Spiritual Spelunking

Looking at the headlines it’s sometimes difficult to believe we’ve evolved. I still trust evidence-based science, despite official government policy, however. So when a friend sent me a story about a new human cousin I knew it was worth a look. Homo naledi bones date from much more recent times than they should. At less than 400,000 years old (which means they might fit GOP ideology pretty well) they are almost contemporary with Homo sapiens. And, apparently, they buried their dead. Now much of this is still speculation. The bones were found in caves with openings so small that onlyfemale spelunkers could fit in, and the question of whether dropping bodies in a hole counts as burial has raised its head. Still, the human family tree is being redrawn, and in a way conservatives won’t like.

I became interested in evolution because of Genesis. My mother gave us a few science books as children even though we were Fundamentalists. One of them talked about evolution and I was intrigued. Clearly it didn’t fit with the creation story—I was young enough not to notice the contradictions between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2—and yet scientist believed it. They likely weren’t Christians, I reasoned. College gave the lie to that deductive thinking when I ran into Christians teaching the required “Science Key” who believed in, and yes, taught, evolution. I’d missed something, obviously. Once I discovered evolution could coexist with Scripture I was eager to learn as much as a non-biologist could. In my teaching days I focused on the early part of Genesis and even began to write a book on it.

Image credit: Margaret A. McIntyre, from Wikimedia Commons

It’s much more honest to admit that we’re related to the rest of life on this planet than to set ourselves aside as something special. Evolution has done something that the Bible never could—brought all living things together. There are too many towers of Babel and chosen people themes in Holy Writ to allow for real parity with our fellow humans, let alone other creatures. Yet the human family tree is wondrous in its diversity and complexity. We now know that Neanderthals were likely interbreeding with Homo sapiens and I wonder how that impacts myths of divine chosen species. Did Jesus die for the Neanderthals too, or just our own sapiens sapiens subspecies? You can see the problem. For a literalist it’s just easier to crawl into a cave. But only if the opening is large enough to admit males, since the Bible says they were created first, right?


Narrative Ark

Complete with an artificial giraffe perched on its prow—or aft, I can never tell the difference—a modern-day Noah’s ark is about to set sail. Or set float. The Bible doesn’t describe any kind of steering or propulsion for the ark since its main job was not to sink. According to a story on Huffington Post by Nina Golgowski, the life-size “replica” of Noah’s ark from the Netherlands (that I’ve posted about before) is about to go to sea. Spreading the good news as it goes, it is headed for South America, according to the story. Then the itinerary heads north, where the most rapid true believers can be found. Perhaps intentionally the ark is headed toward the godless left coast rather than hitting the Bible Belt. The fact that an imaginative reconstruction of a mythical ship can float may save many from Hell. A few questions, however, remain.

I’m a visual guy. I study pictures rather than just look at them. As a kid I was amazed at the sheer variety of arks that claimed to follow Noah’s blueprint. Reading the account in Genesis, it is clear that all that’s given are measurements—in cubits, no less—and instructions to make three decks and a window. The Dutch ark follows the design made popular by the 1977 Sun Pictures’ In Search of Noah’s Ark movie. The design, I recall thinking as a teen, looked slick and scientific. Engineered to withstand a fake storm in a bathtub, this has to prove something. When rock outcroppings on Mount Ararat were photographed from satellites and military jets, they suggested this was, in fact, correct, some of the time. Close-up photos were inevitably lost as sherpa after sherpa fell into hidden crevasses with the camera still in hand. Now they won’t let you climb the mountain, just in case.

The drawing that launched a thousand, or at least one, ark(s).

The drawing that launched a thousand, or at least one, ark(s).

Apart from the ark design is the more important question—the question about leg room. With all our technology, and a world that has been pretty thoroughly, if disappointingly, explored, we still haven’t catalogued all the species on the planet. The ark had to hold all the species since evolution is a diabolical lie. Pugs had to be there as well as their non-ancestral wolves. Both African and Indian elephants. Black and white rhinos. Hippopotami, pygmy and economy-sized. It had to have been pretty crowded, and Answers in Genesis claims there had to be room for dinosaurs too. For me the question has always been those left off the ark—the fish. If the oceans are salt water and the whole world was flooded, whence the fresh-water fish? They couldn’t have evolved, since nobody does. That’s a head-scratcher. Good thing too, because there had to have been more than just two fleas on that ark.


Prayer before Meals

It was in Wisconsin. Oshkosh. I was teaching for a year in a replacement position, and my roster of classes at the university covered several aspects of religious studies. During the course of prepping a course, I first saw it. The Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was only a virtual Flying Spaghetti Monster sighting, but since Creationism was much in the news in those days, I boiled with curiosity. By now it would probably be a strain to explain the whole thing, since everyone knows about his noodly appendages and predilection for pirates. The short story is that the Flying Spaghetti Monster was an invented deity to demonstrate the ridiculousness of trying to get Creationism taught as science in public schools. For those who believed in other gods, such as the FSM, there should be equal time in the classroom, the argument went. Since that time Pastafarianism has taken on the semblance of a real religion with “believers” earning the right to have driver’s license photos taken with colanders on their heads, and even a book of scriptures being written.

An Associated Press story from Sunday’s paper tells of the world’s first known Pastafarian wedding. Bylined Akaroa, New Zealand, the blurb indicates that the Oceanic nation down under has decided that Pastafarians can officiate at weddings, and a couple was married with al dente accoutrements. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it seems, is going the way of the somewhat more serious Jediism and Avatar religions in that people are deliberately electing fiction as their faith. Interestingly, this may not be a new phenomenon. We are told, for example, that Zarathustra deliberately outlined a new religion—one that may end up having had the greatest impact on humanity of all time, if roots are considered. In those days the strict division between fiction and fact may not have been a mental filter yet discovered. The “it really happened” test of religious veracity was still some distance in the future. Metaphor meant something then.

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The internet, it seems likely, has facilitated and accelerated the appearance of new religions. As with most things, the real issue comes down to money and power; if a government recognizes a New Religious Movement as legitimate, it may be granted tax exempt status. And how can it be proven that someone really does or does not believe what s/he says s/he does? If you’ve got a box of Barilla on your pantry shelf, who’s to say? It’s a short distance from that colander in the cupboard to the top of one’s head. And who doesn’t like pirates? And who’s to say that under that rotelle moon in a stelline-studded sky someone hasn’t indeed kissed their hand and swore the ultimate starchy allegiance? Keep watching the skies!


Fossilized Views

Not all Fundamentalists are the same. I grew up believing the Bible was literally true, but in my family we recognized that fossils indicated the earth was older than just a few thousand years. Keep in mind that I never tested this with any preachers—we didn’t need to. We knew that evolution was wrong, but that didn’t mean there had never been dinosaurs. Kids are as sure of dinosaurs as they are of angels. Besides, we lived beside a tributary to the Allegheny River that was rich in fossils. We’d spend summer days wading in the water looking for rocks with impressions of various bivalve shells in them. They weren’t hard to find. And being collectors of just about anything inexpensive (or free, as in the case of fossils) we brought them home. We really didn’t see any great disconnect between the black book on the table and the rocks in our hands. There was room for both.

It must’ve been a slow news day at Huffington Post recently when a story titled “This Guy Is Pretty Sure He Found Fossils From Noah’s Flood” ran. The guy in question is from Texas, and, finding fossils probably not unlike those we used to, supposed that they were laid down during Noah’s flood. This was an idea that I only encountered after I’d left home. We couldn’t afford many books when I was growing up, but we did have conventional dinosaur material. Nothing strange enough to suggest that the flood created all the landforms and fossils on the planet. That would’ve sounded just a bit strange. Today, however, it is common to suppose all Fundamentalists are naive and enemies of science. Not all are. Some, I hope, are like I was, trying to find a way to fit their faith into a world that science has come to help define a bit more clearly. Positions have, however, polarized a bit since my tender years. We now fight over things we used to wonder about.

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The fossils I found as a kid found their way back into nature before I grew up. If I ever have the time when visiting home these days, I still try to get an hour or two to spend down by the river to look for the rocks that filled me with such awe as a child. That was a world where belief was fairly easy. I loved science. I loved my religion. I loved the fossils that told me the story was a complicated one. Only I wouldn’t have believed that decades later I’d still be trying to suggest to others that the world is big enough for both facts and faith. I haven’t been a Fundamentalist for decades, and given a few million years, who knows how even the nature of the debate might evolve.


Psychobabel

Evolution, we’re told, has one goal: survival. As an unthinking process of nature, evolution “programs” us all to desire survival for ourselves and our offspring. Even attributing that purpose too it is to suggest it’s more a willful agent than a blind process. People, on the other hand, are meaning-seeking creatures and so there’s bound to be some disappointment involved. I was just discussing with a friend how it seems that people just can’t agree on evolution mostly because of the strident claims on both sides. The New Atheists make claims beyond the evidence that survival to reproduce is the “only” role of evolution and we are “just” animals with too much gray matter, and that consciousness is “merely” electro-chemical activity in our brains. Creationists, for their part, say evolution couldn’t possibly account for structures as complex as we see in nature, and therefore a deity much be involved. The rancor grows until both sides end up despising the other. People who look for the middle ground are not newsworthy and fade into the scenery. I wonder if we’re evolved to ever get along.

My wife mentioned that it’s like the Tower of Babel story. Here is the tale of God making humans inevitably talk past one another. We can’t understand and so we argue and criticize and insult. A more scientific explanation might be that perhaps we’ve tipped the evolutionary balance with our species-specific success. We are by tar the most numerous species of any large animal. (At least that we know of.) Having put ourselves as lords and masters of the food chain our challenges have become mental and we turn ourselves to the question of who’s right instead of simple survival. Sacred books can’t guide the discussion, but reason alone. And reason, as we all know, has its limits.

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The great irony in all of this is that, if we’re evolved to seek meaning, we’re not equipped to find the truth. As neuroscientists have pointed out, the brain’s function is survival, not truth finding. Our desire to know the truth is a human avocation abstracted from consciousness. We’ve not adequately defined consciousness, but since there aren’t many large predators hunting us down anymore, that brain-power has been diverted elsewhere. Despite all this, we don’t see world peace spontaneously breaking out. Even on a smaller scale we find prejudice and hatred and insane mass production of weaponry when our only predators are ourselves. Evolution, we’re told, has only the goal of survival. Being an unthinking principle, even ascribing it this much conscious decision-making is merely a matter of convenience. Does the Tower of Babel mean we must hate those who differ from us, or does it perhaps suggest that the real goal is better understanding?


Old Curiosity Shop

I’m not sure how I’ve managed to live in New Jersey eight years without discovering the Old Book Shop in Morristown. Used books represent the opportunity to find things otherwise hidden away, even often from the all-seeing internet. That’s why I visit book sales at any opportunity, and haunt used bookstores. The Cranbury Bookworm, never easy to reach, was denuded of its glory by a greedy landlord and has only a few shelves remaining in a much diminished location. The Montclair Book Center takes a concerted bit of driving from here, but I always enjoy it when I go. Over the weekend, however, the Old Book Shop was my destination. Although it’s not a large space, the books on display are reasonably priced and represent intelligent collecting. I found a book or two on my wish list there, and many more that, were I in a more lucrative line of work, would have come home with me.

One book my daughter found in the science section, Ecce Coelum; or Parish Astronomy, by a Connecticut Pastor, was clearly from the days when science and religion got along better together. A little research revealed the author as Enoch Fitch Burr. What really caught my eye was the dedication, “lectures on astronomy in the interest of religion.” I’m not sure how I managed to leave that book behind, in retrospect. As a layman both in science in religion terms, I have had lifelong interests in both. It’s only been within the last couple of decades that I’ve noticed a growing tension between the siblings. Like all childhood fights, it is a contested matter of who started it. It does trace its roots back to Galileo and Bruno, but more recently to the Creationists and their never-ending campaigns to have their religion christened science. Back when Ecce Coelum was written, science and religion had much to learn from one another.

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Now they no longer speak. Those who believe all answers lie in material explanations treat religion as a mental disease. The conservative religionists call the scientists atheists, as if that were still an insult. Name calling and bad feelings, I don’t believe, will ever lead to the truth. The science of today will eventually find its way into the used bookstores of tomorrow. Religion books have long lined these shelves, reminding me of the day when she was the queen of sciences. She’s often treated as the jester these days. What scientist now declares, “behold the heavens!”? We might actually benefit to a great degree if both the empirical and the ecclesiastical would behold their world with a little more wonder. And tomorrow’s readers will puzzle at our strange hardness of heart.


UCB

The Flying Spaghetti Monster came onto my radar while teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. I was teaching a course entitled The Bible and Current Events and the controversy over teaching Intelligent Design had been gaining steam. As I addressed the evolution section of the course, I became aware of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and his noodly appendages. The Jesus fish had recently evolved to a Darwin fish, and the Darwin fish was being eaten by a Jesus shark, then I finally saw the Flying Spaghetti Monster on somebody’s bumper. I looked it up online and discovered a whole mythology had been developed to go with this parody of a religion. It was lighthearted and funny and had an obvious purpose—to challenge the equally bogus claims that creationism is science. Now, I don’t try to change anyone’s religion. If someone finds creationism comforting, well, the United States is based on freedom of religion and who am I to dictate what someone else believes? The problem is creationists often don’t share that courtesy and try to get their religion taught in public schools as science, which it isn’t. The Flying Spaghetti Monster was their nemesis.

Over the weekend, when I actually have time to do a little surfing, I came across the United Church of Bacon. Noticing the similar food-based theme as the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I decided to check it out. It seems to have become a cottage (cheese?) industry to start your own anti-religion. A look at the United Church of Bacon’s website reveals it to be the brainchild of Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller, and friends. As usual, the voice of Teller is not heard. This is a legal church which performs many of the services of traditional religions, but without the belief. Bacon, it seems, is the ultimate reality here—to quote the church on a billboard: “Because bacon is real.” They have nine bacon commandments and an impressive list of charitable works.

Looking over all of this material, I wonder what the mainstream churches might take away from all of it. For one thing, the obsession that Christian denominations have had for centuries with correct belief has become a kind of albatross. Petty differences in theology tend to lead to hatred in the name of the prince of peace. Another is the repeated emphasis on giving has taken its toll. The United Church of Bacon openly advertises that they give money, they don’t take it. While few clergy become fantastically wealthy, it is no surprise that most bishops or those of equal rank never seem to go hungry or drive cheap cars. If entertainers are rich, it is because they offer something worth paying for. And for those of us who are vegetarians, the UCB offers the alternative of praising vegetarian bacon. You are, after all, what you believe.

Heretic?

Heretic?


Scotland the Evolved

Imports and exports are the stuff of international commerce. Nations import what they require or desire from nations that have a surplus. One surplus that the United States has is Creationism. The origins of the movement share some culture with England, but there is no doubt that the idea of Creationism is a distinctly American one. Histories of the movement have been written, and it has proven itself remarkably resilient and tenacious. The leaders of the various forms of Creationism (yes, of course there are factions) tend to be very good at fund raising and political maneuvering. Once Creationism has been safely laid to rest in one form, another arises in its place like the heads of a hydra. The United States has been exporting Creationism for years now. I recall talking with colleagues from the UK many years ago and they were asking what this thing was that was showing up in their classrooms. The Brits tend to be sensible people and they were unacquainted with this blatantly faith-based approach to “science.”

A recent piece on IFL Science! declares that Scotland, at least, has banned Creationism from science classes. As a form of religious or cultural belief, of course, it may be studied. I have a feeling that in the future our generation will be regarded with wonder as that which experienced a massive delusion that science is whatever you want it to be. Don’t get me wrong; I understand Creationist concerns. Indeed, up through my sophomore year in college I shared them and could not see how evolution would fit into a biblically informed worldview. This was not discouraged at Grove City College. The serious study of religion, however, does bring many truths to light. Religion can be studied empirically. When it is, ideas such as Creationism can be objectively assessed. When they are, mene mene tekel upharsin.

We will not see Creationism going away. With the conviction of righteousness that is fueled not only by monkey business, but also fears of social changes, it gives a verisimilitude of respectability. Science has eroded systematically such ideas as homosexuality as an aberration, gender being fixed and defined at birth, women being inferior to men, races as being different species. It used to feel like a safe world to those who felt the Bible supported their right to run the place. Creationism feels like science and tries to cast doubt on a worldview that has relegated the Bible to a quaint place on a dusty bookshelf of Weltanschauungen. It would be naive to suppose that it is about to go away just because it is banned. If we would take the time to understand it, and to try to address the insecurities it effectively assuages, we might see different results. Making fun, however, seldom leads to conversion. We’re simply too evolved for that to work.


No Beef

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Burger franchises aren’t always the best option for vegetarians. When you’re traveling, however, choices can be slim. My wife and I recently pulled into a Burger King. They do have a veggie burger, although it is clear that those who prepare them seldom eat them. They must be frozen because they inevitably have that tough edge that comes from microwaving them just a little too long. Anyway, we were sitting down to have a bite, or chew, when a group of three gentlemen in the corner booth caught our attention. They were arguing, in a friendly way, over Christianity. Among the topics of conversation was the age of the earth. (Ten thousand years, at the outside.) Overhearing the conversation, I started to get nervous. I noticed the guy at the table next to them glancing curiously their way.

I glanced around. Other people having conversations about mundane things. Perhaps this is what we’re taught to do. Speak of things that have little depth. We are in a public place. We don’t discuss religion or politics here. But then I reconsidered the situation. If I were to join their discussion I’m sure we would have found little in the way of common ground, but I realized that conversations around religion do have depth. These guys, despite the media’s incessant message that religion is for non-intellectuals, were thinking deeply about topics of ultimate concern. When’s the last time I talked with a colleague about what really matters over lunch?

A blurb in a recent Christian Century mentioned Bob Dylan. It suggested that in a recent interview that he’d intimated that if he hadn’t gone into music, he would likely have studied theology. Likewise, I recalled an interview many years ago with Bruce Springsteen that suggested he might have made a good priest. Listening to the lyrics of many of the songs of these two icons will reveal that depth and public religious discourse many not be so rare as this incident in Burger King seemed to suggest. Maybe the words aren’t always direct. Maybe we speak in metaphors and with guarded asides. Maybe we speak with our actions instead of our words. Many of the most profound conversations we have, when viewed in that light, are like those of three men in a Burger King.


Creating Diversity

Informed opinion is a chimera. I write that as someone who has time to read only the news stories my wife or my friends pass on to me. Once in a while one of those stories makes me feel less bad about being uninformed. A recent piece by Slate author William Saletan looks at polls regarding Creationism. The piece, picked up in the New Jersey Star-Ledger on a recent Sunday, demonstrates that although the United States is a nation of Creationists, we don’t agree about what that means. What becomes clear to me when I read such stories is that people who believe in the Bible seldom read it. Or at least understand it. Creationism “is not a thing” in the Bible. Many accounts about how the world began are represented, and the main point seems to be that it’s important that it was the God of Israel who did it rather than the competition. The first couple of creation accounts are compelling with their insistence that people are special, and that we are in charge while the owner is away. In fact, however, creation is a minor point in the story. It just has to start somewhere.

Those who set out to read the Bible, I suspect, begin to stumble in parts of Exodus and generally give up once they reach Leviticus. Although the main point of the books of Moses is the rules, the modern Christian finds the story more engaging. And the creation accounts of early Genesis are among the stories people actually read. They do make for a great, if contradictory, tale. They have, however, little impact on what people are supposed to do. Ironically, those accounts have become failsafe political devices. We vote according to how old we think the earth might be. We are special, after all.

Saletan’s point in the article is that the finer we parse the questions, the more divergent opinion becomes. The Bible doesn’t say how old the earth is—it’s really not a point of any significance to the story—but if you’re going to take it literally, you can do the math. Few literalists truly take the Bible literally. Logic very quickly breaks down as Genesis 2 follows Genesis 1. Americans are told that the Bible is literally true, but such a view literally makes no sense. We are committed to it, however, as we somehow equate believing in stories to be more important than understanding what those tales are trying to say. The polls, according to the article, make the point abundantly clear. When it comes to understanding the Bible Americans are very committed, if very confused.

Just one Creationist museum.  Photo credit: Creashin, Wikimedia Commons

Just one Creationist museum. Photo credit: Creashin, Wikimedia Commons


Darwin Down the Road

Chapman TrialsThe accidents of birth are the stuff of evolution. When I first heard of Matthew Chapman, direct descendent of Charles Darwin, over a decade ago, I was determined to read his book (then new). Like the accidents of birth, the finding of books at used bookstores is also a kind of evolution, so I picked up Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir recently and finally read it. Mission accomplished. It had been long enough that I couldn’t recall what the reviews said that made me so eager to read it—I had been developing a course on science and religion at Nashotah House and had been reading about evolution—but I’m glad I got around to it. The book was neither what Chapman nor I had expected. Maybe I’d better explain.

The year 2000, apart from its millennial aspirations, was also the 75th anniversary of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Chapman, a screenwriter from England, decided to go to Dayton, Tennessee to report on the reenactment of the Scopes Trial that was caused, accidentally, by his great-great-grandfather. With acerbic and self-deprecating wit, he narrates how he missed the performance by arriving for the wrong weekend and yet how he’d already begun the book based on it. Instead of reviewing the reenactment, he wove his own life story into those of the people he met on his two trips to Dayton, and left us with an engrossing memoir. Most Europeans, we know, consider American reaction against evolution with some puzzlement. As an Englishman, Chapman shares that curiosity and also, he admits, kind of wanted to make fun of southerners. His encounters, however, forced him to realize just how human all people are.

There’s a healthy dose of exposure to some of the weird ideas of fundamentalism here, but Chapman pulls no punches. The people he met treated him kindly. Some fundamentalists were even likable, even though they could not agree on much. At turns very funny and very sad, this autobiography represents, in its own way, the tensions of any life. The sensual confessions would have made famously squeamish Darwin blush, no doubt, but demonstrate to the reader that a man who can make a lot of money writing movie scripts can be very human as well. And so can the religious. The denizens of Dayton didn’t convince Chapman that their exclusive faith was true. They did, however, open him to the realization that such faith is not as simple as it may seem. A fortnight may have passed since the millennium, but creationism has continued to gain ground. Until more people take Chapman’s cue and actually try to understand those who believe, the trial of the century will continue to go on and on, ever evolving.


Small Town Heroes

When World War Three starts I hope someone will let me know. You see, I barely have time to satisfy the needs of employers and tax collectors to get everything done in a day, let alone read newspapers. Or Facebook. I check my page, very briefly, twice a day and get on with the business that I’m assigned in life. But yesterday I had a notice from a high school friend that one of my teachers had died. Since I don’t name people I know here without their permission, suffice it to say I took a current events course with this teacher in either my junior or senior year. Then, as now, I didn’t read newspapers. Given the small town rags available in rustic regions, there was often not much mentioned beyond deer season and local tragedy anyway. Originally enrolled in the regular curriculum, several friends told me, “You’ve got to take Current Events! The teacher is great!” Those who’ve influenced my life for the good were great teachers, and despite my reservations, I took the class. When it came time to sign up for projects, I was a bit flummoxed. What did I know of current events?

Our teacher kindly allowed me to offer evolution as a topic. It was occasionally in the news then. Six of us decided to debate the issue, three for, three against. My religion having held me in a headlock, I was the lead debater against evolution. The day for the debate came and we ran over the bell. Our teacher, with his usual calm wisdom, suggested we continue the next day. And the next. Three days of sometimes acrimonious debate and it looked, from my point of view, as if creationism had demolished evolution. How terribly naive I was. Ironically, I had just posted a piece on evolution yesterday when I saw the notice about my teacher’s demise. The position in my post was a sharp 180 from high school. It was a tribute to the love of education.

Source: Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons

I was an outsider in high school. I literally lived outside of town and after school activities were not really feasible. We were poor and couldn’t afford extra-curriculars anyway. I wore a large cross on my chest and although I was shy, I felt that it said all I had to say. My teachers, to their eternal credit, let me explore. In college I learned about Fundamentalism. I had never heard the term although I grew up in it. Gently my teachers nudged me to think more deeply about things. Through three degrees delving more profoundly into the origins of religion, as well as humankind, I came to see the errors of my ways. Had I been forced in high school I would’ve fought back. Instead, a persistent, patient wisdom guided many of my teachers. I don’t know how they recognized that I might be worth salvaging, but they apparently did. They let me speak, they let me trip. Just as I was about to fall they caught me. And I hope, in my own small way, to repay this favor in kind.


Literally Biology

In a New York Times opinion piece on a recent Sunday (ironically, always on a Sunday), college biology professor David P. Barash submitted an article entitled “God, Darwin and My College Biology Class.” Barash notes that increasingly students come to his class thinking evolution is more or less optional. I found the same thing teaching religion classes. When student presentations at state universities addressed Genesis it was fairly common to have a large number of undergraduates suggesting that evolution is “just a theory” and “intelligent” design was a viable option. I tried to show them in class that the Bible does not support the shenanigans that creationists impose upon it, but the message rolled off like rain from an evolved waterfowl. Still, I do have to take exception to some of Barash’s broad strokes. He feels that religion and science cannot coexist. I wonder, however, what he means by religion.

Religion is an ill-defined word. One of the most pragmatic usages I’ve heard is that religion is what people use to give meaning to their lives. Religions may be theistic or a. Religions may be anti-science or pro. Religion, per se, is no threat to science. Fundamentalism is not religion. Fundamentalists use religion to further their ends, which are often political. Since many religions grew up around sacred writings the urge was there from the beginning to take these holy words literally. They gave meaning in a pre-scientific era. Newton, Galileo, Darwin—and even before them Plato and Aristotle—simply shifted the angle of illumination. The problem is that many religious believers feel they have the answers already. New facts only confuse the issue. Left to their own devices such beliefs quietly go extinct.

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It is only when a conscious decision is made to champion archaic writ against empirical evidence that science and religion join combat. Most religious people in scientifically advanced societies have no problems with evolution or particle physics. They simply show the way the world is. The vastness of the universe should give us all pause, but it does make you wonder which way to point your telescope to spy the almighty. I sympathize with Barash. It is not easy to find many of your students, in either science or religion classes, with their minds already made up. Still, it might help to realize that religion is not the culprit here. Literalism is a kind of mental problem. Until it is rightfully separated from religion we will all be left wasting valuable class time trying to convince students of the facts of life.


Evolution’s Snapshots

DarwinsCameraIn America’s political climate any book about Darwin takes on a religious cast. As strange as it may seem, an odd equation exists between Darwin, evolution, creation, and the Bible. We forget that Darwin was a retiring man with many interests and a very keen intellect. Erstwhile groomed for the clergy, he lived at a time when much of the world was known really only to the local inhabitants, and observations were still mostly made by the human eye in person. So it was that as photography developed, a new avenue into science opened up. Darwin’s Camera, by Phillip Prodger, is a rare look into, as the subtitle says, Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution. Darwin wrote several books. Among them was The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. This book was among the first scientific tomes published with photographic evidence to illustrate, if not prove, the points being made. Prodger takes us through the process by which Darwin procured and commissioned his photographs for the book and reveals some deeper truths about his life.

Interestingly, one of the sources of early photos was asylums. There was a belief, apparently, that photographs might be used diagnostically. One of the emotions that was presented to Darwin for his consideration was religious rapture. (Not that I can make any great claims here, but having experienced at least mild versions of such states—whatever their physiological cause—I know that they are powerful.) The observation comes through that religious rapture is difficult to distinguish from insanity, on the face of it. This may sound like an anti-religious slur, but it’s not. Ask around the mystics and you’ll see what I mean. Sanity has its uses, to be sure, but mysticism is all about letting go.

The only real religion in this book comes in the confrontations to Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Prodger does, however, briefly delve into Darwin’s late (and brief) concern about spirit photography. Shortly after cameras were developed, photographic tricks evolved. The Victorians, as we all know, had a very palpable sense of death’s nearness. It is no accident that Spiritualism developed during this time period when a reasonable lifespan was anything but assured. Spirit photographers claimed to capture ghosts of the dead revisiting the living. Darwin, who’d lost a beloved daughter prematurely, knew what grief was. He did not, however, allow it to interfere with his critical thinking. Photographs could be used to prove a point, but they could also be used to make a false claim. Darwin’s success in his book on emotions falls somewhere in the middle. He did have to have some staged shots to illustrate his point. Ever the gentleman, however, Darwin’s decisions were made to enlighten, not to deceive. One wonders whether creationism can even remotely make that same claim.


Flying Sorcery

In a post on the Huffington Post recently Michael Zimmerman, founder of the Clergy Letter Project, wrote about the strange antipathy of Ken Ham to the search for extraterrestrial life. Ham, founder of a creationist museum and self-appointed spokesman against evolution, has gone on the record saying that aliens cause problems for a creationist worldview. Therefore they can’t exist. Indeed, creationists should reject aliens because of the flat earth the Bible presents. Zimmerman, with his usual unfailing reason and wry humor, demonstrates the multiple difficulties both with Ham’s understanding of science and of the whole alien agenda. The Bible doesn’t address the modern world on many fronts, which is why literalists so often find themselves out of step with the issues of the day. When the final period (an anachronism, I know) was placed at the end of Revelation, it was expected that the world wouldn’t be around much longer, tottering as it was on the underground pillars that held it up. Somehow the Roman Empire came and went without any kind of cataclysm ending it all, and literalists have been backing and filling ever since.

Ham’s angst about extraterrestrials, however, is not shared by all Fundamentalists. I recall going to a session way out at a country church as a child where the guest speaker, a firm believer in aliens, talked about the “sheep in other folds” referred to by Jesus as aliens. I recall the eerie feeling as we drove home under a dark sky with fliers depicting flying saucers and assurances that we were not alone. In college, when I discovered Larry Norman’s music, I was struck by his lyric “If there’s life on other planets, then I’m sure He must know, and He’s been there once already, and has died to save their souls.” Literalists, like Catholics, take multiple views on the question. It seems a terrible waste of space if, in this infinite universe we’re the only sparks of consciousness around. I’ll leave “intelligence” for time to decide.

What would Genesis do?

What would Genesis do?

Ironically, Ken Ham doesn’t seem to have considered the up side of aliens, at least for his point of view. If the extraterrestrials end up looking like us, that does raise some serious questions about evolution. How did it work identically on two different planets to produce such similar results? You’d think maybe Fundamentalists might welcome aliens with open appendages. Of course, some have gone far off the other end and declared that angels and aliens are the same thing. The problem of the literalist world view is that it is severely limited. The Bible never foresaw the internet or the airplane or even the true nature of our own solar system, let alone the infinite sea of space beyond. In charting a course for belief, accurate maps are necessary. As Zimmerman points out, those maps, of necessity must contain the stars. And as we continue to evolve infinite worlds of possibilities await.