Yesterday, I had a visitor, who turned out to be (as most knocks on the door are anymore) someone who wanted to introduce me to god. The last couple of times that this happened, it was some Wally Cleaver types in white shirts and ties, which spells either mormons or jehovahs, and I wasn’t in any kind of mood then to open the debate, so I chased them off with obvious amusement. This time, however, I was in an impish mood, and it was a lady in her forties who simply told me that she was a “believer.” This prompted me to ask, “Believer in what?” and basically determined, from the vagueness and inclusion of god and allah, that she was likely unitarian. I didn’t even lead her on, and started out early by explaining that I was an atheist and relied on what was demonstrated by reality. This did not cause her to cut it off abruptly, however, and so we started a very friendly, mutually respectful discussion.
For over an hour. I began to feel sorry for her, especially near the end when she got largely silent, and I doubt she left happy. I wasn’t being nasty in any way, I was simply able to counter all of her points. One in particular stood out, and had me curious about it afterward.
One of the aspects convincing to her of a god, she admitted, was the behavior of some animals. Mother bears protect their cubs, and salmon swim upstream to spawn, where they die, and their bodies nourish the young (I’m just reporting what she told me – I know the current takes away whatever nutrients they might have contributed long before the eggs hatch.) I hadn’t told her that I was a nature photographer and science enthusiast, so she didn’t realize the opening she left me, but I was happy to fill it anyway, with a brief rundown of natural selection.
Here’s the funny thing, and I’ve noticed this before with too many other people. They find something wondrous, like the great fit between animals and environment, or the narrow range of conditions life can exist within, and that comprises their awe at god’s creation. But it never occurs to them to use that sense of wonder to actually ask questions, to see if we, overall, know more about such things than they know personally. Actually finding out that evolution explained those curious situations hadn’t entered her mind. The same could be said for other things that we talked about, such as human behavior and the tendency towards conflict.
I can only guess why I see this so often. I suspect people think they’re supposed to feel awe at the work of an omnipotent being. And of course, science is far too boring and clinical, emotionless and precise – it can’t serve to explain why something is fascinating (I’m putting myself in their shoes here, give me a break.) There’s even the idea, and I’ve run into this before more than once, that the lack of evidence for a supreme being isn’t really an issue, because everything is evidence of a supreme being! When all you have is a hammer, and so on; when you desperately need to believe in deities, they can be found under the carpet and behind every tree.
I’m funny; I think that the various aspects of animal physiology and behavior are hundreds of times more fascinating from having their origins in the simple formulas that natural selection provides, guided by slight advantages to reproduce better than others with different traits. I find myself thinking that an intelligently-designed system would have no need of competition, no variance in populations, because species would never exceed their resources. Seems like a basic first step in planning, doesn’t it? To offer up, as many do, the feeble excuse that “there must be a plan we don’t understand” is to remain ignorant of the point that they were using nature as evidence of that plan in the first place, to show why they believed in god. The same can be said for the explanation, offered only occasionally because few religious folk actually read scripture, that competition, animals eating other animals, all came about because adam & eve ate the fruit, gaining the knowledge of good & evil against god’s wishes – one wonders how he failed to know that this would happen, or why he put the tree in the garden in the first place. Again, what’s missed is that this only attempts to explain the competition that we already know exists, but offers absolutely nothing as to why any deity would bother; worse, why every last animal on the planet is along for the ride of original sin from god’s ‘special’ creation. For both, it becomes clear that “god” is the answer they had already settled on, then tried to jam the undeniable facts of nature into that answer.
I also have to wonder what such strange beliefs actually mean for things like environmentalism, conservation, and climate awareness. How often does it lead to the idea that these must be of no concern, because “god has a plan” or “things will be made to turn out all right”? Does the idea of there being some big daddy in the sky mean that people really believe we can’t fall off the bike?
I’m among the many who do not delight in not knowing something, thereby turning ignorance into awe, but instead prefer to try and find out. Wonder has a place, but as a goad, not a goal. I find it a special kind of cowardice to at least suspect, like in the case of evolution, that the answer is readily available, but avoid it anyway because it might mean learning something (mostly, that theism provides no answers.) To actually be afraid of knowledge is pathetic beyond description.
Like I said, my visitor was very quiet when she left, and I’m sure she felt she didn’t accomplish what she set out to do – but this is the bible belt, so I imagine she soon found someone else that reinforced her views again. Yet if I’m any good at all, she at least has a few things to think about now.