Sunday, July 13, 2008

you say you want an evolution

People talk about creationist Christians as if they're the barkingest of the barking, but actually they're much more consistent in their beliefs than Christians who believe in evolution theory.

If you believe in the immortal soul of humans but also in evolution, it's inconsistent to say only humans have souls. Did God go, 'right, you apes are nearly human now so from, say, half ten tonight every newborn proto-hominid ape has a soul'? (Just imagine being the soul-having child born to your anatomically indistinguishable non-soul parents.)

Or, do they think that all living things have souls? Every fish, fruitfly, dandelion and single-cell amoeba? Every time you brush your teeth you're sending millions of plaque bacteria off to the afterlife, you genocidal maniac.

Or do the other things have a lesser grade of soul? We get the full five-star ones, while dogs have three stars and tomatoes get one-star souls. In which case, is someone who is really immoral to a lot of tomatoes worse than someone who's just quite unpleasant to one or two people?

A while back I went out for a meal with a big group of people and ended up at a table talking to someone I didn't know. He was a Christian, I was a bit drunk, so I couldn't resist. He said he believed in evolution, so I walked him through it and said that he couldn't believe in the Christian afterlife and evolution. 'I'm not sure I really believe in it anyway,' he replied.

Hang on, you don't get out that easily. 'But you just said you believe evolution to be fact!'. He clarified for me, 'no, I mean I'm not sure I believe in the afterlife and the soul and that stuff'.

Ah, only in the Church of England. Firm committed believers who aren't sure about the central tenets and fundamentals of the religion, and aren't too bothered about ever thinking it through.

And Jesus spake unto them, saying, 'He that believeth in me shall not perish but shall have eternal life. Maybe. I dunno-eth really, now I cometh to think about it. I suppose it's not the point anyway, especially if it might soundeth a bit weird compared to the non-religious societal norms thou findest thyself in'.

The C of E is, I suppose, the most accepting religion of them all, given that you can be in it as long as you believe in anything and nothing and a nice cup of tea. But I still have a feeling that if you don't even have food laws then you're not a proper religion.

There are those Eastern reincarnation beliefs that really do think there's a crossover between us and other species, the ones that reckon if you're bad you come back as a lesser being and have to work your way up again.

Firstly, who gets to decide what's a lesser being; why is human meant to be so great and flies so bad? For all we know the flies round shit are happy as, well, flies round shit. Secondly, how can you get your promotion? How the hell do you be a morally good bluebottle?

There's a need to feel order there, whereas it seems the truth is that things are far bigger, more unknowable and more random than that allows for.

Creationism seems to have its roots in an understandable and largely admirable awe at the universe. To get born now into all this complexity is overwhelming. As Richard Dawkins explains in The God Delusion

One side of the mountain is a sheer cliff, impossible to climb, but on the other side is a gentle slope to the summit. On the summit sits a complex device such as an eye or a bacterial flagellar motor. The absurd notion that such complexity could spontaneously self-assemble is symbolized by leaping from the foot of the cliff to the top in one bound. Evolution, by contrast, goes around the back of the mountain and creeps up the gentle slope to the summit.

This concept doesn't always cut it with humans, because not only does creationism stem from understandable awe, but also from the inability to comprehend the huge stretches of space and time. We literally can't imagine how long it takes to creep up the slope.

We all blithely talk of 'millions of years of evolution' and 'thousands of light years', but actually none of us can readily picture it. You have a sense of the distance from where you are to the door. You have a sense of how far it is to get to the shops, or even to Spain. But you can't really upscale that to comprehending 93 million miles to the sun (and even that is just a short bit of our small solar system). To keep things comprehensible, it's obvious that people'd go for something that makes earth the centre of things.

Similarly, when we talk of dinosaurs being wiped out 65 million years ago or Welsh slate being formed 500 million years ago, we can't truly imagine it. And as we try, just like with the spacial hugeness, we feel increasingly irrelevant. Far more comforting to grab something that says the earth is only 40 centuries old and we've got a family tree going all the way back.

Sadly, as Douglas Rushkoff's flagged up, even then the biblical creationists hit trouble. Which creation story is true? There are two. Not in an interpretation-of-metaphor way but in that straightforward creationist-style literal obvious-meaning-of-the-words sense.

In chapter 1 of Genesis God makes light, water, land, plants, animals, and then lastly in verse 27 he makes man and woman at the same time. Less than a page later, at a time before the earth has plants, he makes the first man from dust who has 15 verses of mooching about getting lonely before God pulls out a rib and builds a woman.

Even there in the Bible, in the place they derive most comfort and draw their foundational beliefs, the universe is too complicated for creationism, every destination has many paths to it and every path has several destinations.

Yet at least they try harder to have a coherent belief than the Church of Englandy ones. People who attempt to marry the concept of Christian eternal souls with evolution are like someone trying to play an LP on an iPod. In its way it's as mad a forced hybrid as the dressing up of Old Testament scriptures as pseudo-scientific 'Intelligent Design'.

If people say things that don't make sense, it doesn't do us or them any good to pretend it's as valid as something that actually does make sense. It really is time we stopped thinking their ideas should be respected.

Henry Rollins lays it out.


Alice said...

Have you read "The Road Less Travelled" by Scott Peck?

merrick said...

Nope. Do tell.