If you stop to think about it, the fact that I am writing my thoughts into a sentence that you can read and understand is nothing short of amazing. As far as we can tell, such acts of communication are not occurring anywhere else in our solar system. And even on our small planet, teeming with life, you and I are members of the only species that reads and writes (though whales and dolphins may very well have their own book-of-the-month club that they are very adept at concealing from us).
We naturally take for granted the things that seem to come naturally to us. We don’t have the time, frankly, to sit in wonder at every little thing that — were we to see it in its true historical or biological context — would blow our ever-lovin’ mind. So we spend the time we must learning how to walk and talk and drive and sculpt and dance and compute and then just get on with living our life.
But one of these times while you’re walking from your car into your house, thinking about the next thing on your to-do list, consider what underlies these regular acts that seem so effortless to us.
Walking upright is a good start. That is quite an evolutionary change for a body of muscle and bone that began as a bacteria that managed to clump together enough to become, eventually, an actual body of a lobe-finned fish that adapted to walking on land, then developed into a small mammal, then a primate and then the upright hominid that was our great great great great grandmother.
And what about the air that flows so easily into your lungs? It’s easy to think of that air as having no mass at all, but of course it does. The one-ton weight of the atmosphere over our heads weighs down upon us every moment, but we don’t even notice it. Our bones and muscles have evolved under that weight (not all of which is, exactly, pressing “down” on us) so that our density and shape and mechanical arrangements are so well suited to air’s “mass” that we only sense when the breeze blows it across our face, or when we stick our hand out the window of our fast-moving car and play our hand against the force of the air compressing in front of it .
This is where creationists stop one step short of a true sense of wonder, and invert reality when they decide to praise God for making the world so perfect for us to live in. It’s quite the other way around, I’m afraid. The world was not made for us. The reality of evolution is that we were “made” for the world that we evolved in, or — more precisely — that we were “made” (evolved) in the world as it already existed. That is the power of evolution as the result of natural selection: the things that work well in a given environment have a better chance of being preserved in reproducing life forms than those that don’t.
One could argue that the original conditions that were made possible by earth’s particular composition and location in relation to the sun were “made” just for us, but that would be pushing things more than just a bit. For there is no evidence of intention in anything that exists — other than the animals, like ourselves, that possess consciousness. What we can say with absolute confidence is that the conditions that came to be on Earth were hospitable to the beginning — and continuation — of biological life. And knowing — as we now do — just how rare of an occurrence such a state of affairs is in the known universe, it is easy to be overwhelmed with the sheer luck of it all.
But the idea of such cosmic, existential “luck” really bothers a lot of people. And so there arises in humans a deep cry for intention, and a purpose for our existence that must be rooted in some larger intelligent force. I hear this from Christian friends who are sincerely baffled by the notion that existence can, well, exist without an intelligent, interested source. (What they are really concerned about is how one could deal with this reality in an emotional and intellectual sense). But this impulse toward religious belief is, I believe, an artifact of the way we have mentally and emotionally processed our physical reality over the generations, and has everything to do with our brain-based consciousness and absolutely nothing to do with the physical world. It is a “software” issue.
Be that as it may, human belief systems are a definite social and cultural reality that is deeply embedded in our intellectual life. And old ideas die hard.
I have often wondered at how religious belief survived the arrival of Darwin’s theory of evolution. But others have pointed out that the end of the earth-centric view of the universe should have been enough to knock the pins out from under the truth claims of the church. Right they are. And I’ve just been reading about the intellectual and spiritual crisis that the discovery of the Americas caused for the Europeans (in “The Great Divide”, reviewed here this week). For here was an entirely new world (filled with people) that — because the discovery of its existence came with no hint or mention in ancient literature or biblical texts — was completely unexpected and shocking. It took Europe and the church a few hundred years to really get used to the idea. And so it goes.
Every new scientific discovery erodes ancient religious claims about our physical reality. I think that is indisputable (at least in a general sense). But, seen anthropologically, this is not surprising: almost all of our early philosophy and religious ideology was developed in a context of deep ignorance of the inner workings of biology, cosmology and geology. Fortunately for us “westerners”, the evolution of Christianity took a course that embraced Greek thought, and led us to the idea that the “one God” was a god who had created a nature that could be understood (as He could be understood) through continuing study (Islam — and the shamanistic religions of other cultures — held that all that could be known had already been revealed in holy books, and to seek additional knowledge was to blaspheme).
In this way, the evolution of thought in the “Old World” of Europe and Asia was open to the discoveries of science, at least until those discoveries began to bring the revealed wisdom of scripture into question. But by then the cat was out of the bag, as it were, and, despite the excommunications and heresy trials, scientific discovery has became our primary source for reliable knowledge about reality.
Be that as it may, actual non-believers (in God or in “divine purpose” generally) remain the minority, even in America. Most people believe in God. And most of those believers, whether they realize it or not, tacitly accept as true scientific descriptions of the world they inhabit, without realizing the profound implications of those scientific truths. The result being that the majority of humans, to my mind, take for granted the true miracle of their existence as a thinking, feeling, personality in a discreet physical body living on a planet hospitable to such an existence. No, to them a wonder of this magnitude (if they give it a thought) is not nearly enough. They require (for their sense of well-being) that there be a single great god of the universe who is just like them, and who, despite all of his necessarily awesome responsibilities and powers, must reliably bend an ear to any individual’s urgent prayer request for a good parking spot at the mall.
But the rather amazing (and counter-intuitive) point of all of this should be plain by now: the believer in God, by holding fast to a religious view of existence, actually limits their capacity to experience the true awe of seeing creation for what it really is: an expanding universe of a scale we cannot truly comprehend; a tiny, blue planet of water and air and elements born in exploding stars; the continuous, persistent non-random selection from random genetic changes that, over time (and under changing environmental pressures), transforms a bacteria into a fish, a fish into a mammal, and mammals into elephants and whales and humans that, after millions of years develop language and then an alphabet and then the technology that allows this one human to write his thoughts for other humans to read and understand.
In the larger scheme of things, one has to ask, what does it matter if people believe in God or angels (or fairies in the garden, for that matter)? It’s not like adults playing pretend or believing in magic is going to slow or speed the final, fatal blossoming of our sun, or the eventual contraction of our universe. No — we are blessedly powerless on those scales. But where we are powerful is in our effect on the quality of our own lives, and, potentially, the lives of others.
And so it’s none of my business if one of my fellow humans is comfortable in a world governed by a god of their choosing. But when so many live in that kind of world, one has to speak up for that which is obscured by the veils of religious belief. There was a time in the evolution of religion that called for a “voice in the wilderness”, a “John the Baptist”. What’s needed now is more “John the Scientists” to stand by the doorway that science has opened for us in the wall of human ignorance, pointing the way to the unseen wonders that await beyond.