It hit me today that the main complication in being anti-theistic is the reality that so many people in my life (and in society at large) believe in God, and draw varying degrees of practical comfort from that belief. So when I launch into a rant about the unlikely nature of an actual God’s existence, I sometimes feel a “pang” as I imagine the offense I may cause. (What’s interesting, perhaps, is that my pang is not, generally, related to any fear of actual divine retribution).
As I drove across town — listening for a bit to a Christian radio station preacher going on about the wonder of God’s one-week creative act — my mind dispassionately clicked off the likelihood that anything of the sort was responsible for creating the actual heavens and earth and everything that walks or crawls. For just before that I’d been listening to a story on NPR about how scientists and engineers are exploring rather amazing light-controlling structures in the wings of certain butterflies, and trying to work out ways in which to exploit — through nanotechnology — these structures that “self assemble” in nature. That story reminded me of Darwin’s lengthy explanation (in “On the Origin of Species”) of the very natural mechanics of honeycomb assembly by honey bees.
All of the wonders of the world that one can think of are perfectly (and adequately) explained as completely natural processes. (Consider the many once-mysterious diseases that have been traced to their true causation in mutations in one or several genes).
We understand now, through science, that our bodies build themselves bit by bit through the actions of gene expression, regulating proteins, amino acids and the like (with each new discovery pointing the way to the deeper subtleties of the intricate dance of genes switching on and off at the right times that brought you and me from a single cell to a fully-formed human).
In short, a little reading of the available popular writing about genetics and biology can give one a good conceptual grasp of the real miracle of life on earth that (in my experience) so exceeds any religious explanation for sheer mind-blowing, awe-inspiring wonder by exponential factors.
Yet religious belief persists, even in such “modern” minds as ours.
Of course, we moderns are the tip of the spear, as it were, that extends all the way back into our past, and we still carry with us so much of our history that a definite tendency toward belief — toward the externalizing of inner thoughts and impulses to the extent that we now easily regard them as coming from actual divine or spiritual sources — is a completely natural part of the functioning of our consciousnesses.
As I’ve said before, I am a natural “believer”. I notice it now when my mind is at rest (as it often is these days, having answered for myself most of the “big” existential questions of life): I will hear a declaration of belief from someone (in person or on the radio) and my mind immediately writes a memo to my consciousness asking: “Have we really looked at the question of God from every angle?”. The answer is “Of course I have”. But for that moment, I doubt.
But when I think about it for more than a moment, the smallest piece of evidence from science, geology or biology is enough to make that memo of doubt disappear. I could look at a star and think about how long the light from that star has been traveling to get here and know that the world could not have been “created” seven thousand years ago. Or I can think about the fact that I have a tailbone (where my very own tail used to grow); or my bad back (from our species learning to walk upright); or a hiccup (that links me to my amphibian past). I can reach down about anywhere and pick up a rock that could be millions of years old, or consider the lessons of the Human Genome Project that has revealed the evidence in our genes of our evolutionary past.
In short, any argument for God or special creation is embarrassingly easy to disprove.
But belief is a personal thing, and we tend to be deeply entwined with our beliefs and will defend them with ferocity, if not rationality. And so the problem with attacking irrational beliefs is not the beliefs (which are made of nothing), but the feelings of the believers themselves (who are real flesh and blood).
There is no real resolution to this dilemma. As I explained to a believing friend, I stand up to oppose the irrational beliefs of others at the point where they begin to infringe on my own personal liberties. On this point he and I agreed.
I think most of us understand that “Freedom of Religion” is a compromise: we allow people to believe crazy things so that we, in turn, are not hindered in our own thoughtful pursuits. Of course there are many religious believers among us that are mistrustful of the compromise, and assume that their views are so transcendent and universal as to merit priority. Which brings to mind the Dunning/Kruger effect, which describes how the less informed one actually is, the higher his (or her) certainty of the “rightness” of their views. Conversely, the more one knows, the more one learns to doubt (or at least be wary of baseless confidence).
And so it makes sense why the religiously confident are so vehement in their denial of science in general, and Evolution if particular: not only is their world-view threatened, but their confidence as well.
Still, such as the above provides the best argument for education I can think of: to decrease the levels of confident ignorance, and increase the levels of intelligent doubt (which is to say a recognition of the complexity of life).
And so, though we don’t desire to cause anyone discomfort, we must nevertheless continue to promote scientific knowledge and reason, recognizing it as the best path toward making the most of our time here on earth.