Posts Tagged ‘human history’

SERMON: “How God Makes Nature Cruel” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

A friend asked me a question — an interesting thought experiment: If God were to make a 30-second announcement to all of humanity at once, what would he (or she) say?

The future-predicting part of my brain had already prepared a response to what I thought my friend’s question was going to be (if God did such a thing, how would I — as an atheist — feel about it?  My answer: pissed).  So at first I wasn’t certain I would have a decent answer question he actually asked.  But then it came to me.

I thought that God would say to us all: “Every one of you evolved from earlier life forms that were created through completely natural processes.  So relax.  There are lots of other life forms out there in the universe, but you’ll never meet them.  Be nice to each other.”

Today I’m thinking about my two reactions, both to the anticipated question and the actual one.  I’ll talk about the “pissed” response first.

Despite what most believers might expect, I wasn’t angry that God existed.  As one who puts his confidence in evidence, were there to be actual evidence of the existence of God, I would naturally bow to the obvious.  (I’d want to be sure, however, that there was actual, testable evidence, and not merely a mass hallucination!).  No — I wouldn’t be angry that God actually existed: I would be angry at God for being such a bastard son of a bitch.

Why?  Because if God were to say what I suggested he say to his creation, he would be acknowledging that every shred of evidence that we’ve found on this planet was, in fact, correct (and that you religious fundamentalists could stop beating up on the poor scientists, thank you very much!).  That would mean that God was, in truth, a distant commentator (of a deistic sort) who perhaps touched off the big bang and let the rest just happen according to physical laws.

Or perhaps not even that, for the questions inevitably multiply: was God, then, created by those natural forces?  Did he design the natural forces themselves?  If so, could anything so created really be called a natural force?  Which brings us back to the uncomfortable fact that God had turned out to be, essentially, an evil trickster sort of god (with a lower-case “g”).

As soon as one inserts the actions of a supervisory intelligence into nature, you suddenly have to confront the question of intention and, hence, morality and ethics.  So, when you bring God to a nature fight, that is when nature becomes cruel, wasteful and just plain mean.  Without God, all you have are blind, mindless, unintentional natural forces that do the “picking and choosing” that are the process we call natural selection.  And natural selection operates without thought or intention, which means it is also without malice or cruelty.  Evolution, because (as a theory) it is essentially a description of the process by which species adapt into more or less successful creatures (through the non-random selection of random mutations — as Richard Dawkins might say it) it does not play favorites the way an individual with a mind would.

Okay.  so let’s look at the alternative view (the one that is, essentially, put forth by young earth creationists), that God planted the evidence of evolution (all those pesky fossils) and deep geologic time to test our faith.  In essence, he made sure that there was no direct evidence of his existence, and set humanity loose on a life-or-death scavenger hunt for clues that he cleverly decided to hide so deeply that no-one (or, at the least, only a chosen few) would ever find.  And that even those sparse clues would be so vague and ambiguous as to be really, really tough to have faith in, even for the most faithful.

That’s the kind of God I could be really, really pissed at.  That is the son-of-a-bitch God that would fit the model of the spoiled kid that thinks the servants in his rich parents household are his playthings and not equal human beings.

Am I being unfair to God?  No.   Not really.  And I find that I have accidentally come upon another fundamental problem with the whole idea of God, and it is a paradox.

We believe that God is good, and the source of all that is good (and, therefore, the creator of the universal standard of human morality).  We blame the Devil for all of the cruelty and evil in the world (the result of humanity’s famous fall from grace in the Garden of Eden).  And so we modern humans are left to struggle upon the earthly venue for the heavenly battle between these two unequal (and yet somehow “allowed” to be nearly equal in this “world”) forces.

The paradox is this:  it is the introduction of the idea of God itself that stains all of creation with the stamp of good or evil.  It makes a moral problem out of the parasite that hijacks the brain of its victims so that its hatching young can eat the poor victim from the inside out, or the bleating of the young gazelle as it is torn apart by hyenas, or the disfigurement of an innocent human infant from a genetic mutation that lead to a birth defect.

Because of God we humans are called upon to make declarations about the morality of essentially amoral, natural events.

We humans are the moral animals, and our morality is a byproduct of our social natures that are, themselves, an evolved trait that we share with many other primates and mammals (think of whales and dolphins).  We understand intention because we are intentional animals, with large brains that have several layers of function piled by evolution on top of our (more ancient) instinctive and reflexive brains.  We are able to critique our own behavior and, therefore, have a set of semi-flexible standards for that which is the behavior that we tolerate, welcome or condemn in others.

The problem is that we project our own natural intentionality into a universe that has no idea what we’re on about.  A universe, in fact, that has no idea at all.  A universe that is open and vast and completely empty of any sort of God we can imagine.

Or at least it better be, or that poor God is going to have some answering to do for every act of cruelty that will end up being charged to his (or her, or its) account.

And this is why seeing nature for what it is proves to be better than the religious/mystical view that many of us grew up with.  It turns out that it is God, in fact, that makes nature cruel and capricious.  Evolution lets the world be what it is: natural.  Which, in turn, frees up a good part of the contents of our brain case to deal with the very real ins and outs of our social interactions with our fellow animals, where intention and morality actually do exist.

Nature is not cruel.  It cannot be: it has no mind or heart with which to form any intention at all, whether it be good or evil.  Only we higher life forms, and the Gods like us that we imagine, can do that.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” a film by Werner Herzog.

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

Werner Herzog is an odd duck (based on the glimpse into his mind that his documentaries have given me).  But he is an odd duck that meditates on human stories that seem to matter.  And the recent discovery of paleolithic cave art inside Chauvet Cave in France definitely matters.

Granted rare access to this carefully protected site, Herzog gives us a mesmerizing and unsettling glimpse into just how modern we modern humans are.  What I mean by that is this: to study the highly stylized and sophisticated cave drawings and paintings by our European forbears (created some thirty to forty-thousand years ago –the oldest found to date) is to come face to face with the reality that they were most definitely us.

Admittedly, I watched Cave of Forgotten Dreams with the eye of a professional artist, but there is nothing at all “primitive” about the artwork these anonymous humans left behind.  And as the documentary points out, this was all during a time when most of Europe was covered with glaciers, and we were sharing that cold (but sunny and well-stocked) landscape with our distant cousins the Neanderthals.

This is history and science described with a passionate humanity.  Herzog is justly fascinated with the art itself, but his real passion is to somehow try to transcend the chasm of time and feel his way into the world that these Cro-magnon artists inhabited.  This is the point where science leaves off, and imagination takes hold.  This is Herzog’s domain, and he explores it heedless of whether he will sound silly or not (he sometimes does).

But being seen as a bit silly is a very small price to pay for such insight into our shared humanity.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!