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Misunderstanding Darwin

In the weeks since my apostasy more than a few believers have asked me something along these lines:  “How can you give up the beautiful Christian vision of humanity’s divine purpose and exchange it for the grim world of Darwinian selection where the strong survive and the weak die?  It  seems so empty.”

Well first of all, natural selection describes the world we actually find ourselves in.  Living according to reality seems like a better course to take than basing one’ s life on unfounded metaphysical claims and wishful thinking.

Secondly, natural selection is not simply “survival of the fittest.”   There’s much more to the story of life on our planet than “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson put it.  These types of reactions suggest that Darwinian thought is still widely misunderstood.   Yes, the brutal elements of life are the result of the struggle for survival.  But religion doesn’t have any more palatable answers for the violence in nature.  Who’s God rooting for anyway?  The lion or the zebra?  He “made”  both the predator and the prey.

But if life comes with a lot of ugliness, it also comes with much beauty. Our sense of  aesthetics,  too,  is the result of natural selection.   Altruism, love, courage, devotion to friends and family, creativity–all of these attributes evolved in our ancestral past long before religion ever came on the scene, and they can be amply explained without recourse to myth.

Speaking only for myself, I can tell you that learning to look at the world through Darwinian lenses has brought me more feelings of transcendence in recent months than traditional religion ever did.  Evolution teaches us to appreciate our proper role in the world, as a unique but fragile species that really has not been around all that long.   Genesis teaches us that humanity has “dominion”  over the earth.  Evolution teaches us that we are related to all life forms on the planet.

  1. April 21, 2012 at 4:04 am

    That’s absolutely true, Preacher. That’s the first statement on this board that I agree with. We should exult in the serendipity of it all. The universe just is, so why not enjoy every second of it. Just because we’re ephemerons doesn’t mean we can’t a great time while we’re alive.

    It seems so ungrateful to say if there’s no god life isn’t worth living, as in the Woody Allen movie. What a selfish way to look at being alive. They want their cake and eat it to.

    Rich Goscicki author of Mirror Reversal, Kindle 2012, free read.

  2. adtz
    April 21, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    What is the evolutionary purpose of the sense of transcendence? It seems pretty universal and is strongly linked to almost all human religious experience from simple animism to the most complex religious heirarchy. What’s it really for?

    • April 21, 2012 at 11:09 pm

      Great question. And I’ll be there’s a good answer somewhere. Apparently feelings of transcendence can be created in neuroscience labs by stimulating certain regions of the brain. And the fact that the brains of Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns in prayer light up in the same places suggest that the phenomenon is not dependent on theology, since they vastly differing doctrines. I have also wondered if there are different categories of transcendent experience. Religion is not the only source. Some people get their fix at rock concerts or fly fishing. Are these different from religious transcendence or basically the same thing?

  3. C. John Stutzer
    April 21, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    I’ve been on a similar journey, & came to understand many things through the same lenses you are now using.

    But this has always troubled me: Knowing that science describes without malice the reality we live in, why does it follow, that because the Judeo-Christian myth is false, that any notion of “GOD” is false?

    And no, I’m not going to suggest that some other existing religion succeeds where Judeo-Christianity has failed.

    What I am asking, is the same as every scientist asks, as every layer of our universe gets peeled back: Each time we find a new answer, or a “What causes this” for some physical phenomenon – whether the reason for black holes or aberrant human behavior – there is always presented a new why – “why should this be so?”.

    Just recently, the Big Bang Theory is now being tested by way of asking “what came before this?”.And I am sure we will find some plausible mathematical model which in turn can be supported by repeatable experiment.

    So, doesn’t it leave open the God question? I’m perfectly at easewith someone suggesting there IS a GOD. What I am uncomfortable with, is the arrogance of complaining that if there were a God, why would he allow human suffering?- and the fact that human suffering exists, proves there is no God!

    Because what is left, is that we do not know. What is left, is that we humans alone as a species trouble ourselves about such things, because we’re a fretful bunch, and usually victims of our own devices.

    And that said, we are tribal and territorial by nature, and taking away Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Paganism – just because they’re blatantly and patently untrue – leaves a void.

    You’ve postulated that very few people have read the Bible, or there would be a heck of a lot more thinking like you. I answer that many have read enough to know it’s a load of crap, and that ‘s why we have football, baseball, state fairs, the Shuttle Program and Star Wars conventions.

    But the trouble with each, is they’re either seasonal or irregular, and not one of them have social outreach programs.

    So, what takes the place of “here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the door, and see all the people”? What 21st century institution can be concocted that can have at once a palatable constitution to swear or confess to, but serve the spiritual needs of many?

    • April 21, 2012 at 11:03 pm

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read the blog and to share your comments. Lots to think about here. Just a couple quick thoughts: I definitely think the god question remains open, and will continue to remain open. The existence of human suffering doesn’t prove there is no god. (One cannot prove a negative, anyway.) But the theodicy issue is a big hurdle for those who would not only insist on god’s existence but also claim that god cares deeply about each human.

      Many prominent non-believers are willing to concede the possibility of god’s existence. Michael Shermer even wrote a letter to god entitled, “What If I’m Wrong” found in his book, “The Believing Brain.”

      For me right now it just boils down to a lack of evidence. If there is a god, then he/she/it hasn’t tried very hard to communicate clearly to us on anything. And since we have no empirical evidence whatsoever of god’s activity in this world, we have to assume that divine intervention is simply not a factor in our lives. We have to live as if god were not a reality because at the moment we really have no indication to the contrary.

      Your question about what palatable alternative to church might develop in the 21st century is an important question–one that I hope to explore in future blog posts. I look forward to the conversation.

  4. C. John Stutzer
    April 22, 2012 at 10:30 am

    paganpreacher :

    For me right now it just boils down to a lack of evidence. If there is a god, then he/she/it hasn’t tried very hard to communicate clearly to us on anything. And since we have no empirical evidence whatsoever of god’s activity in this world, we have to assume that divine intervention is simply not a factor in our lives. We have to live as if god were not a reality because at the moment we really have no indication to the contrary.

    There’s the nub of it: Why isn’t God responding to us in the way we expect? This will happen every time we set out parameters for “God” to fit into.

    The Religionists use “God” to explain the unknowable and excuse the awful, the Scientist says he has found mathematics and experimentation to independently replicate every thing he/she can observe in the universe without “God”.

    This reminds me of a joke:A scientist is in the field, making some observations, when he stumbles on God – who has been watching him. They begin talking, and the scientist brags that this whole creation thing isn’t such a mystery – why he can take a handful of dirt and make anything he wishes from it.

    So, God calls him on it.The Scientist cannot wait to get started and reaches down to grab a handful of dirt, and God stops him.

    “No”, says God, “get your own dirt”.

    Today, we know that “dirt” contains compounds and molecules and atoms and electrons and gluons and muons and quantum effects and Dark Energy and Dark Matter. I have no doubt that as each new mystery presents itself, we will be able to eventually understand it in terms science uses.

    But that doesn’t answer the “Why” of it, does it?

    It sounds like I’m making an argument for the existence of God – but I’m not. I am making the argument that we humans, with our peculiarly arranged handfuls of dirt we exist in,are emotional and spiritual beings, that need emotional answers and spiritual comfort, no matter what science can explain, prove or manipulate.

    The “Church” exists today, in spite of it having long ago been exposed for its Big Lie, because it still fills an incredibly vital role.

    I for one, cannot stomach the dogma of Church, any brand, any flavor, yet I know how important the sense of being connected to my family, neighbors and community is for me. I know how many times I’ve needed that arm around my shoulder, or words of encouragement, or a sense of belonging – even of being on a winning team. I need something like Religion to remind me of my moral responsibilities, my code of conduct on this earth from time to time.

    We only need “God”, because “God” has become a catchall to deal with all things human.

    Proving or disproving God doesn’t change by one iota the Human Condition.

    I do not need to know whether God exists or not, but I do need the side-effects that practicing religion with my brethren in a house of worship produces.

    And I do not care whether God or the scientist owns the dirt – but isn’t it amazing that dirt exists in the first place?

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