larger settlements than small villages.  Tools found in these villages show almost no specialization of skills – everyone did everything.  Surely early man gathered into villages to pool resources, but it apparently never occurred to him to have each person focus on one thing and then share.  Of course we now know a village can produce a lot more goods and services in the same time through such specialization.  Villages after 6,000 years ago do show specialization.  And that was when mankind started building cities, which rely on such specialization.  No one has demonstrated that this change in brain chemistry resulted in this change in thinking.  But what a coincidence!

I find it also a fascinating coincidence that our fundamentalist brethren have chosen 6000 years as the age of the universe.  The fact that the literal biblical record reckons a 6000 year timeline is frankly further evidence of a change in our basic thinking at that point in time.

Even if we make the leap and say that this change led to urban man, we are still left not being able to predict the next big change.  If we knew what function was going to change, then we could do a tracing of that change over time and calculate a time frame in which enough of this change would be in the population to start showing up as a feature.  But we don’t know what is going to change next.

On the other hand, we can make a good guess what the next environmental pressure will be that forces the manifestation of such a genetic change.  If living in villages strained the sensibilities of the unspecialized early man, then what kind of strain are we under now in our pressurized world of telecommunications and enormous cities?  Our rapidly changing world certainly strains our sense of stability and permanence.  Alvin Toffler saw this coming in his 1970 book, “Future Shock,” in which he warned of people being subjected to “shattering stress and disorientation” from “too much change in too short a time period” and “information overload.”  Might the next change be to thinking globally?  Or thinking altruistically?  Will the next step be away from the law of the jungle from which we came?

Before I start sounding like I’m wearing rose-colored glasses, let me point out the work that has been done on the evolutionary value of altruism.  Starting in the 70’s, evolutionary biologists started building models of how different behavior patterns would help the whole survive better or not.  This work gave us our first explanations for why traits that seem to be unfavorable have not bred out of the population, like what we call anti-social personality disorder.  Bullies, it turns out, are good for the whole because they ensure there will always be a reserve of self-reliance and leadership potential.  More recent work has shown that altruistic behavior, self-sacrificing for the greater good, also has the power to improve the survival of the whole.  It seems counter-intuitive that any kind of self-sacrifice would improve a gene pool, especially when able bodied individuals with traits that are good for the group are the ones putting themselves in harm’s way.  But the researchers worked out the numbers.  Heroism is an evolutionary advantage.

 CHANGING OUR MINDS

 For an individual to think about his fellows more than himself requires a broad view of what matters.  If we are hoping that future man will be wired to have a broader view, then can we identify a mechanism which gives people a broader view?  It turns out, the Buddhists (remember them, with the low expectations?) train their minds to see and accept things without any judgment by putting themselves in an ultra-focused state of mediation.  The breakthrough they seek is called Satori, and it is no less than a complete teardown of the barriers between the sense of self and the perception of the world around.  Once they have seen what the world looks like with no self to filter their perception of the world, they can then use this clarity to free themselves from suffering.

Brain researchers hooked up Buddhist monks to watch the electrical activity in the brains of monks who entered the Satori state.  They found there is a specific area of the brain that shuts down when this state is achieved.  So there is a spot in the brain that erects the wall in our minds between what is inside our sense of self and the outside world.

Monks who have become adept at entering the Satori state exhibit some interesting side effects.  They can’t be startled.  They have learned to take everything so much “in stride” that even the sound of a gunshot will not make them flinch.

In other seemingly unrelated research, Sociologists recently discovered that people who have a particularly strong startle reaction tend to be overwhelmingly conservative in their political views, and are generally more suspicious and adverse to change.  Suspicious thinking indicates a strong wall between the sense of self and the outside world.  This is in accord with the monk research that showed a weak wall around the self leads to a low startle response.

So if future man will have a more open mind capable of taking in the craziness of the world we have built, I postulate he will have a lower wall around his sense of self, a lower startle reaction, and therefore a quieter “self wall” center in the brain.  If this is true, then we have identified where we can look for the next evolutionary change in our brains.

Buddhism promises that anyone can train his/her mind to do this no-self trick and be free of suffering.  But since we have found a brain mechanism for this state, I suspect there is a genetic component that determines the ease with which one can complete the training and achieve the state.  And given what we know of how gene pools randomly change over time to load up for possible adaptations that are then pressured into surfacing by changes in the environment, I also suspect the gene for a low self-wall is already quietly propagating through the population.  We know a human brain could do the Satori trick 2600 years ago.  We could set the molecular detectives to finding this gene, and then tracing its growth over time, come up with a prediction of when mankind will make the next big change.

For the change to surface, though, it has to become important for the survival of the species.  And for a change to become that important, the environment has to change enough to exert enough “pressure” to force the change.  We are talking about abandoning selfishness and replacing it with thinking of the group before yourself.  How crazy would the world have to be that thinking globally becomes a survival trait for the individual?  We are not there yet.  And for those of us who are already having a hard time with change in our lives, things are only going to get less permanent.  But within a hundred years, every person on Earth will have their body wired for wireless Internet.  Computing power will be beyond our wildest dreams.  In the same timeframe we will have mastered genetic engineering, and the moral conundrums we will face will be staggering.  There will be only one world economy and it will change instantly and constantly.  There will come a point when thinking only of yourself will harm the group enough that you will be out-competed by those who do not.  And that will trigger the change.

HOMO ALTRUISTICUS

Personally, I would love to meet this future man.  Living in a world of selfless open-minded thinkers appeals to me at a very deep level.  But by definition, he will not come into being until the world has changed so much that I could not survive in it.

Categories: Religion

Hello world!

This is my first blog entry here at WordPress.  So I am trotting out an old chestnut.  This article was published in February 2007 on the Evolution Weekend web pages run by Michael Zimmerman of Butler University.  http://blue.butler.edu/~mzimmerm/rel_evol_sun.htm.  Michael has since become a featured contributor on Huffingtonpost.com.  I have several articles on religion that I have published around the web, and I will gathering them all here for your enjoyment (as well as a lot of other content too).

Three Reasons Christians Should Embrace Evolution

By Jay Hartlove

Humans are social animals.  Like wolves and gorillas, it is part of who we are to need to belong to something bigger than ourselves.  Combine our pack instincts with our intelligence and self-aware consciousness, and we end up needing to feel comfortable with our Place in the universe.  For most of mankind, this Place has always been illuminated by religion.  Seeing examples of how we fit in both gives us comfort and guides our moral behavior.  Believers of all faiths call this our natural attraction to seek the divine.  No set of discovered facts can do as much to satisfy people’s instinctive need to belong, and shape a moral functional society at the same time.

So if religion has such a clearly valuable place in human life, then why have scientists who study life found themselves in opposition to clergy who administer religion?  I am, of course, talking about evolution.  The simple answer is dogma, but like most simple answers, it misses the point of the conflict.

The Christian Bible came to us from many sources and has been edited by many people over time.  But regardless of its crooked path lineage, it is the document that survived that path, and it is the best version we have to work from.  If we are to use the wisdom it holds then we have to accept the whole book.  But whether we have to accept the whole book as the whole story is where we run into trouble.

Old Testament leaders felt the need to attach God’s wrath to any deviation from the exact words of the laws they had set down, given the wandering, questioning, envelope-pushing nature of the Jews in the Bible.  They were a lot like Americans.  Similarly, today’s clergy feels it is their job to rein in this wandering before it leads to downfall.

The point modern fundamentalist clergy have missed is that although the Bible is our lasting document of man’s history with God, it was a much less lofty and much more practical instrument to the people who wrote it.  As much as those Hebrew elders may have believed that God really would smite anyone who ate pork, their object in writing it down as religious law was to save people from disease.

Fundamentalists accuse liberal churches of serving cafeteria style religion for accepting the word of Christ as fact, but interpreting away the literal reading of the creation story of Genesis.  They say Christians must believe every word in the book as the literal truth.  Moreover, they say that anything that contradicts the Bible must not be part of the truth.  This is disingenuous.  There are passages in the four Gospels that contradict one another.  The writers of the Bible wrote about what they knew.  They were not trying to document all of history or to describe all of nature.  The Bible’s editors hoped the collected book would remain useful for generations to come.  They did not expect it to cover all yet undiscovered facts.

So I ask the literalists, “Who will cast the first stone?”  If I can’t say Genesis is metaphor, then all fundamentalists must stop eating pork.  The Jews have managed for thousands of years without it, why not Christians too?  Jesus did not revise Leviticus to allow eating pork.  The cynical reason is it would be political suicide for evangelical churches across the pig farming Midwest.  The practical reason is pork is no longer the health hazard it was throughout most of history.  I submit that the discovery of salt curing and refrigeration is no different than the discovery of dinosaurs and carbon dating.  Neither one diminishes the value of the lessons taught in the Bible, but both add to the Biblical text new facts that were not known to the Bible’s writers.

Therefore my first reason Christians should embrace evolution is the Bible is the foundation cornerstone of our Place in the universe, but it is not the entire story of our understanding.  The Bible “lives” when it inspires us, but unlike the fundamentalist accusation, no one is trying to “grow” it.  No one wants dinosaurs in the Bible.  But we do build onto the Bible new facts as they are discovered, reconciling inconsistencies like adults, and never forgetting the value of the cornerstone we have built upon.

My second reason why Christians should embrace evolution is the hubris the fundamentalist timeline implies.  Fundamentalists ask where is the Grace of a God who let the dinosaurs live for hundreds of millions of years, then wiped them out in an arbitrary accident?  What does such a long timeline say about the significance of the lives of people who are, according to the Bible, only supposed to live for 80 years (Psalms 90.10)?  How can we be made in God’s own image if we are but mere coincidental specks in the very old, very big, and very arbitrary universe?

The fact that the Bible only spends its first book on pre-history should show these questions to be the existential hand-wringing they are.  The stories of Cain and Abraham are purposely without historical context.  All those billions of years that came before do not change what people have been doing to people, and do not change mankind’s relationship with God.

On the other hand, if you count up the generations described in the Bible, you only get 200, or 6,000 years since that first fateful week when it All started (October 23, 4004 B.C.E., according to James Ussher, the Archbishop of Armagh, in his Annales Veteris Testamenti, in 1650.)  If all of history is only 6,000 years, it certainly makes your puny 80 years a much bigger part of the Big Picture.  But do you really want the accomplishments of your life to count for more than one percent of the total progress mankind, no not just mankind, but the whole universe, has made since it began?  Do we really need to position our lives as THAT important before we can be satisfied with our Place in the universe? 

Which brings me to the third reason Christians should embrace evolution: Hope for the future.  Attempts to explain evolutionary theory to the masses in the 1970s created remarkably resilient popular misconceptions.  Evolution is not a zero-sum game.  Random back and forth movements do not wander far from the origin.   Indeed, if evolutionary changes were completely random, then you would never get to highly specialized mechanisms because random changes back to where you were would wreck the development.  But development doesn’t just mean living longer to have more babies.  Adapted creatures have more babies because they can take better advantage of their environment.  Any babies that have the old features will be out-competed and die.  Backwards steps are wiped out.  So there is adaptive change toward efficiency.  The movement can only happen because of random mutations in reproduction.  But the movement to adapt is directional, not random.

It can rattle one’s Place in the universe to be told that we are little more than carriers of test samples of DNA.  But it is only unsettling if you insist on a huge, important Place, with our lives making up a significant chunk of history.  Alternatively, if we accept that our job is to discern God’s will and do whatever each of us can to advance His will, then the more humble Place isn’t so bad.  Evolution fixes big things, even if the individual must perish.  This is God’s world, He can, has, and will change it as He sees fit.  You don’t have to cook up a religion/science hybrid like Intelligent Design to see the genius of a system that uses complexity to steer around adversity.  Once you accept that we and all of creation around us are intermediate forms, you can take comfort that the immutable mathematics of evolution will ensure the survival of the planet.  Don’t wait for a visible divine intervention to fix our mistakes.  The intervention has always been here.  It’s much the same as asking God for personal forgiveness.  When He forgives you, the forgiveness comes in His works, which include you.  You don’t pray to cause change, you pray to change yourself so you will be able  to see your answer in the physical world.

All the far fetched counter arguments against evolution are driven by the perceived need to defend a document that offers so much to so many people.  But the Bible is not under attack.  To insist these words are immune to interpretation is to say there is only one vision of God that we must all accept.  People who pick and choose are going to do what they want to anyway.  No one who values the Bible as a moral cornerstone is interested in chipping away at it.  Choosing how the Bible fits into your life is not cafeteria religion.  Some parts fit into our lives with no struggle at all.  Other parts take more work.  And yet other parts, the ones that don’t impact our daily lives, sit on the shelf and wait for a day of reflection.  I submit that the biblical creation story is a good candidate for that shelf.  Especially if all it does is divide us from our fellow man.

Categories: Religion
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