One of the stories I tell myself about my life is the one about my (apparent) dedication to personal growth. Landmarks of this story include my decision to “accept Christ” as a teenager (having no reason to disbelieve the argument for the proposition, I chose to follow that path to God and salvation). Another is my much later decision to read the entire Bible and compare what was actually written there against the collection of doctrines and beliefs I had been taught in my years of belief. One more was my willingness to enter into therapy in my twenties (though I had employee insurance at the time, I still had to pay a substantial deductible, which I accepted using the verse from Proverbs: “Get wisdom, though it cost you all you have!”). Another landmark was facing, in the fall of 1987, the prospect of living in a universe without God when I found myself (unwittingly, I would argue) delivered to just such a state of doubt after a troubling summer of missionary work abroad during which I was endeavoring to get to the true (and defensible) center of my Christianity. After that there was the therapist who I allowed to water in me a nascent sprout of belief in my own worthiness, which was later built upon by the psychic that told me outright that “There is nothing wrong with you!”. Most recently, there was the halting courtship of the full ramifications of being a living organism in a purely and completely natural and mechanistic world.
When I look back, I have been able (from time to time) to pause, take stock and give myself credit for consistently making the choice to explore, to step into the dark unknown in the vague hope or belief that I would come out the other side better for it and more grounded in reality than irrationality. At the same time I could not honestly tell you that my progress and growth over the years has been animated purely by a fearless devotion to truth. Most of it, I would confess, could as easily have been driven by my own unhappiness, discomfort and discontent. To the end that I could not quantify how much of my personal growth could be described as a by-product of a basic pain response and how much as the result of a nobler endeavor.
Even now (as I learn more about the current understandings of the human animal that science has brought us) I realize that a good deal of my increasing comfort with myself and my capacity to access my talents and feelings (from a fairly stable state of emotional equilibrium) could also be (with some validity) described as a by-product of my aging and maturing brain.
In short, I will never know how much of my current mental health is the product of natural processes and how much is the result of my own dedicated (if uncomfortably urged-on) efforts.
The human brain, it turns out, takes about 25 years to reach its mature state (in biological terms). By age 40 parts of it are starting to decay, forming “holes” in the gray matter. But as this happens new tendrils — new synapses — form that connect the two hemispheres of the brain to compensate for “holes” and in the process foster an increasingly “full brain” approach to whatever we are putting our mind to. The “aging mind” gains an ability to synthesize. With age comes wisdom, they say.
So maybe I would have “settled down” without all the effort and the therapy and the psychic sessions: all the reading and the talking and the praying and the writing may have been just things to keep me busy while my brain followed its own path to maturity and calmness. Who can say?
Of course it’s reasonable to think that my activities (and choices) during those years had some effect on my maturation and development as an individual. I did, after all, take a bunch of raw talents (that came with the equipment, as it were) and trained them into usable skills and professional abilities (as long as I was going to be unhappy — I seem to have reasoned — I might as well be productive, and now that I’m happy, I’m made happier still by the skills I picked up along the way!). (NOTE: The paragraph you have just read is an excellent example of an excerpt of my own internal “story of my life”!)
Now as I read about just how much LIFE is driven by DNA and its need to reproduce, my human efforts (as applied to my personal growth above) are once again placed in relief against much larger (or, in this case, smaller) forces over which I have little say. The question expands until I am thrown upon even larger questions of the kind that I thought I had left behind when I ceased to be a Christian believer.
As a Christian one of the great (and endless) debates is the role of an individual’s “free will”. There are those of the predestination mind that say that God has chosen each of those whom he will, and has fore-ordained the days of their life. Others see a world where God allows each individual complete freedom of choice as to whether to believe in God or not (with the minor caveat, as HItchen’s notes, that the wrong choice will result in eternal banishment and torment in Hell). Christians (and other religious believers no less so) also struggle with whether their choices and actions are being unduly influenced by demons (or the Devil himself), their own sinful natures or even urgings from God, his angels or the Holy Spirit.
I wondered today (as I considered all of this) if all of my learning and personal growth and efforts to abandon irrational religious belief had only served to lead me — via the ironic path of Darwinian evolution and science — right back into the lap of God. Or, at least, back to the same questions that believers attempt to understand.
There is an unsettling similarity to the questions: On the one hand, if God knows every word I’m going to say before I say it, am I really making a choice at all (have you ever done that trick where you suddenly say the opposite thing to test if you can outwit God’s script)?; On the other hand, if I really am merely a by-product of my DNA’s drive to reproduce, do even my much-vaunted human mind and its accompanying “free will” add up to anything that can (in any meaningful way) transcend the biological imperatives at the root of my very existence? Or — to put it another way — “Can I outsmart my DNA?”
Of course this serves to remind one that religion grew out of our first attempts to answer the deeper existential questions that are the inescapable inheritance of every living consciousness. In that sense I wonder if there isn’t some inchoate understanding of our biological place in the world that pushed these questions to the surface of our forebearers minds. The reality is that we haven’t yet answered them. The hope is that we eventually will. The concern is that we may not be able to…ever.
Just as the early theory Continental Drift hinted at a geological reality but proved to be an insufficient tool for describing the actual geological processes of Plate Tectonics, so the notion of God and our relationship to an all-powerful deity hints at the larger existential questions that science has now allowed us to put into words.
One thing is obvious: our highly evolved animal-level survival minds are embarrassingly limited when faced with the need to comprehend the scale of our universe, or the complexity of the organism made of ever-smaller organisms that is our living body. One can almost come to feel that we (like a computer or robot in a science-fiction movie) are a biological experiment conducted by our own mindless DNA that has achieved self-awareness.
The reality, of course, is that life goes on whatever we might decide is the case. The sun will still rise in the morning, and so will we. Our minds will revert to doing what they are good at: keeping us alive along whatever lines we tend to find most agreeable in the environment where we find ourselves. In the case of most of us that includes acting as the keepers of the story of our own lives. This, too, is a natural part of our consciousness. It indicates a need for meaning and for understanding. Stories about ourselves — narratives — are like photo albums that help us organize our experiences and make sense out of them. They are a means to the necessary sense of meaning that is so natural a part of our make up.
So why bother to try to understand, to grow, to learn? Understanding how an atom works is not essential to a well-lived life, really. In my case one reason I push for science to be more fully accepted and appreciated is that it helps to shake the foundations of older (and more unnecessarily repressive) religious belief systems.
Religion does not offer the answers that science cannot provide: Religion imagines answers where there are no answers — describing worlds it has never seen with its own eyes. Just because the ancient questions are the ones we still ask does not mean that the ancient imagined answers to those questions are therefore worthy of resurrection. Doctors once described the body as made up of various “bodily humors” that could cause madness, moodiness and disease. I suppose one could argue that there turned out be actual genes and diseases and bacteria and chemical imbalances and a million other discovered elements of the physical world that were behind the idea of “bodily humors”, and therefore those early physicians were right after all. But today we know about genes and bacteria and viruses, and the term “humors” is out of date (not to mention so fraught with medieval magic and superstition that the term is far too antique and imprecise to be of much use in modern times). In like manner, I would argue, is religion no longer useful as a descriptive tool of either human consciousness or the natural world.
It may be that we are the playthings of the Gods, but it may be that we have looked to Heaven for the powers that rule us when they have lived quietly inside our cells all of this time.
But then, maybe my DNA knew I was going to say that. Damn!