Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Does a hairless ape have the Buddha nature?

I spend a lot of time thinking about things that atheists say about the world and how so often it doesn't seem to make sense to me. Case in point, something that I love to bring up is the question of how evolutionary theory (that is, of the sort that claims humans evolved from "lower life forms", that's the interesting stuff, right?) is often claimed to have solid basis in scientific fact, and yet, I've never heard of any specific evidence. Those who truly understand science realize that science never "proves" anything anyway, and that's an apparent weakness and yet in many ways truly the strength of science that at its core, science is eternally skeptical.

Not so theists, obviously. A common claim made by theists is the concept that the existence of God is simply self-evident. The mere fact that atheists exist would seem to be a compelling counter-argument, but my fellow theists insist. Usually, the claim is the if one simply looks at the world around us, sees how amazing it is, one cannot reasonably reject the concept of an all-powerful creator. Okay, if you really think so.

Something always seems wrong with it to me, but it's hard to put a finger on specifics. Then I remembered a fascinating little observation I've heard a few theistic anti-evolutionists make: Ever seen a dog say grace before digging into a bowlful of chow? Of course not, dogs don't have religion, nor do any other animals, and clearly, that's what sets us apart and makes us superior.

I find that to be a much more interesting and perhaps far more astute observation, although it may not be so clear what conclusions we can draw from the fact. I realize that I have repeatedly talked on this blog about how we really are not well served in comparing humans to animals, yet I think it is a wellspring of philosophical, sociological and biological insight to note anything that does actually clearly delineate us from the rest of the living creatures in the world. We're not the only animals to use tools, build structures, or even use language, so while those things fail to fully set us apart, the fact that we are somehow fundamentally religious is striking. Even atheists are likely to occasionally ponder the possibility that God exists, even if they easily reject it out of hand. Does this really make us somehow superior, however?

While an atheist might say no out of sense of surety that theology is a waste of brain power, it occurs to me that theists themselves are implicitly putting forth a very good argument that something is wrong somewhere. Maybe you personally disagree, but I have never doubted that many animals are thinking, feeling beings. Our favorite pets, dogs and cats, seem to be very able to observe the world around them and evaluate what is going on. Their thought processes may be somewhat more simplistic, but I don't believe they are completely unable to abstract from sense data. When I was growing up, I had a dog. Surely that dog could have looked up into the night sky and seen the stars twinkling away across the galaxy. Surely that dog could have looked at the natural world about him and seen the beauty of nature. Yet all of these things that are supposed to inspire us as humans to realize that there is something greater than us in the world simply fail to elicit such a response in animals. Why is that?

Think about it: If the existence of God is supposed to be self-evident by simply looking at the world around us, so much so that in order to deny God's existence one would supposedly have to fool oneself into denying it, then why do we not see any evidence of Godly reverence among other species? Is it lack of intelligence? I don't think so. It's an oddity that one has to be intelligent before one can be fooled. Ever try to play a practical joke on a dog? It doesn't work. Either you fail completely, or you're successful in a mere mechanical way while the dog has no idea what's going on. Who fooled the animals of the world into ignoring God?

Really, in my mind there are only two possibilities. Either claims that the existence of God is self-evident are fundamentally flawed, or the fact that animals are non-religious shows us that we as humans are inferior. If you can look at the stars in the sky and "see God", not in a supernatural way, but in a mundane sense of it being simply self-evident, then you're deluded. Our ability as highly intellectually evolved creatures to imagine infinite possibilities from the limited information we gather with our senses has caused a glitch: the imagining of God.

That's not to say that God does not exist. Don't mistake me, I'm still a theist. The problem here is a short-circuiting of reason, but that doesn't automatically imply that the conclusion is wrong, just logically flawed. If I believe that every time I wash my car, it will rain within 24 hours, it may in fact be true, but that doesn't imply causality, only that I have poor timing in washing my car. I think God exists, but not because the world is so beautiful.

It may be that there is something supernatural to it, like God opening the eyes of a person in the Bible and letting them see the realm of the spirit for a moment. Even then, however, one cannot say it's self-evident, as divine intervention is needed. Is a special kind of sight that which has set us apart from the animals? If so, it may not be given to all, and we cannot say that an atheist is fooling themselves for not seeing what we see; for better or worse, they simply aren't experiencing that same glitch.

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