Meanwhile, also on Facebook, another friend posted a creationist 4th grade science quiz. The questions were not just hopelessly anti-science but also an example of terrible pedagogy, but I don’t imagine that the joy of learning that makes a good teacher is compatible with teaching creationist science. “True or false: the Earth is billions of years old? Answer: False!” Ugh. This also started an interesting facebook conversation, including the following comment: “When one side dismisses science and the other side dismisses faith, neither side makes rational sense.” It seems like a strange statement, that dismissing faith doesn’t make rational sense, because you can make a lot of arguments for God but rational ones aren’t usually the ones that spring to the fore. The poster then recommended a book, Unrandom Universe, by Sigmund Brouwer, that seems to espouse that all of science really does prove that there’s a God.
On the atheism scale, I’m probably a 7 or 8, with 0 being a complete agnostic and 10 being Richard Dawkins. My atheism isn’t a result of being a scientist. Growing up, we weren’t raised in any formal religion but encouraged to attend services with friends if we were curious, and were always supported in whatever spiritual quests interested us. For quite a while I attended Baptist youth group with a friend. It never felt genuine, and I think the writing was on the wall (little biblical reference for you there) the day that we had a lip synching contest, and I chose to do White Rabbits, by Jefferson Airplane. Rather than kick out the young teen singing about drug use, they tried their best at bringing me into the fold. However, the day they had in a Christian rock band that sang “Out with the old life, in with the new/ Bee bop a lula, I’ve been renewed!” my musical tastes were so offended that Baptism and I went our separate ways.
I’m being glib, but the truth is that Christianity is my heritage. My ancestry is Irish/Scottish/Swedish so I’m a weird mix of Protestantism and Catholicism. As a young man, my father converted to Catholicism in what he said was one of the most powerful experiences of his whole life. By the time my sister and I were born, he had lost the Catholicism but maintained a respect for religion and a love of the mysticism of the old Latin rites. I have always been curious. I have read a great deal about early Christianity, stumbled through parts of the bible, and talked to a lot of people. I have even taught at a Christian college, but again, both employer and employee knew that that probably wasn’t a long term relationship. In my first postdoc I worked in one of the world’s best labs, studying the evolution of bacteria by putting them in carefully controlled environments and watching them evolve. This experience, more than any other, taught me the intricacies of how life began. In evolution I didn’t see meaninglessness or despair; instead I appreciated life all the more for its chaotic and precarious beginnings. There’s a true beauty to the fact that everything we see, every plant, animal, bacterium, person, and puppy, is the result of a long series random collisions between neighbouring molecules.
So I walk on uplands unbounded
and know that there is hope
for that which thou didst mold out of dust
to have consort with things eternal.
Dead Sea Scrolls
Biology and physics gives the world its beauty, and a means to appreciate the world in wonder. My world has no less beauty or meaning because I don’t believe that it was created by God in 7 days. On the contrary, the happenstance and accident of life on earth gives it a precariousness, and preciousness, that makes it all the more beautiful. I’m a 7 or 8 on the atheist scale because a world created without God is what gives my life meaning and beauty. I have seen the lengths that creationists will go to to make the world in God’s image. I suspect that the Unrandom book recommended to me tonight is making this mistake. Using scientific evidence to prove that God went to extraordinary lengths to make a world that LOOKS random and evolved misses the point. Life is beautiful and precious because given the same circumstances, it would never look like this again.
That’s why I’m high on the atheist scale. But why not a 10, and why do I offer prayers for friends in peril? The cynic says that there are not atheists in foxholes, but that’s too simple. When faced with horror and evil, the act of prayer is an act of releasing control, an act of trust in a capricious universe. It’s a deeply human expression. I don’t score a ten on the atheist scale so that I can hold three points in reserve, as a safety net in case there is a God who judges me badly, but because there’s a human need to experience the numinous. There may be mysteries of the universe that I will not understand. That spiritual journey is deeply personal and impossible to put into words, but also seems like a good reason to keep from climbing those last three rungs on the atheism ladder.
These two aspects aren’t at war in my head, and it bewilders me why they’re at war in the real world. I am used to the onslaught from the religious, but what I did not expect was the static to my simple, human, offer of prayer for friends in a disaster zone. The question “What would prayers do?” just like the Unrandom book, misses the point. It also betrays a smug certainty common to fundamentalist Christians and Atheists alike, and was the attitude that drove me from organized religion in the first place. Both sides need to exhibit understanding and acceptance, all the more so when conflict arises.