Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Biology and Psychology

Okay, I'm on a break here in Hawaii. And I was thinking, after reading more the letters to me, many of them about the real deeper meanings of the Bible stories, that in the end, it wasn't the Bible that did me in about God and all the rest. The Bible did in religion for me. Yes, that's true. Reading the Bible and learning about how the Bible was put together. Reading the Gnostic Gospels and the other "sacred" writings, learning about the traditions of the church and how they became traditions, all that led to me rejecting religion.

But not God.

What did God in, really, was biology and psychology. Learning how our minds work, how we respond to social hierarchy, how we naturally tend toward superstitions and how we see patterns in things, even when no patterns exist. How evolution works, the slow agonizing process of animals evolving, how we living creatures evolve different specialties to compete in this harsh world for survival, how our brain evolved and how it gives us a certain type of advantage, how viruses work and evolve – that’s what did God in.

Many people have written to me about Michael Behe’s book. He wrote Darwin’s Black Box and he’s an Intelligent Design guy who says that there is an irreducible complexity in cells that is unaccountable by evolution. So basically God made cells and evolution did the rest. I have read this book and listened to many scientists responses to it. Basically the problem is that Behe does not account for the fact that certain structures in the cell could have evolved by natural selection and then further evolution caused those same structures to find employment in other novel ways as evolution continued.

Plus, even if a cell floated to earth fully formed, it still doesn’t mean that human beings would evolve or that there is a designer out there somewhere who wants us to be here in particular. I always say that if God got humans here by means of evolution he is a harsh, horrible, wasteful, uncaring God. Millions upon millions of species evolving and dying off in horrifying circumstances. What did the dinosaurs do to God to make him cause them to die in a cloud of darkness after the meteor hit? But for the believer, that’s just what God did. Have 4 and a half billion years of agonizing evolution to get us. Us humans. It makes the creationists who believe that God plopped humans onto the earth in one fell swoop seem reasonable when you think of a God who got us here by means of evolution.

And now the evidence is enormous. Evolution is confirmed over and over again by all kinds of different fields: anthropology, biology, genetics, and so forth. And we understand our own minds much better than we did before. We know the parts of the brain that have religious experience and we understand how people can have those experiences. Experiences I had myself! So, for me, it all points to a world without a God. The world makes sense without a God from a scientific world view. The world does not make sense scientifically with one. (I am referring to a traditional definition of God here.)

I won’t even get into the New Age redefinitions of God. I always say that if God is hydrogen and helium, then yes, I believe in God too.

Some people have written and accused me of a dogmatic fanaticism in my non-belief. I disagree. My disbelief in God is just like my disbelief in Santa Claus. If there is solid scientific evidence that shows a creator God who cares about us humans and offers an eternal life, I am completely open to that and I would change my mind based on it. I have not yet seen evidence that comes close. And yes, it’s true, I am not going to spend all my time searching for evidence that I am wrong. I did do that for years and I came to a certain conclusion and I’m going to stick with it until I find compelling evidence to the contrary. Michael Shermer says you should be open minded but not so open minded that your brains fall out. I think that’s a good stance.

Many people have also said that I selected portions of the Bible that look the worst and judge the whole book in that context. And that’s true. I did do that. I actually left lots out -- I mean lots and lots of passages that are so absurd, like the children getting mauled to death by bears because they make fun of a bald guy in the Old Testament. There are some stories in the Bible that are so ridiculous that I thought that I wouldn't seem credible repeating them! I tried to find passages that people were generally familiar with.

But what I found is that religious folk who argue that the Bible should be viewed in the whole context of the Christian tradition are using that as an excuse to not deal with the disturbing and clearly legendary and folktale aspects of the Bible.

Of course, if you judge the Bible by it’s impact on culture, it’s a tremendously important document. But this becomes a spiral where you can’t judge the Bible by itself and you can’t judge the cultural impact without the Bible. I do not argue that religion has many, many great byproducts. It offers so much. It can do tremendous good. It creates community and ritual and connectedness and Christians in particular are very good at organizing social injustice movements. All that is fantastic. I think those wonderful things are practically worth it to be part of the organization in spite of what it’s based on. I mean, almost.

But some have argued that the byproducts of Christianity – the positive byproducts, the work on behalf of the poor, the community it creates, is the proof that Jesus is the son of God and that God is the only God and a force that created us and loves us and offers us eternal life. However, many other cultures have similar types of byproducts from their religion (maybe I shouldn’t even be saying byproduct, maybe it’s just impacts) and they aren’t Christian. The Muslims have social injustice movements and religious sacred literature with many insightful and great passages, just like the Bible. The Buddhists do too. The Hindus do too. Also, there are secular organizations that offer all this without the religion.

I am here in Hawaii, and I’ve met a couple who went and did the Peace Corps after their six children were grown. They spent two years doing work in Africa and there was no religious organization, it was totally secular. So, the fruit of religion isn’t a good argument for the veracity of Christian truth.

On balance, I think religion has been detrimental. I think it caused the Dark Ages and has set us back over and over again in our human history. ON BALANCE.

So, please, don’t send me more individual examples of religion being so great. I find what I experience as the transcendent in nature, with a full acceptance of who I am and where I stand in nature. Nature may not care a wit about me, but I sure care a lot about Nature.

Last night I laid on the beach and looked at the sky full of stars and the water crashing at my feet and just the thought that the earth is round, just that little fact that I used to take for granted, it just bowled me over. The earth is fucking ROUND!!! And we’re hurtling through space! And who knows how much longer animals like us will be here to look out at that sky and know that the planet they sit on is ROUND? How many animals in the universe know that the reason it’s dark is because their sun is on the other side of their round planet? Or that the sand I scrunch my feet into is made up of millions of years, billions even, of rocks ground up into bits, rocks that were crawled on by other creatures and plants that didn’t have this wonderful gift of knowledge that the earth is round – hurtling through space.


Okay, that probably sounds all preachy and shit. I’ve just read through (or skimmed through) two thousand e-mails (really, over two thousand letters in four days) and I’m a little wound up.

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