I watched the new HBO documentary Questioning Darwin twice yesterday. This film precisely defines the conflict between the people who believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible and their objection to Darwin and evolution. Even though I’m an atheist I’ve always believed that fundamentalists had a better intuitive understanding of evolution than the average church goer. They know evolution is an alternative explanation for reality that absolutely contradicts their faith. Most modern people are wishy-washy in their religious and scientific beliefs and try to hold both at the same time, believing they can keep God and embrace modern knowledge. However, if you really understand evolution or you really understand faith in God, you know the two cannot coexist. That’s what this documentary is about.
People who understand science will see this documentary and wonder why the faithful cling so passionately to their ancient beliefs. But the faithful who see this film will wonder at how the disciples of Darwin can’t see the obviousness of God. The wishy-washy middle will wonder why we can’t have both. It doesn’t work that way. Often my friends ask me why I can’t just be an agnostic – why be an extremist.
At one point in Questioning Darwin a preacher states it takes just as much faith to believe in science. And he is right. Both evolution and theology are systems to explain reality. Backers of evolution firmly believe evolution is true. Science is a process that evaluates evidences and selects the best explanations that describe the various workings of reality. The science minded feel the evidence is overwhelming in support of evolution. The fundamentalists insist God create reality and us. The wishy-washy will say God created science and evolution. But that’s a cop out. Atheists and fundamentalists know there are two opposing explanations and you have to pick one.
To the scientific minded, who dislike the word faith, I think they don’t understand the term as used by the faithful. They think it means wish fulfillment. They think when a religious person says they have faith in God they are saying they are choosing to “believe” God exists. To the faithful, faith means they “know” God exists. They have completely accepted God as the answer to explaining all the questions of reality. By that definition of faith, atheists who back science have faith in science, and they “know” evolution is the explanation of how life arose on Earth. But we’ll leave the word faith to the religious, and keep the word scientific for the science minded.
Folks in the middle will explain we can’t know anything for certain. That’s true. We can’t. However, fundamentalists and atheists know there are currently only two choices, two theories, on the table, and they are exact opposites, and we feel it’s important to man up and pick one. That’s what this documentary shows – the two conflicting options.
Even Darwin clung to God. And many educated religious leaders want to understand and incorporate scientific knowledge into their metaphysical philosophy. The vast majority of Christians are in the middle. They aren’t Biblicists. The Bible Christians, with their creationism and Creation Museum insist the world is only six thousand years old, and use pseudo-sciences like intelligent design to attack real science to validate their beliefs. It’s hard to say how many Americans believe this – one Gallop poll said 46% of Americans, but that’s probably not true. The Raw Story analyzed that poll and concluded maybe 31 million Americans, or one tenth of the country.
Also, the numbers for people supporting evolution varies too, with atheists being the strongest at 87%, Buddhists (81%), Hindu (80%) and so on down to evangelical protestants at 23%, Mormons (22%) and Jehovah’s Witnesses at 8%. Wikipedia using Pew Forum claims 48% of the U.S. population supports evolution. Between the 46% Gallop figure and the 48% Pew figure, we can see how the country is polarized, and this topic matters.
The two choices are this. The first theory is a supreme being is the starting point of everything, one of perfect knowledge, power and order, and reality descends from his being. From perfect order towards chaos. The second theory believes reality emerges out of nothingness, with no knowledge, no order, and no power, and is evolving toward something, becoming ever more complex and orderly. From chaos to order.
One significant aspect of Questioning Darwin is to explain our polarize society. If religious beliefs were merely personal it wouldn’t matter if some people believed in God and others in science, but the faithful want to change society so it follows their beliefs, and science automatically changes society through technological spinoffs. I believe the rigidity of Republican party comes from the rigidity that believing in The Bible is the absolute word of God. I also believe that anti-science philosophy is reflected in conservatives getting involved in the politics of education. I used to believe that the small government movement merely reflected cheapness for not paying taxes, but more and more it appears to be because fundamentalist citizens hate spending their money on liberal ideas.
The documentary didn’t go into politics, but all the evidence was there to read. Bible based believers want to redesign society so it matches their philosophy. They feel both persecuted and empowered. The documentary said that Bible based Christianity was the fastest growing religion in the world. I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, then expect an ever growing conflict between science and faith.
My heart goes out to the faithful, to those people who embrace God. When I watch this documentary I see all the reasons why they prefer God over science. And I’m sure when they see this documentary their hearts will go out to all the non-believers. But here’s the thing, the faithful believe us atheists live without many comforts they think they get from God, and I don’t think that’s true. They cannot comprehend how we can live without God, and fear us. They believe we embrace chaos. We don’t. We seek all the things belief in God gives the faithful. We just find meaning and comfort by other paths.
We have a different approach to dealing with every sparrow that falls from a tree. We can’t replace God and religion exactly, but we have many analogs.
One thing that comes through strongly in Questioning Darwin is the strong desire of religious people for a father figure. People want a strong protector that is just and wise. One that will always listen and always help, and most importantly, always care. In Darwin’s reality, we all have to become our own father figures. We want to grow up and leave home and stand on our own. The faithful love the quote, “there are no atheists in foxholes.” They believe when times are tough everyone will beg for God’s help. That isn’t true. True atheists understand and accept the randomness of the universe. If there’s a shell with our name on it, then our time is up. It’s not personal. We don’t want to die, but death comes to us all, and usually it’s an apparently random fate. Science and knowledge gives us understanding to how things happens. It’s not completely random. Sometimes its from the will or fault of another person, and we do find that evil and unjust. We don’t expect a father figure to rescue us, and especially not one that will avenge us.
Darwin explains how we got here, but he said nothing about what it means to be a self-aware being finding itself in an unconscious reality. Humans with scientific knowledge will be able to conquer the random chaotic indifferent universe. There is no God that senses every sparrow that falls from a tree, but humans are now aware of sparrows and maybe it’s our responsibility to take care of all of them.
Order and Morality
Related to the father figure wish, is the desire for justice. The faithful hate the idea that the universe is random and capricious. The faithful want God to be the arbiter of right and wrong, and the punisher of evil doers. The want the universe to have a referee who knows the rules that everyone must follow. The faithful hate not having clear rules to live by.
The scientific have laws and ethics. We do not believe the universe has morality built into it, but we do believe that intelligent beings can create their own morality. We call that ethics. We also believe that intelligent beings can invent their own rules to live by. We can them laws.
We have also created the idea of human rights, and more recently, animal rights. Even though we are Godless, we embrace ethics and morality completely. Right and wrong is just as important to our philosophy as it is to literal Bible believers.
Yes, the universe is chaotic, seemingly ruled by random events, we see the emergence of order in everything. If someone dies horribly from cancer we don’t see it as punishment. We don’t blame God, or wonder if the person deserved to die a miserable death. We study the environmental and genetic causes of cancer to understand how it happened. Even though randomness is a major factor in everything that happens, we still find cause and effect. It’s not a meaningless universe to us. If a sparrow falls from a tree, we study why.
Believers in God have one overwhelming wish they expect God to grant – everlasting life. Science accepts death comes to us all but we work to extend life as much as possible. Personally, living forever scares me. It sounds like a cruel torture. But us unbelievers do want a longer life, and we expect science to study reality and discover how to make people live longer.
Not only do we want longer lives, we want to make sure our species does not become extinct, and we want to protect all other species.
As a nonbeliever who occasionally studies The Bible. it seems to me that two most important books are the first, Genesis, and the last, Revelation. To believers, the first explains how we got here and the last explains where we’re going. The Book of Revelation has the most extensive description of heaven in all of The Bible. And if it’s the literal truth, I don’t think I want to go to heaven, especially not for all of eternity.
Those of us believe in science want to build paradise on Earth. We want to conquer disease, live a long time, create a humane and just world, with lots of creative activities to pursue. We want to live long enough, and then die peacefully. We accept death, but don’t embrace it. Not only do we want to create heaven on Earth for humans, but we want to recreate Eden for the animals.
From watching the documentary I got the feeling that prayer was among the most cherish aspects of religion. That being able to talk to God is the number one need. I think we all feel lonely in this old reality. When I saw the scenes of the happy people at the mega-church I envied them their community togetherness. Praying together is a way of sharing hopes and fighting fears.
We unbelievers have a substitute for prayer. Instead of asking God to change reality for us, we believe we should change reality ourselves. We don’t plead to God to heal the sick, but spend money on medical research. We vote for Obamacare. We don’t pray to God to stop evil wrong doers, we pay for police and the judicial systems. We don’t pray for world peace but build armies. We don’t pray for rain, but build irrigation systems. We don’t beg God to send us a husband or wife, but join Match.com. We don’t ask for riches, but go to college or invent Candy Crush.
Also, I am constantly thankful. I am grateful for being alive, for having a lucky life, for family and friends. I spend a lot of time studying nature and science to appreciate the wonders of reality. I constantly think good thoughts about other people, animals and all life on Earth, and even out into the universe. That kind of positive thinking is our prayers.
Religious people are frightened and horrified by all the evil things that happen on Earth. We nonbelievers are just as scared and repulsed by those events too. In the documentary it shows a wing at the Creation Museum that depicts these horrors. Many of the pastors and their followers interviewed talked about sin, and the origin of sin. All pointed to the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. Some of the people interviewed even believed that dinosaurs existed in the Garden of Eden and that Adam and Eve and all the animals were vegetarians before sin came to us. Believing there was no violence or suffering before sin.
The scientific minded don’t like violence either. I’m a vegetarian. I don’t want animals or people to suffer. I’m a liberal and want the government to help needy people so they won’t suffer. I give money to causes to end suffering.
Science, law, technology and ethics are all efforts to create order, to end suffering and to create justice. We want to educate people so they won’t do evil. So they won’t hurt other people, or protect the weak.
In a way I agree with the fundamentalists, and believe that it is humans that brought sin into this world. I actually think the metaphor for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is a beautiful concept. I think the writers of The Book of Genesis knew there was a time when we were like animals, and were innocent of good and bad, and that language and understanding let us know the difference between what should be and shouldn’t. Those writers wished we still lived in the Garden of Eden, innocent and without sin. Boy, they would have loved Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Us disciples of Darwin see it differently. Yes, there is sin in the world, but through knowledge we’ll learn to live ethical and good lives. Violence is the rule of reality from The Big Bang to The Enlightenment. It’s only been in the last few centuries have we learned that violence is wrong, and that human rights and animals rights is the way to end it. We don’t believe Eden existed – yet.
Humans are an emergent phenomenon, sort of like the singularity we imagine for intelligent machines. Humans woke up and saw reality and have been trying to figure it out ever since. We reached a critical mass of brain cells that allowed us to be self-aware – aware of who we are and the reality we lived in. We didn’t fall from grace, but emerged from the chaos of nature. We became a new type of entity in reality – one that recognized it’s place in reality. Reality is pretty scary. Our job isn’t to die and go to heaven, but to conquer reality.
We left Eden not because we were exiled, but because we could no longer be unaware animals. We wear clothes not because of shame, but because we don’t want to be animals. We left Eden because we wanted freedom to become everything we can imagine. Sure, we’ve fucked up the planet, but we’re still evolving. Hopefully, we can make things right and get our shit together before we destroy everything.
Nature is not sinful, it’s just red tooth and claw. Only humans can be sinful and evil. We do that when we act like animals and destroy rather than create. We achieve grace and transcend nature when we live up to our full potential and become good by our own definition of goodness. The ten commandments were not from God, but our own creation to bring goodness into the world.
Sin defined by God is servitude and slavery. Sin defined by humanity is escaping from nature.
The desire to return to Garden of Eden innocence is the desire to go back to sleep, to become unconscious to the nature of reality.
To the faithful, sin is not obeying God, but to the scientific, sin is not living up to our knowledge.
The evil of the red tooth and claw of nature is the hatred of chaos. Science seeks to understand reality so that we might bring order to chaos. Most of the evils of mankind are from when we act like animals, which reflects the programming of nature. Currently the Earth suffers because humanity collectively acts like a cancerous growth on the planet, killing endless species and destroying the ecosystem. It comes from being unconscious to the knowledge science has shown us. The most evil of sin is being aware and doing evil.
Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
The most disturbing of all the points they illustrate in the documentary is when they show a young girl in the hospital paralyzed from the neck down because she was in a car accident. Her cousin said his wife prayed and prayed but wondered why it didn’t help. The cousin wondered why an all powerful and all knowing God could let this happen. They speculated that God had a purpose and claimed they had faith in whatever that purpose might be.
Here’s where I find atheism far more comforting than religion. We can all be victims of random evil. Sometimes it’s nobody’s fault, nor did we do anything to deserve punishment. And when someone is at fault, it’s explainable, like a drunk driver, or mad gunman. Isn’t it better to have something bad happen to you and not think God has it in for you? Especially if you love God so much?
Towards the end of the documentary they interview at ex-prostitute crack user and a former heroin addict who both claim God saved them. Religion has saved a lot of people. Religion can bring order and stability to people. But millions of nonbelievers have saved themselves too. As an atheist when I meet people like these two saved people I don’t want to argue with them, or try to take away their faith. They were lost and now they are found. I can accept that. But God isn’t my explanation for why they are better.
Both of these people were addicted to drugs. Now they are addicted to a belief in God. They switched from a negative addiction to a positive addiction. They found a community of people to belong, and they’ve turned their life around.
Personally, I think they got a virus that changed them. Memes are viruses of the mind. God and religion are powerful generators of memes. Memes replicate and spread like mental viruses. They are like DNA in that they replicate. Religious memes are very successful because they make people feel good. Really good. As good as crack or heroin.
My parents were alcoholics. My father died of drinking when I was 18. My mother eventually gave it up. She was religious, but I think she gave up drinking and smoking from her own willpower. I did a lot of drugs when I was young, but I gave them up. I saved myself. But I think some people need other people to save themselves. They think it’s God, but it’s really a community of caring people.
If they had churches for atheists I think we’d have a lot more atheists. I think a lot of people believe in God because they like going to church and being part of a community. I’m pretty sure millions of people profess the doctrine of their church because that’s what they are told, and it’s easy to accept rather than study science books. But what they really want is friends and community. That professing belief in Jesus is just learning the secret password to join the club.
True believers of Darwin have their club houses too, they are called universities and research institutes. But the average citizen who backs science usually don’t have scientific clubs to join. Amateur astronomy is big on clubs, but we usually don’t see hangouts for physic and chemistry fans. Birders and some other naturalists do have a lot of amateur associations.
I wonder if there would be more professed atheists in America if we had churches devoted to believers in science. Imagine going to service on Sunday to hear lectures on cosmology and mathematics, mixed with singing and study groups for evolution and quantum mechanics. With Sunday night dinners and Wednesday night social gatherings with kid’s activities, such as robot building contests.
Charles Darwin and Evolution
The thing believers hated most about Darwin and evolution is takes away the concept that humans are special, that we are special in God’s eyes. Many of the preachers talked about humans being created in the image of God, and that we weren’t animals, as if being an animal was undignified, or lowly. I thought it was strange that they’d prefer to be a servant of God to being the top dog of the animal world. I find a kind of affinity with the line from Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.”
Until we meet an intelligent alien from the stars, we are the kings of the universe. We are now responsible for what happens on this world. We can choose to be great, or act like animals. We can create our own immortality, our own paradise, or own morality, our own health and happiness. We are the father and mother to what will be. This might be hubris, but only if imaginary gods are real, and there’s never been a shred of evidence to believe they are, only wishes.
JWH – 2/12/14