Saturday, December 8, 2012

Why I'm Being a Pain About Science and Religion

Lately I've been getting a little more vocal about my religious beliefs, or lack thereof.  Since I have a lot of friends who are religious, most of them Christian, I want to explain why I've gotten so vocal. I'm not doing it to bait Christians, or to try to make them abandon their faith. I don't get any particular kick out of trying to shock people or being a rebel. I don't have the slightest wish to see Christianity, or any other religion, outlawed, though you sometimes hear people saying that's what people like me want. What I do want is to feel like I don't have to cover up what I believe. I grew up in rural Arkansas, where most people are devout and conservative Christians. If you tell people there that you aren't a Christian, they will be shocked and worried for you, whether you want them to be or not.  Because of that, I used to keep my beliefs quiet. I still do, around some people, just too avoid a conversation I don't want to have (or quite possibly in some areas, a butt-whupping I don't want to have). But at the age of forty, I feel like I shouldn't be afraid to say what I think, at least to people whose opinions I respect.

Besides, I'm worried about my country. The last few decades have seen a huge growth of fundamentalism in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and fundamentalist Christians have gained enormous political power in this country.  They're using that power to try to break down the wall between church and state that was one of the founding principles of the United States.  Several of the most important founders, especially Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Thomas Paine, were free-thinking sorts who weren't Christians in any traditional sense. Jefferson even edited the Gospels, literally cutting out all the supposed sayings of Jesus that he didn't think Jesus would have said. You often hear people say those guys were Deists, but Thomas Paine is the only one who was a true Deist throughout his adult life. Still, they sure as heck weren't Southern Baptists.

Since so many of the founders were free-thinkers, I think it's vital, nearly 250 years later, for modern free-thinkers to stand up and say, "Here I am, and I'm an American, too". It's also vital that we push back against attacks on the separation of church and state. We non-religious types aren't alone in that, because many Christians and other religious people support that separation, too. They remember that the whole idea of separating church and state originally came from religious people who didn't want to be persecuted by a state-sponsored majority religion. People who want to weave religion and government back together always seem to assume it will be their version of religion that prevails. That's a dangerous assumption. If I were Catholic, Jewish, or belonged to any other minority religion (instead of a non-religious minority), I would think very carefully whether I wanted to mingle religion and government. 

I also want to question fundamentalism itself, particularly the kind of biblical literalism that suggests that the world was literally created in six days, and that Noah actually got two of each animal on earth into an ark (did he go to Australia and get kangaroos?) Those things just can't be true, and I want to convince people not to believe them any more. But that doesn't mean I want to convince anyone to abandon Christianity itself. I don't. In fact, if someone told me they had stopped being a Christian (or believer in any other religion) because of something I had said, I would probably feel a little queasy, and ask them if they were sure that's what they wanted to do. Setting aside a lifelong faith isn't something to be taken lightly, and I don't want to be the sole reason anybody does it. After all, it's not like I know everything.

What I do know is that the world wasn't created in six days, and it's not just a few thousand years old. Noah didn't get all those animals in the ark. He just didn't. Dinosaurs didn't, as some creationists say, walk the earth when people did. So, I would like to convince my more literal-minded Christian friends to abandon creationism and absolute biblical literalism (they want to convince me to be a Christian, so fair is fair). You can be a good Christian and still believe that humans, and every other living thing, evolved from simpler life forms. You can be a good Christian and believe that Noah and the flood are legends (derived from earlier Sumerian legends, in fact) and never really happened. I know a lot of Christians who see the world this way.

Some of my Christian friends talk to me about this stuff, and ask, "Why is this such a big deal to you? Does it really matter how old some politician, for example, thinks the earth is?" Yes, it does, for several reasons. First, someone who believes that Genesis is literally true is more likely to think men were created prior to women, and that women were a sort of afterthought created to give Adam some company. Biblical literalists are more likely to believe the earth was created for humans, and that we were created in the image of God. That makes them more likely to think other living things are simply here for us to use as we see fit. Worse than that, someone who literally believes in Genesis is more likely to think God created the earth with a preconceived plan, and therefore wouldn't let anything like global warming come along and ruin it.  I've heard influential politicians make this very argument. It's dangerous to think God will protect us from screwing up the whole earth through global warming, nuclear war, or some other disaster, because we really could do it.  I saw the following quote a while back (by William Gore, the 5th Baron Harlech, of all people): "It would indeed be the ultimate tragedy if the history of the human race proved to be nothing more noble than the story of an ape playing with a box of matches on a petrol dump." Pessimistic, yes, but the quote haunts me. What if the universe is littered with the bones of creatures that got just intelligent enough to blow themselves up? Survival of the fittest, indeed.

Another problem with biblical literalism is that if you believe the earth is just a few thousand years old, as young earth creationists do, mainstream science says you're making a mistake of enormous magnitude. If the earth is really 4.5 billion years old, as the overwhelming majority of scientists think it is, that means it's 450,000 times as old as you think it is. Not only that, but if you're willing to believe that the Bible is literally true when it says the whole universe was created all at once in a few days, that means you're willing to deny all the sciences, not just evolutionary biology. Nearly every branch of science--astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, biology, anthropology and archaeology--all of them point unanimously to the fact that the earth and universe are incredibly ancient, and that even latecomers like humans have been around a few million years. I tell people this all the time, but I've realized lately I don't offer them examples. So it's time I offered a little evidence. In my next post, I want to talk about faraway galaxies, and what they have to tell us.

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