I’ve been just as surprised as any liberally-educated secular humanist by the resurgence of religious superstition and fundamentalism in my lifetime. After all, we’ve had the brilliance of Greek and Roman civilization, then the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and, most recently, the dawn of the Information Age.
After decades of painstaking research and observation, we have a theory of how things began: Big Bang (or some other equally momentous event), followed by the creation of simple, then more complex chemical elements, the solidification of planets, then just the right mix of circumstances to set up our blessed little globe for us.
It took fifteen billion years or so, and there are perhaps billions of galaxies like ours. It took us a million years to go from hominids to the Internet. It’s all quite miraculous.
And I thought that religious believers and modern, science-minded folks had reached accommodation on the question of how the universe came to be: people who continue to believe literally in the Book of Genesis could continue to do so, but in the privacy of their homes and religious institutions. They would not try to foist their beliefs off on the rest of us, who would continue to conduct public life, including education, according to the scientific truths arrived at by the difficult, honest work of human reason, investigation, and experience.
But in perilous and uncertain times, people are susceptible to the soothing but false messages of religion: it’s all part of God’s plan, whatever God wills, we’ll never know why he does things, God wants us to kill the infidels, it’s all preparation for the hereafter, and if you have any questions, all the answers are in the sacred texts – or the commentary thereon.
That must be why religious believers still command center stage, despite an appalling record of intolerance and violence, which continues to this day.
But it seems we always have perilous and uncertain times, often because of religion.
It’s a vicious circle: religious intolerance and fundamentalism breed discrimination and violence, which contribute mightily to troubled times, which drive people towards orthodoxy and fundamentalism, which in turn breed more conflict and violence.
This process doesn’t bode well for the human race, now that mass death is so easily achievable. Inflicting misery on unbelievers used to be very labor-intensive. You had to get on your horse and round up a whole bunch of other fanatics who were willing to grab their swords, get on their horses, go someplace else, and kill unbelievers. Today, 19 people with box cutters can wreak havoc.
Still, I thought we had at least reached a working accommodation on the question of how we and our world came to be.
I was wrong. Orthodoxy and fundamentalism are ever on the move. They are aggressive. They push their version of creation and Armageddon as the only acceptable versions. They cannot tolerate dissent or diversity. They are always looking for acolytes and converts. They are not prepared to share the one planet we have with anyone else.
Fifteen billion years and 50 billion galaxies are not miraculous enough for God-believers. They not only want to take the book of Genesis literally -- they want the rest of us to do it too. "Teach the controversy," they urge.
Yes, by all means, let us teach the controversy. The controversy begins with the fact that we have not one, but two ways of knowing. It is very difficult for the two to coexist. Neither one will gain universal acceptance -- not in my lifetime, at least, and perhaps never.
The real controversy is over whether the two points of view can even be compared. I don't think they can.
There are basically two ways of learning the truth: reason and faith. They have been in conflict for millennia.
Almost everything about our daily lives requires the processing of information and, oftentimes, we must act upon that information. So the questions of what we believe and how we believe, even if we don't think about them, are very important. Some people subscribe to science. Some to faith. Some try hard to reconcile the two. Others, as we’ll see, don’t even bother.
Most of us in the industrialized Western world live by science and reason. "Science" is more than computers and labs and people in white coats. It is a way of believing and knowing.
For thousands of years, beginning with the crudest tools and the mastery of fire, human beings have learned about their world and improved their lives through experimentation and experience or -- via writing and other media -- through the experience of other, reliable sources.
The other kind of knowing, faith, is belief without proof.
Things are true because we so much want them to be true, or it seems that they ought to be true, or they fit well with beliefs we already have, or the right people are recommending them to us, or – very important -- people have been repeating them for thousands of years...and perhaps for other reasons as well. Belief without proof is nothing more than belief founded upon perpetuated hearsay and accumulated say-so.
You would think that the two kinds of knowing would be incompatible -- that if you don't believe without proof, then you would not be able to take part in most organized religions. But the fact is that a great many people manage to do just that. Surgeons don't pray for instructions on how to operate on the patient; they get those from knowledge and experience. But these same surgeons may also go to church or synagogue on the Sabbath.
They may also struggle mightily to reconcile the Genesis account of creation with scientific findings (e.g., the idea that there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark). Some Modern Orthodox Jews believe that if your science doesn't agree with your interpretation of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), then something is wrong with your interpretation of the Torah.
What hogwash! If your science doesn't agree with the Torah, it's because the Torah is 2,500 years old.
There is no controversy, and no conflict, between Genesis and evolution. One is a story -- the product of a very few ancient priests who may have been writing down what had been preserved orally – while the other is supported, insofar as possible, with actual, physical, data.
Creationism, creation science, and all such attempts to provide scientific underpinning for the Scriptures are fallacious from the start, because they begin with a fully-formed story, which they then try to prove. It’s really deceptive and disingenuous to call both Genesis and evolution “theories.”
“Intelligent design” not only has all the drawbacks of creationism – it fails the simplest evidentiary tests. If I were designing a human being, I certainly wouldn’t put the windpipe and the food tube so close together, thus making it easy to choke to death. And how come we have no backup heart or liver? Aren’t they more important than ears or various other things we have two of?
The scientific process, by contrast, begins with data that point to a hypothesis, which is then confirmed or disconfirmed by further data...or it may begin with a hypothesis based on informal, anecdotal observation or the like, which is then, again, refined -- perhaps even abandoned -- on the basis of further data, knowledge, and experience.
So asking whether Genesis or evolution is true is ridiculous. In the scientific sense, only evolution is true, although many people adopt the other (the “faith”) way of believing – and some people do both.
Either they park their wits at the door when they enter a place of worship and go along with the show, or they postulate a "Cosmological God" who created the cosmos pretty much along the lines that science has outlined.
Yet what are they doing at a religious service, where the fundamental premise is that the Biblical account of creation is true (except, of course, liberal services like those of Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, where the ancient texts are spun so that they mean what they do not)?
Of course, people will continue to collect data in support of one point of view or the other. But the data must be accumulated and presented in a valid and impartial manner. Creationists have a habit of presenting only the evidence that supports their point of view. Not very scientific – or convincing.
Also, I would caution against taking the material on the Discovery or History Channels too seriously, simply because they don't have very rigorous standards of proof.
They may even be guilty of unscientific, pro-religious bias when, for example, they find a big hunk of wood in Turkey and the commentator asks, in a soft and reverent voice, "Is this a piece of Noah's Ark?" To the believer, this is solid evidence. To the scientist, it's a hunk of wood.
I have one parting shot for the creationists: the Genesis story is only one of hundreds, perhaps thousands of accounts, in ancient and modern cultures all over the world, of how things came to be. So why is this one true, while none of the others is? I know: it’s true because you believe it's true. End of discussion.
But the fact is that all religious believers think, with equal fervor and sincerity, that their creation myth is the right one, and there’s no way to decide among them, because all creation myths have the same truth value: zero. They were made up by individuals who had no idea why the world came to be the way it is, and they were just taking a shot in the dark, perhaps fueled by some hallucinogenic substance.
I try to be compassionate. I try to be empathetic. I try to understand why people who are otherwise completely rational would advance, as reality, what I know -- and what a very large a number of smart and thoughtful people know -- to be the folkloric writings of a very few ancient priestly figures, perhaps taking down what had been orally recited before there was any literacy.
And I think I do understand. There are very powerful reasons for maintaining religious belief on grounds of faith alone: group solidarity, indoctrination at an early age, tradition, a way to understand chaos and injustice (God’s plan), the fear of death, the sense that Someone is in charge, a lifetime invested in it, and others besides.
The scientific point of view is true by virtue of reason. The creationist point of view is true by reason of faith. It’s your mind. How do you choose to believe?
Alan M. Perlman is a secular humanist speaker and author -- most recently, of An Atheist Reads the Torah: Secular Humanistic Perspectives on the Five Books of Moses. For information, go to www.trafford.com/06-0056.