Preaching Evolution

by Fred Reed    –show me more like this

Fred Reed

I recently wrote a column in which I referred to the theory of evolution as a religion, and received indignant inquiries as to what I meant. This is what I meant:

People are in varying degrees uncomfortable with uncertainty. Some people for example insist that every detail of a journey be planned before they set out; others wing it and figure things out when they get there. The same differing tolerances apply in spades to cosmic questions of origins, destiny, and meaning. Some look at this odd world and say to themselves, “Hmmm. Interesting. Wonder whether there’s a reason for it?” Others, driven I think by a deep unease, want – perhaps “need’ is a better word – a sense that they understand what they really don’t.

Religion has usually provided the desired sense of understanding. The faithful know, or believe they know which serves as well, that the world came into being in a particular way, that we are here for certain reasons, and that we move toward particular ends. This isn’t contemptible, and has appealed to minds of enormous power and subtlety. Faith is comforting, which is not a bad thing. It provides a framework for, and encouragement to, the moral behavior that by common agreement we should embrace. And for many it provides an escape from the crushing pointlessness of a merely material existence.

Yet for many religion doesn’t work. They say, perhaps correctly, that five faiths with five conflicting stories of creation cannot be simultaneously true. The various sacred books are flawed. Angels and their kin are not detectable by elaborate instruments connected to computers, and therefore cannot exist. And so they eschew religion.

Besides, the whole idea of religion seems less plausible in a city choked with traffic, in a life circumscribed by cubicles and plastic rugs than, say, in the vast stillness of a desert at three in the morning, with the wind soughing and that odd sense of nearness to the heavens.

So, out with religion. What then might provide an acceptable illusion of understanding?

Answer: The detailed and catalogued materialism that we call “science.”

In many ways, it is a bad choice. The theoretical sciences consist only in the recognition that when certain circumstances exist, certain consequences follow. They are just a codification of the habits of nature. However, they have great moral force in today’s world. Have they not provided us with computers, cars, medicines, and space stations? Do they not employ obscure runes and mathematical symbols of appalling mysteriousness? They must be true.

Their success has been such as to throw all else into shadow. Any cosmic explanation must be at least consistent with the sciences. This being so, the simple thing to do was to make the sciences the explanation.

This we have done. Instead of saying that Yahweh or Allah created the world, we say that the Big Bang did it. It is not much of an improvement. The Bang suffers from a failure to answer the question usually asked of religious stories of creation: Where did the Bang come from? What came before? (The mind does not well handle questions of infinite regression.) .

Just as in medieval times the literate clergy awed the peasantry by speaking Latin, so today’s clergy emanate from the laboratories to astonish the laity with mispronounced Grecolatinate terminology. Abracadabra, rebus sic stantibus, and acetylcholinesterase have the same effect on unalert minds. All resonate with awful mastery. It takes temerity to suggest that, say, Stephen Hawking’s intelligence merely allows him to be more elaborately bewildered.

Religions require purposiveness. The Greater Materialism of the sciences provided it. Once the Bang had bung (or banged, maybe), why, the stars evolved, and the planets, and then what we usually think of as Evolution kicked in and life began itself. This of course led to that pinnacle of creation, Ourselves. (OK, “creation” isn’t the right word here.) Biological evolution has more emotional import than the collapse of gas clouds into stars, but it is really just a late step in the regnant creation story.

The popular understanding, probably shared in unguarded moments by academic evolutionists though they know better, is that Evolution is a force propelling life toward greater perfection. We speak of ourselves as Higher Primates, for example, though in terms of adaptation to environment we are inferior to tape worms and roaches. Popular evolution is suffused with a progress toward desired ends here that cannot be derived from the physics: Bang, gas, planets, trilobites, Los Angeles.

In short, evolution writ large tells us where we came from, how we got where we are, where we are going, and what the guiding principle is. This is what religions do.

The religious nature of this view becomes manifest in the intense hostility toward skepticism. If I questioned the value of pi, asserted that the earth was flat, or objected to the ideal gas law, I would be regarded as eccentric, but would not be savaged or loathed. People are confident of the value of pi. In any event it poses no threat to their sense of place in a dark and inhospitable universe.

But question evolution and the response will be anger, martial condescension, and rabid denial – usually from people who wouldn’t know icthyostegids from the citric-acid cycle. (You don’t have to know anything about evolution to be fierce about it.) They will be terrified that you might communicate this heresy to children. Further, with painful monotony they will accuse of Christianity. That is, their quick assumption is that you must represent a competing faith.

A difficulty with using physics as a religion (and all the sciences are elaborations of physics) is that you cannot get to things of transcendent importance to humans – beauty, consciousness, love and hatred, good and evil. These are no more contained in, or derivable from, physics than mass is derivable from plane geometry. Yet evolutionists are conscious in most instances, appreciate the lovely, love their dogs and children, and are good people.

They are careful not to notice this, which requires a philosophical jejuneness suited to a sophomore Marxist on his second volume of Sartre. They are much worse if they have heard of logical positivism.

It’s a religion.

Copyright © 2002 Fred Reed.
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